Since 2017, the Right Question Institute, a Cambridge, MA based nonprofit, has been working in collaboration with Brandeis University to adapt the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) so researchers may learn how to ask better, more transformative questions. As the co-PI on this National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded work, I have worked with hundreds of doctoral researchers attending both public and private institutions of higher education. I have learned more on how a powerful, simple, and discrete strategy for formulating, working with, improving, and using questions may help catalyze more effective, transformative research. The emerging findings from this work are promising, and we plan to share publications later this year on how doctoral students, after a one-hour experience in the QFT for research, feel more confident in their ability to ask questions, feel as though they are more effective and efficient at formulating research questions, and value differently the role of question formulation in the research process.
One aspect of the work I continue to develop and advance this academic year is how to teach doctoral students how to ask research questions that will have societal impact. Historically, the incentive structure in higher education does not reward the advancement of societally impactful research. Some of these structures are beginning to change and adapt—a 2018 editorial in Nature captures well how a few newly established journals and adapted funding models now better reward research that effects more immediate, societal change. NSF’s inclusion of broader impacts criterion in the grant process also indicates how large foundations and agencies now prioritize and value research that can effect positive change on the ground so all individuals may benefit from the groundbreaking work conducted at research universities. Organizations, such as Advancing Research in Society, provide resources and opportunities so academics and researchers can not only better engage in societally impactful research with stakeholders, but also better demonstrate the impact of their research with stakeholders as well.
Further, a growing emphasis on the role of interdisciplinary research for tackling some of the most intricate, global challenges we face underlies this discourse on how to conduct research not simply for society, but also with society. Indeed, it is essential that diverse perspectives are included in the research process if it is to benefit society, and including many different stakeholders during the question formulation process might lead to more holistic research that better targets underlying problems affecting society.
While there is some systemic change and the discourse on effective research is evolving, there is still a need to deliberately foster learning environments where researchers have the opportunity to hone the necessary skills for this changing landscape. These skills include:
- facilitating interdisciplinary research
- thinking on broader impacts and societal impact
- including many diverse stakeholders in the process
And what better place in the research process to foster these abilities than during question formulation?
An Active Learning Session on Interdisciplinary Research Approaches to Question Formulation
To this end, in collaboration with Dr. Dan Rothstein, Luz Santana, and Dr. Dan Perlman, I designed a learning experience for doctoral students, from many diverse disciplines, during which doctoral students:
- Experience an abbreviated version of the QFT for research as an individual experience
- Identify their research topic
- Formulate their own questions on their research topic while following four rules for producing questions
- Work with their open-ended and closed-ended questions
- Rework their questions
- Prioritize their questions
- Learn about interdisciplinary research and name its value
- Learn about broader impacts
- Experience the QFT as a group on the Question Focus: Broader impacts of my research.
- Work on their initial research questions, keeping in mind their new thinking on broader impacts
- Name stakeholders that may support their work in new ways
- Share their emerging thinking with someone else in the room
- Reflect as a group on new thinking and learning
When I facilitated this strategy at Northeastern University, the session effectively engaged students in developing their own questions on their research topic, creating questions on interdisciplinary teams on a shared topic, and using this thinking to inform the refinement of their own questions to be more societally impactful and reflect new perspectives.
Students’ Reflections on Broader Impacts
Thinking changed, during the course of just one session, for many students. Reflecting on what NSF calls broader impacts, one student said the session, “gives me the concept of broader impacts of research, and why it matters.” Another student offered how it, “helped me to deepen what I can do to broaden the impacts of my research.” Yet another shared that it, “helped me to think about broader impacts and the big picture of my work.”
The session did not simply teach what broader impacts are—it provided students the space to advance their own research in the context of broader impacts while also providing them a tool that they could use on their own or collaboratively. One doctoral researcher found that, “it helped because it pushed me to think about broader impacts for some questions that I first thought were too specific to have any broader impact.” One student had not previously given much thought to broader impacts before the session: “I didn’t actually think about broader impacts before so this workshop brings me some new information.”
Students’ Reflections on Interdisciplinary, Collaborative Research
Other students noted how their thinking had changed as a result of working on interdisciplinary teams of students. One student found that the session, “allowed me to discuss work with others outside [of my] department. Reframes existing research project in a new light.” Another found that the session, “made me notice similarities in issues shared by multiple disciplines.” Indeed—doctoral students loved the opportunity to collaborate across disciplines as it was mentioned repeatedly that they appreciated, “talking to people with different backgrounds,” that they liked the “teamwork,” “mingling with other PhD students,” and “collaborating with different backgrounds, getting different viewpoints.” When provided the opportunity, these doctoral students excitedly engaged in a process through which they could learn and think with fellow researchers, no matter their discipline.
Students’ Reflections on How the QFT Supports Their Work
Reflecting on the process, doctoral students found the experience to be eminently practical. One researcher plans to share the strategy with lab mates, and another named how they will try a “brainstorming session” in their lab using the QFT. Other students noted the interdisciplinary, collaborative usefulness as well. “QFT is useful when discussing with colleagues to find and determine a new research direction,” one student wrote. Another wrote that they, “want to be able to invite questions about my research from people outside of my discipline,” and another how it, “might force discussion/thought among colleagues and force us to come up with new answers or find new resources to work with.” Indeed, questions can invite the collaboration of many stakeholders and support researchers as they think both divergently (on new possible directions for the research) and convergently (as they prioritize the most strategic, impactful path forward for the research).
More Impactful, Inclusive, and Joyous Research
Graduate studies can be grueling—and research can be especially challenging for budding academics. Through providing doctoral students more opportunities to collaborate across fields during question formulation, perhaps we are not only giving them strategies to effect greater change during their career—we may also be giving them opportunities to foster greater joy in their research and learning process today. In just the course of a two-hour session, doctoral researchers learned a strategy they can use on their own or collaboratively to craft more societally impactful research questions. There is still plenty of work and refinement to be done on this QFT adaptation, but it is encouraging that students reported feeling inspired, feeling as though they had new ideas and appreciated the opportunity to collaborate, and feeling that they have new tools available to them they can immediately use and share to support their research. Just as one doctoral researcher remarked how the QFT for research pushed their thinking on broader impacts, I too have been pushed to think anew on the potential broader impacts that could be achieved in a world where all stakeholders in the research process are asking better, more transformative questions.