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  • Writer's pictureMatthew B. Courtney, Ed.D.

Writing Research Questions that Drive Continuous Improvement

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

When your team gets together to begin tackling a continuous improvement challenge through action research, the first thing they should do is craft a quality research question. Research questions help to keep you on track as you sift through mountains of literature, hundreds of potential solutions, and a multitude of implementation variables. In this post, I want to explore the fine art of crafting a research question and discuss why it is such an important step in the continuous improvement process.

A research question is a clear and focused statement that expresses the problem you are seeking to better understand. It is kind of like a mission statement for a specific continuous improvement task. It forecasts to the world what you are hoping to accomplish and provides a subtle glimpse into how you might get there.

Quality research questions should be derived from your existing continuous improvement efforts. They begin with your professional observations. As you perform your needs assessment activities and annual data reviews, check to see if any of your observations have gained support. Observations that are supported by these activities are prime candidates for continuous improvement and action research questions.

Transforming an observation or a wondering into a meaningful research question is easy. Start by writing your statement out, then do a quick quality check by asking yourself these questions:

  • Is it clear? – Your research question should be able to stand on its own. The reader should understand what you’re seeking to answer without any supporting explanation.

  • Is it focused? – Channel your inner Goldilocks. Your question shouldn’t be too narrow nor too broad. Make sure it centers on a single issue that you can answer directly.

  • Is it complex? – A quality research question should be answered only through discussion. If your question can be answered with a simple yes or no, then you should return to the drawing board.

  • Is it arguable? – Its time to put on your ornery hat and get ready to argue! Your research question should allow you to take and defend a specific position. It should also leave room for your opposition to take and defend theirs.

  • Is it relevant? – When crafting your research question, take care to ensure that your question addresses the observations you made in your data. Question drift is a common cause of continuous improvement catastrophes.

Let’s consider an example. Imagine that your needs assessment has shown you that absenteeism among your economically disadvantaged students is higher in the winter months than your other student populations. Your starter question might be: How do we increase attendance for our economically disadvantaged students?

Can you answer “yes” to each of the five guiding questions above? Let’s see…

  • Is it clear? – Yes. I can clearly see that you want to know how to increase attendance for economically disadvantaged students. The statement stands on its own and doesn’t include a bunch of unnecessary words or context.

  • Is it focused? – No. The question is extremely broad. We need to home in on something more targeted that we can actually examine.

  • Is it complex? – Yes and no. It is probably a bit too complex because it lacks focus. This type of question lends itself to a dissertation more than an action research project.

  • Is it arguable? – No. This question doesn’t allow you to take a clear position. It will leave you with an open ended list of possibilities that you won’t be able to do anything with.

  • Is it relevant? – Yes. The question is relevant and related to the data in your needs assessment. No question drift here.

We’re evenly split – we can do better. We know that we need a question that is a bit more focused and a bit more arguable. So, let’s try this one: How does the implementation of a homework pass incentive decrease absentee rates for our economically disadvantaged students during the winter months?

How does this question stack up against our five guiding questions?

  • Is it clear? – Yes. I can clearly see that you want to understand how a homework pass incentive impacts attendance in the winter months among a targeted population.

  • Is it focused? – Yes. This question hits the sweet spot. It tells me the intervention, the population, and the timeframe being studied.

  • Is it complex? – Yes. The question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.

  • Is it arguable? – Yes. This question will uncover nuanced information that will allow you to take and argue a specific point of view.

  • Is it relevant? – Yes. The question is relevant. It is related to the data in your needs assessment and references a specific intervention that you hope to deploy.

This kind of research question helps lead your continuous improvement team in the right direction. It gives them clear guidance as they start their work and helps to make sure that they will produce an outcome that will address your identified problem of practice.

Now that you have crafted a research question that is up to snuff, its time to begin designing your project. The next step is to search the literature for relevant information to guide your decision making. For tips on how to do that, check out my free eBook “Writing a Great Literature Review” available for download in The Repository. I hope this short post has helped you better understand why and how you should create effective research questions to guide your continuous improvement work. Good luck on your journey friends and let me know how I can help.


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