Before you begin writing your research question, it is important to craft a purpose statement. What can be a purpose of your study? Examples of a purpose for a quantitative study include examining a relationship between students who take computing classes in high school and those who pursue computer science as a major in college, evaluating the effectiveness of an outreach activity among underrepresented students, or measuring engagement or interest in computing among middle school students.
Examples for a qualitative study could be to explore parent stories about helping their students with computing homework or to develop a theory of effective management techniques in a computing lab.
Once you know the purpose of your study, create a clear purpose statement. Purpose statements help you define your research in a straightforward manner. Here is an example of a well-defined purpose statement.
The purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between the completion of an 9-week computational thinking unit among 7th and 8th grade students in a rural middle school and student achievement on mathematics exams.
This purpose statement explicitly answers these questions:
- What is the intent of the study?
- What population group is targeted in the study (i.e. age, location)?
- What was the intervention (activity or curriculum), including the length?
After you have decided on the purpose of your study and have written your purpose statement, you can then craft your research question.
Writing a Well-crafted Research Question
Research questions provide an overarching direction for your study to follow. It guides the type of study you will choose, the type of data you will collect, and the type of analysis on the data that you will perform.
Writing good research questions, then, is important when framing your study. What makes a good research question? Research questions should be clear, concise, specific, neutral, and focused. They should also be complex enough that the question requires more than just a “yes” or “no” answer. An example of a thorough research question for a quantitative study follows:
Does guardian understanding of computational thinking affect student performance on computational thinking tasks among primary school students in an urban school district?
For a qualitative study, a thorough research question may look like this:
What are the major challenges teachers face when teaching computational thinking to Kindergarten, 1st grade and 2nd grade students in the United States?
Typically, research questions are not the exact question that you will actually ask the participants in your study. They, however, guide those questions.
Research questions should:
- Define what is being measured
- Define the population group
- Be neutral (not assume the intervention being studied is effective or not)
- Be able to be answered in the timeframe you have planned for the study
Depending on the study length, more than one research question can be appropriate. Your research questions will most likely be related in some way, since they will be designed to support your purpose statement.
Defining What is being Measured
Defining what is being measured is important for narrowing your research. Consider the following questions:
A: Does participation in a one-week teacher professional development around the Exploring Computer Science result in improved teaching practices?
B: Does participation in a one-week teacher professional development around the Exploring Computer Science result in more frequent use of inquiry-based learning pedagogical methods?
In the example above, Question A refers to “improved teaching practices”. “Improved teaching practices” is unclear, since there is no context for “improved” against the status quo. In Question B, one teaching practice, inquiry-based learning, is chosen for the study.
Defining the Population Group
Defining the population group is often missing in research questions, but it is very easy to add. Consider the following questions:
A: Do participants in a week-long Lego Robotics summer camp have an increased likelihood of taking computer science courses at the college level?
B: Do 11th and 12th grade students in central Illinois who participate in a week-long Lego Robotics summer camp have an increased likelihood of taking computer science courses during their first year of college?
In the Question A, we do not know who the participants are or where they are located. As a research question, clearly stating the population group is important for identifying the group that will be targeted in your study. Sometimes this information may be provided in context within preceding paragraphs. However, restating the population group within the research question makes the target of your study clear to your reader.
In our review of hundreds of articles for this site, we have encountered many articles that do not state whether the group is undergraduate students, primary school students, or secondary school students or in which country or setting the study takes place. It is difficult to for other researchers to use or build upon research that hasn’t clearly stated the population group. Embedding this into your research question will enable others to know who the participants in your study were.
Writing Neutral Statements
A neutral statement will exclude any pre-conceived bias. Consider these questions:
A: What elements of AP Computer Science Principles make it a more appealing course to high school-aged girls than AP Computer Science A?
B: Is the AP Computer Science Principles course more appealing to high school-aged girls than AP Computer Science A? If so, what is seen as different and/or more appealing?
Question A assumes that the AP Computer Science Principles course is more appealing than the AP Computer Science A course for the target population (high school-aged girls). If this has been previously established in prior research and the researchers are making this a follow-up study, then Question A may be seen as neutral. However, if this has not been previously established, then Question B may be a more appropriately worded research question.
Defining a Scope/Timeframe
Research studies are projects, and just like any project, it is important to manage scope. Scope is based on your timeframe and your resources. Consider the following questions:
A: Are middle-school girls who participate in a summer camp more likely to pursue careers in computing fields than those who do not participate in the camp?
B: Are middle-school girls who participate in a summer camp more likely to express interest in computing-related careers than those who do not participate in the camp?
Question A implies that girls will be tracked from middle school through college and into their careers. This longitudinal study would take a minimum of seven years, likely more, if you count the years it would take for a 6th grader to start her career. Question B is finite and could be evaluated at the end of camp, three months after the camp has ended, or even the following year.
In this example, both questions could be suitable and is entirely dependent on your timeframe for your study as well as your resources.
Take a look at these examples that illustrate different types of requirements for well-crafted research questions.
Example 1A: How is Scratch used to teach computational thinking?
Example 1B: How are Native American high school teachers in North Dakota using Scratch to teach computational thinking?
The 1A research question is very vague. We know nothing about the population group being studied or the intervention other than one computing education tool being used (Scratch) and the concept being taught. The 1B question specifies how Scratch is being used and the population group being targeted.
Example 2A: Does a game design camp make girls interested in computing?
Example 2B: What is the impact of a one-week game design camp on the interest levels in computing among 7th and 8th grade girls located in Chicago’s West Side?
Example 2A is very broad. It may be fine if you are planning on writing a book or a 200-page dissertation. For most of us, though, our studies need to be more focused so that we can complete it in 6 months or 1 or 2 years. Example 2B looks at a specific cause (impact of a one-week game design camp), a specific locale (Chicago’s West Side), and a specific group (7th and 8th grade girls). By making your research question(s) well-defined, you are more likely to be able to answer the question in the timeframe for your study.