4.3 Quantitative research questions – Guidebook for Social Work Literature Reviews and Research Questions (2023)

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how research questions for exploratory, descriptive, and explanatory quantitative questions differ and how to phrase them
  • Identify the differences between and provide examples of strong and weak explanatory research questions

The type of research you are conducting will impact the research question that you ask. Probably the easiest questions to think of are quantitative descriptive questions. For example, “What is the average student debt load of MSW students?” is a descriptive question—and an important one. We aren’t trying to build a causal relationship here. We’re simply trying to describe how much debt MSW students carry. Quantitative descriptive questions like this one are helpful in social work practice as part of community scans, in which human service agencies survey the various needs of the community they serve. If the scan reveals that the community requires more services related to housing, child care, or day treatment for people with disabilities, a nonprofit office can use the community scan to create new programs that meet a defined community need.

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4.3 Quantitative research questions – Guidebook for Social Work Literature Reviews and Research Questions (1)

Quantitative descriptive questions will often ask for percentage, count the number of instances of a phenomenon, or determine an average. Descriptive questions may only include one variable, such as ours about debt load, or they may include multiple variables. Because these are descriptive questions, we cannot investigate causal relationships between variables. To do that, we need to use a quantitative explanatory question.

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Most studies you read in the academic literature will be quantitative and explanatory. Why is that? Explanatory research tries to build something called nomothetic causal explanations.Matthew DeCarlo says “com[ing]up with a broad, sweeping explanation that is universally true for all people” is the hallmark of nomothetic causal relationships (DeCarlo, 2018, chapter 7.2, para 5). They are generalizable across space and time, so they are applicable to a wide audience. The editorial board of a journal wants to make sure their content will be useful to as many people as possible, so it’s not surprising that quantitative research dominates the academic literature.

Structurally, quantitative explanatory questions must contain an independent variable and dependent variable. Questions should ask about the relation between these variables. A standard format for an explanatory quantitative research question is: “What is the relation between [independent variable] and [dependent variable] for [target population]?” You should play with the wording for your research question, revising it as you see fit. The goal is to make the research question reflect what you really want to know in your study.

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Let’s take a look at a few more examples of possible research questions and consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of each. Table 4.1 does just that. While reading the table, keep in mind that it only includes some of the most relevant strengths and weaknesses of each question. Certainly each question may have additional strengths and weaknesses not noted in the table.

Table 4.1 Sample research questions: Strengths and weaknesses
Sample questionQuestion’s strengthsQuestion’s weaknessesProposed alternative
What are the internal and external effects/problems associated with children witnessing domestic violence?Written as a questionNot clearly focusedHow does witnessing domestic violence impact a child’s romantic relationships in adulthood?
Considers relation among multiple conceptsNot specific and clear about the concepts it addresses
Contains a population
What causes foster children who are transitioning to adulthood to become homeless, jobless, pregnant, unhealthy, etc.?Considers relation among multiple conceptsConcepts are not specific and clearWhat is the relationship between sexual orientation or gender identity and homelessness for late adolescents in foster care?
Contains a population
Not written as a yes/no question
How does income inequality predict ambivalence in the Stereo Content Model using major U.S. cities as target populations?Written as a questionUnclear wordingHow does income inequality affect ambivalence in high-density urban areas?
Considers relation among multiple conceptsPopulation is unclear
Why are mental health rates higher in white foster children then African Americans and other races?Written as a questionConcepts are not clearHow does race impact rates of mental health diagnosis for children in foster care?
Not written as a yes/no questionDoes not contain a target population

A good research question should also be specific and clear about the concepts it addresses. A group of students investigating gender and household tasks knows what they mean by “household tasks.” You likely also have an impression of what “household tasks” means. But are your definition and the students’ definition the same? A participant in their study may think that managing finances and performing home maintenance are household tasks, but the researcher may be interested in other tasks like childcare or cleaning. The only way to ensure your study stays focused and clear is to be specific about what you mean by a concept. The student in our example could pick a specific household task that was interesting to them or that the literature indicated was important—for example, childcare. Or, the student could have a broader view of household tasks, one that encompasses childcare, food preparation, financial management, home repair, and care for relatives. Any option is probably okay, as long as the researchers are clear on what they mean by “household tasks.”

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Table 4.2 contains some “watch words” that indicate you may need to be more specific about the concepts in your research question.

Table 4.2 Explanatory research question “watch words”
Watch wordsHow to get more specific
Factors, Causes, Effects, OutcomesWhat causes or effects are you interested in? What causes and effects are important, based on the literature in your topic area? Try to choose one or a handful that you consider to be the most important.
Effective, Effectiveness, Useful, EfficientEffective at doing what? Effectiveness is meaningless on its own. What outcome should the program or intervention have? Reduced symptoms of a mental health issue? Better socialization?
Etc., and so forthGet more specific. You need to know enough about your topic to clearly address the concepts within it. Don’t assume that your reader understands what you mean by “and so forth.”

It can be challenging in social work research to be this specific, particularly when you are just starting out your investigation of the topic. If you’ve only read one or two articles on the topic, it can be hard to know what you are interested in studying. Broad questions like “What are the causes of chronic homelessness, and what can be done to prevent it?” are common at the beginning stages of a research project. However, social work research demands that you examine the literature on the topic and refine your question over time to be more specific and clear before you begin your study. Perhaps you want to study the effect of a specific anti-homelessness program that you found in the literature. Maybe there is a particular model to fighting homelessness, like Housing First or transitional housing that you want to investigate further. You may want to focus on a potential cause of homelessness such as LGBTQ discrimination that you find interesting or relevant to your practice. As you can see, the possibilities for making your question more specific are almost infinite.

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In exploratory research, the researcher doesn’t quite know the lay of the land yet. If someone is proposing to conduct an exploratory quantitative project, the watch words highlighted in Table 4.2 are not problematic at all. In fact, questions such as “What factors influence the removal of children in child welfare cases?” are good because they will explore a variety of factors or causes. In this question, the independent variable is less clearly written, but the dependent variable, family preservation outcomes, is quite clearly written. The inverse can also be true. If we were to ask, “What outcomes are associated with family preservation services in child welfare?”, we would have a clear independent variable, family preservation services, but an unclear dependent variable, outcomes. Because we are only conducting exploratory research on a topic, we may not have an idea of what concepts may comprise our “outcomes” or “factors.” Only after interacting with our participants will we be able to understand which concepts are important.

Key Takeaways

  • Quantitative descriptive questions are helpful for community scans but cannot investigate causal relationships between variables.
  • Quantitative explanatory questions must include an independent and dependent variable.
(Video) How to Develop a Good Research Topic

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What are 5 good research questions? ›

The Five Research Questions
  • What information do I need?
  • Where do I find information?
  • Which information can I trust?
  • How can I use new information in my writing?
  • How do I use information ethically?

What types of research question are suitable for literature review? ›

Your research question should be clear, focused, and complex enough to allow for adequate research and analysis. Most importantly, your research question should be interesting to you - you will be spending a great deal of time researching and writing so you should be eager to learn more about it.

How do you formulate a research question in quantitative research? ›

Each of these steps is discussed in turn:
  1. Choose your starting phrase.
  2. Identify and name the dependent variable.
  3. Identify the group(s) you are interested in.
  4. Decide whether the dependent variable or group(s) should be included first, last or in two parts.
  5. Include any words that provide greater context to your question.

What are the 4 types of quantitative research and give sample question each? ›

There are four main types of Quantitative research: Descriptive, Correlational, Causal-Comparative/Quasi-Experimental, and Experimental Research. attempts to establish cause- effect relationships among the variables. These types of design are very similar to true experiments, but with some key differences.

What is a good quantitative question? ›

Relationship-based research questions are the best quantitative research question examples when you need to identify trends, causal relationships, or associations between two or more variables. When using the term relationship in statistics, it is important to remember that it refers to experimental research design.

What are good research questions examples? ›

10 Research Question Examples to Guide your Research Project
  • What effect does social media have on your mind?
  • What effect does daily use of Twitter have on the attention span of 12-16 year-olds?
Oct 30, 2022

What are the 3 research questions? ›

With that in mind there are three common types of quantitative research questions:
  • Descriptive research questions.
  • Comparative research questions.
  • Relationship-based research questions.

How do you come up with a literature review question? ›

Develop your research question
  1. considering a broad topic of research interest and then write it down.
  2. considering specific areas you wish to examine within this topic.
  3. considering key themes and elements of these specific topics to investigate in depth.
Nov 1, 2022

How do you structure a literature review question? ›

A literature review must do these things:
  1. be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question you are developing.
  2. synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known.
  3. identify areas of controversy in the literature.
  4. formulate questions that need further research.
May 26, 2022

What are the two approaches to quantitative research questions? ›

Quantitative Question Types
  • Descriptive Questions: Seek to describe the concept or topic in question. ...
  • Comparative Questions: Used to analyze the difference between two groups, concepts, or other variables.
Nov 9, 2017

What is the best type of questionnaire for quantitative research? ›

Close-ended questions are best used in quantitative research because they allow you to collect statistical information from respondents. If you want to gather a large amount of data that can be analyzed quickly, then asking close-ended questions is your best bet.

What are the seven 7 types of quantitative research? ›

7 Types of Quantitative Research
  • Causal Comparative Research. Causal comparative research is also commonly referred to as quasi experimental research. ...
  • Cross Sectional Survey. ...
  • Sampling Methods. ...
  • Commercial Information. ...
  • Educational Institutes. ...
  • Government Resources. ...
  • Internet Data.
Mar 16, 2021

What does a quantitative question look like? ›

Quantitative descriptive questions will often ask for figures such as percentages, sums, or averages. Descriptive questions may only include one variable, such as ours included the variable of student debt, or they may include multiple variables.

What are strong research questions? ›

In general, however, a good research question should be:
  • Clear and focused. In other words, the question should clearly state what the writer needs to do.
  • Not too broad and not too narrow. ...
  • Not too easy to answer. ...
  • Not too difficult to answer. ...
  • Researchable. ...
  • Analytical rather than descriptive.

What are powerful research questions? ›

Writing Strong Research Questions | Criteria & Examples
  • Focused on a single problem or issue.
  • Researchable using primary and/or secondary sources.
  • Feasible to answer within the timeframe and practical constraints.
  • Specific enough to answer thoroughly.
  • Complex enough to develop the answer over the space of a paper or thesis.
Oct 26, 2022

How do you start a research question? ›

Steps to developing a research question:
  1. Choose an interesting general topic. Most professional researchers focus on topics they are genuinely interested in studying. ...
  2. Do some preliminary research on your general topic. ...
  3. Consider your audience. ...
  4. Start asking questions. ...
  5. Evaluate your question.
Aug 8, 2018

What are the four 4 types of questions? ›

In English, there are four types of questions: general or yes/no questions, special questions using wh-words, choice questions, and disjunctive or tag/tail questions.

What are the 4 criteria for a good research question? ›

The characteristics of a good research question, assessed in the context of the intended study design, are that it be feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, and relevant (which form the mnemonic FINER; Table 2.1).

What are the 4 components of a good research question? ›

A research question should require analysis to provide an answer and should be feasible, specific, focused, measurable, and clear.

What are some good level 3 questions? ›

Level 3 Questions: Example
  • Is there such a thing as “love at first sight”?
  • Does a woman need to marry a prince in order to find happiness?
  • Are we responsible for our own happiness?
  • What does it mean to live happily ever after?
  • Does good always overcome evil?

What are the 5 C's in literature review? ›

To introduce you to this world of academic writing, in this chapter I suggest that you should focus on five hierarchical characteristics of good writing, or the “5 Cs” of good academic writing, which include Clarity, Cogency, Conventionality, Completeness, and Concision.

What are the 5 rules for writing a literature review? ›

  • Rule 1: Define a Topic and Audience.
  • Rule 2: Search and Re-search the Literature.
  • Rule 3: Take Notes While Reading.
  • Rule 4: Choose the Type of Review You Wish to Write.
  • Rule 5: Keep the Review Focused, but Make It of Broad Interest.
  • Rule 6: Be Critical and Consistent.
  • Rule 7: Find a Logical Structure.
Jul 18, 2013

What are the 5 characteristics of a good literature review? ›

Characteristics of an effective literature review

Outlining important research trends. Assessing strengths and weaknesses (of individual studies as well the existing research as a whole). Identifying potential gaps in knowledge. Establishing a need for current and/or future research projects.

How many research questions should you have in a literature review? ›

A literature review for publication often seeks to answer a single research question, whereas a literature review for a thesis may seek to answer several questions.

What are the 3 steps in literature review? ›

Synthesize the information gathered
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of individual sources and evaluate for bias, methodologies, and thoroughness.
  • Group your results in to an organizational structure that will support why your research needs to be done, or that provides the answer to your research question.
Oct 26, 2022

What are the 7 steps in writing a literature review? ›

Write a Literature Review
  • Narrow your topic and select papers accordingly.
  • Search for literature.
  • Read the selected articles thoroughly and evaluate them.
  • Organize the selected papers by looking for patterns and by developing subtopics.
  • Develop a thesis or purpose statement.
  • Write the paper.
  • Review your work.
Nov 8, 2022

What are the 6 steps in writing a literature review? ›

Preface -- Introduction -- Step 1 : Select a topic -- Step 2 : Search the literature -- Step 3 : Develop the argument -- Step 4 : Survey the literature -- Step 5 : Critique the literature -- Step 6 : Write the review.

What are the 3 topics of quantitative research? ›

Topics for Quantitative Research
  • The relationship between unemployment and inflation rates.
  • The link between climate adaptation and mitigation funds allocation.
  • The relationship between job satisfaction and employee turnover.
  • The relationship between poor households and members becoming entrepreneurs.

What is an example of qualitative research question? ›

Qualitative questions often produce rich data that can help researchers develop hypotheses for further quantitative study. For example: What are people's thoughts on the new library? How does it feel to be a first-generation student at our school?

What is research question in quantitative research? ›

Quantitative research questions are questions that are used to gather quantifiable data from research subjects. These types of research questions are usually more specific and direct because they aim at collecting information that can be measured; that is, statistical information.

What is the best example of a quantitative research method? ›

Surveys: A common approach to collecting data is using a survey. This is ideal especially if the business can obtain a statistically relevant sample from their responses. Surveys are often conducted through web or email questionnaires. Interviews: Yes, interviews can be used to obtain quantitative data.

What are 3 examples of quantitative observations? ›

Examples of quantitative observation include age, weight, height, length, population, size and other numerical values while examples of qualitative observation are color, smell, taste, touch or feeling, typology, and shapes.

What are the 3 types of research questions? ›

With that in mind there are three common types of quantitative research questions:
  • Descriptive research questions.
  • Comparative research questions.
  • Relationship-based research questions.

What is an example of research question? ›

Once you've read our guide on how to write a research question, you can use these examples to craft your own. What effect does social media have on your mind? What effect does daily use of Twitter have on the attention span of 12-16 year-olds?

Can a quantitative research question begin with how? ›

Quantitative Research Questions: Usually start with ' how,' 'what' or 'why'. Contain an independent and a dependent variable. Look at connections, relations or comparisons between variables.


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