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Clarifying the Question and Approach

Clarifying the Question

One of the first stumbling blocks that many researchers encounter in this area, is that they have not given sufficient time to clarifying and focusing their research question.

The question should emerge from the research approach (see below). If the research is more qualitative or explorative it is useful to start with: ‘How…’ ‘What’….. If it is more quantitative it might be presented as, for example:

  •  ‘Does x relate to Y ?’ 
  • ‘To what extent and in what ways.' (mixed methods). 
 clarifying the question

Creswell’s (2014a) web resource, and (2014b) related book chapter gives some good guidance on writing research questions.

Galloway also highlights some useful criteria and examples when developing a good educational research question:


Galloway, in Grove and Overton (2013)

Appropriate Research Approaches


According to the nature of your research question, educational research uses a mixture of qualitative, quantitative and/or mixed method approaches(Tavakol & Sandars, 2014; Grove and Overton,2013; Cohen et al, 2007). A useful overview of some of these can be seen here. Qualitative research is very popular in education research due to its highly contextualized and explorative nature.

Quantitative experimental research can be hard to achieve in educational research and stay within the ethics of ‘not disadvantaging’ student groups. Kember (2003) argues against the use of experimental design in higher education teaching innovation research and notes that ‘as an alternative, triangulation across multiple-method evaluations from several sources is recommended (p89)’. In contrast, Torgerson (2001) argues for the re-establishment of more randomized control trials in educational research.

An emerging approach is the educational design research. Plomp and Nieveen (2013) have developed a very accessible guide on this approach, see They highlight that there are some common research designs in educational research, that should link with the focus of your research question:

Survey to describe, to compare, to evaluate
Case studies to describe, to compare, to explain
Experiments to explain, to compare
Action research to design/develop a solution to a practical problem
Ethnography to describe, to explain
Correlational research to describe, to compare
Evaluation research to determine the effectiveness of a program

Plomp & Nieveen (2013, p14)

Some common methods used in qualitative or mixed methods teaching and learning research are focus groups and interviews. A good resource on planning focus groups can be accessed here.

DiCicco-Bloom and Crabtree (2006) explain how to carry out a good interview.


Printable Resources
  • Cohen, L., Manion, L., & K.Morrison, (2007) Research Methods in Education, 6th
  • Crewell, J W. (2014a) Research Questions and Hypotheses, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches In Slideshare: 
  • Creswell, J. W. (2014b) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. 4th Publications. 
  • DiCicco-Bloom B. & B. F Crabtree (2006) The qualitative research interview Medical Education 2006; 40 : 314–321
  • Galloway (2013), in Grove M. & T. Overton (2013) Getting Started in Pedagogic Research within the STEM Disciplines, The University of Birmingham on behalf of the National HE STEM Programme 
  • Kember D. (2003) To Control or Not to Control: The question of whether experimental designs are appropriate for evaluating teaching innovations in higher education, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28:1, 89-101, DOI: 10.1080/02602930301684, To link to this article: 
  • Plomp, T. & N. Nieveen (2013) Educational Design Research Part A: An introduction , Netherlands Institute for Curriculum Development (SLO),
  • Tavakol, M & J Sandars (2014) Quantitative and qualitative methods in medical education research: Medical Teacher , 2014, 36: 746–756 AMEE Guide No 90
  • Torgerson, C. (2001) The need for randomized controlled trials in educational research. British Journal of Educational Studies, 49 (3) 316-328. !SSN 007-1005.


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