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How to Write a Research Objective or Question

Describing the Topic as an Objective or Question

The previous chapter developed a generalized research concept. The goal now is to write a specific instance of that generalized concept as a research objective or question. This specific instance becomes the basis for your research statement or problem statement. This chapter helps you generate a document that includes a research objective or question and the motivation for why the research needs to be conducted. The problem statement drills farther down the spiral from a research topic toward a solution you work toward in your dissertation (see Figure 10.1).The terms research statement and research problem are used interchangeably in this chapter. Both terms refer to a specific instance of a generalized research goal within your area of specialization. The idea that you are solving a “problem” suggests the problem can be “solved.” In many cases, research results do not necessarily solve the problem but rather contribute to understanding it better.

There are two distinguishable ways to describe the topic you are going to address: as an objective and as a question. A research objective describes a desired result or product. A research question seeks an answer through information or insight. Some argue that any research question can be phrased as a research objective and vice versa; others remain fixed that only certain types of research can fall into one or the other category. I separate the descriptions here and leave it to you (plus your advisor and committee) to decide which is more appropriate for your work.

The second feature of the research statement is an argument describing why your objective or question is important. You need to demonstrate that your problem has merit. Some argue that a good reason is simply because it is unknown. However, trivial questions lack merit. For example, the relationship between the number of people owning white cars and cancer incidents may be unknown. Unless there is merit, such as a reasonable hypothesis that owning a white car leads to cancer (or a cure), this relationship is trivial. So you do need to justify why the unknown subject is relevant and important.

The third feature is to imagine the problem statement as a bridge that links the literature review (the unknown questions or emerging objectives) to the research methods (how the problem will be answered). There is an indication of both in your statement. As you think about the specifics of your research question(s) or objective(s) be sure to imagine this bridge (see Figure 10.2).

The Importance of Demonstrating Merit

or the research question. These ideas are defined and reasons for picking one form over the other are stated The next section addresses how to write and evaluate a research objective or question. Several activities, built mostly around the research question, allow students to practice evaluating research questions. Finally, the chapter ends with guidelines on how to write a problem statement that includes a specific research objective or question.

on what you plan to do. The second is through a research question. The form you select depends on the type of project you have in mind and the norms of your discipline, academic unit, and advisor. The last subsection addresses the role of hypothesis formation and testing relative to research questions. Figure 10.2 The Problem Statement acts as a Link, or Bridge, Between the Literature Review and Methods.

A research objective is a declarative statement describing an outcome-based goal investigating facts,theories, or methods. The outcome is a better understanding into a gap identified in the literature review. Research objectives are more effectively used when the research topic involves developing a new method or describing a new theory or theoretical framework. For example, one of my colleagues develops new methods for locating alternative energy refueling stations (Kuby et al., 2009). His objective is to figure out the best places to put as few refueling stations as possible to serve as many customers as possible. Much of what he does is based on designing, developing, and testing new approaches to performing this task. While tasks such as this could be formulated into a question, it can be awkward when they turn into non–hypothesis generating questions. This is often true when the methods you expect to use are not directly statistical and based on hypothesis testing.

At the time this research objective was written, the idea of having ATM locations on a digital map was a new concept. No one (to our knowledge) had created such a website. Nevertheless, it did not advance scientific research because the methods (essentially, creating a digital map) were known. Instead, we revised the objective to read:The goal of my research is to design a framework for an interactive website that maps consumer services tested with an implementation on ATMs in Tempe, Arizona. The difference between the two objectives is subtle, but the latter reflects a research need (a framework for interactive digital mapping) that can be created and evaluated with a case study (ATMs in Tempe, Arizona).

Evaluating a research objective or question involves the same steps. These steps involve critiquing the scientific merit of the objective and feasibility of the methods. The scientific merit is evaluated by determining whether there is a contribution to the literature. The feasibility is determined by examining the methods. The objective statement therefore needs to act as a bridge between the literature and methods.

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