The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) for Research was adapted and developed with funding from the National Science Foundation so researchers may use a discrete strategy to ask better, more transformative research questions. This collaborative work with Brandeis University builds on the decades of work of the Right Question Institute and its creation and further development of the QFT. This adaptation has been used by undergraduate researchers, graduate researchers, and faculty alike, and many stakeholders around the country find that it is an eminently practical process through which researchers can arrive at new and better questions and research agendas.
Emerging research has found that the QFT for Research helps researchers feel more confident in their ability to formulate questions, find that it is easier to ask questions, feel as though they are asking better questions, and researchers report that they more strongly believe it is important to spend time formulating and working with questions as a part of the research process. Even more overwhelmingly, over 92% of researchers who experience the process name that it is a strategy they plan to use in the future to support their own work.
Typically, the QFT for Research is an independent experience that many individuals can experience simultaneously with a facilitator or on your own as a self-guided experience. Though, others have found it useful to use as a collaborative experience within a lab, a classroom, or with stakeholders in the community. It creates the space for individuals to develop their own research skills and capacity to ask questions and can create the space to immediately develop a more robust, strategic research agenda. The QFT for Research consists of several steps that can be distilled down into just a few essential elements:
- Formulate Questions
- Work with and Improve Questions
- Strategize on Questions
- Reflect on Question Formulation and Questions
The first element of the QFT for Research is to identify a focus for question formulation, in this case typically a research topic. Researchers begin by identifying many possible areas of interest, then naming more specifically a few research topics, and then prioritizing one research topic on which they would like to ask questions. Once there is one research topic prioritized, researchers review the four rules they will follow as they formulate research questions.
- Ask as many questions as you can.
- Do not stop to judge, discuss, or answer any questions.
- Write down every question exactly as stated or exactly as it comes to mind.
- Change any statements into questions.
Upon learning these rules, researchers should reflect on what might be challenging about following these rules as well as how this differs from how they typically formulate questions. Researchers hold themselves accountable to following these rules for a set amount of time (usually about 4-7 minutes).
Work with and Improve Questions
In the second element, researchers work with and improve their questions. They learn about two different types of questions—closed-ended questions which can be answered with “yes,” “no,” or with one word, and open-ended questions which cannot be answered with “yes,” “no,” or with one word, and require more of an explanation. Researchers then review their list of questions and label their questions as “C” if they are closed-ended, or “O” if they are open-ended. Next, researchers name the advantages and disadvantages of both types of questions, reflect on how the wording of a question influences the type of information it may elicit, and then proceed to change one of their questions from closed-ended to open-ended and one of their questions from open-ended to closed-ended. After changing questions from closed-ended to open-ended and from open-ended to closed-ended, researchers have the opportunity, for about three minutes, to review their list of questions and think on whether they would like to adapt, revise, or edit any questions they have created thus far. They then add these questions as new questions at the bottom of their list.
Strategize on Questions and Develop a Research Agenda
In the third element of the QFT for Research, researchers begin to strategize on their use of questions. Depending on how questions will be used the prioritization instructions may be tailored by the facilitator (or the researcher guiding themselves through the process). For example, if the facilitator is hoping researchers will use their questions to guide research, the instructions may be “choose the three questions you are most interested in using to guide a research project.” If an individual was hoping to use their questions to iterate on their grant proposal, instructions may be, “choose the three questions that I am most interested in using to frame a grant proposal.” After prioritizing, researchers think on their rationale for why they prioritized their questions keeping in mind their initial prioritized research topic, how many questions they asked in total, and where their priority questions landed in the sequence of all their questions.
Later, in the third element after prioritizing three questions, researchers select one priority question on which they would like to ask more questions. They then go through a brief period of question formulation on the priority question they identified, further drilling down into a salient question. This additional round of question formulation tends to last about 3-4 minutes. Following this part of the third element, researchers then have another opportunity to work with and refine any questions they have produced thus far, from their initial or subsequent round of question formulation, adding any new questions they have formulated or edited to the bottom of their list of questions. Finally, researchers identify three questions, drawing on any question they have formulated, that they are glad they asked as well as three questions that may help to advance their research. Researchers are now ready to use these questions flexibly depending on the next steps of the learning and research process.
Reflect—on the Process of Question Formulation and Substance of Questions
In the final element of the QFT for Research, researchers reflect on what they learned, how they learned it, and what they are thinking about differently after having gone through the process. This is an essential element of the QFT for Research, as it creates the space for researchers to name the value of the process for supporting their current work, identify lingering gaps or areas for growth, and crystalize their thinking before they catalyze the research process with their newly developed and refined research questions.
These are the core elements of the QFT for Research. With this said, the strategy is flexible and creates the space and opportunity for researchers to tailor the strategy to better support the learning and research objectives. Some elements and components of the strategy may be more useful than others depending on the context and stage of the research. No matter how the QFT for Research is used, researchers tend to conclude the process with a research agenda and guiding questions, ample questions to support their inquiry, and a discrete experience in honing a quintessential skill for research and learning.