Writing a Nursing Research Question – Undergraduate Nursing

Most undergraduate BSN students take a Research and Evidence-Based Practice course. Students are often assigned a small research project or review paper. The assignment begins with writing either a research question, or a clinical question. Usually, the student is given a range of topics, but let’s assume the student is starting from scratch. A good research question is essential to good research and not only answering a question but filling the gaps.

I suggest you start my thinking of a research paper as a “who done it” story. Who killed X. What is your method going to be for figuring out who the killer is. Then you apply methods to the facts. Next you identify the killer using for example fingerprints, interrogations, and ballistic testing of the bullet. After you have the evidence, your results, you discuss the results. Finally, discuss the effectiveness of the methods. You conclude by saying in the future you can use these methods to do X, Y, and Z.

STEP 1: Review Variables

Before you start thinking about writing a research question it is good to review the difference between independent and dependent variables.

  • Independent variable – a variable that is presumed to influence another variable. It is the variable the researcher can manipulate.
  • Dependent variable –the effect. Its value depends on changes in the independent variable. It is what is being measured.
Example: How does nurse staffing affect medication errors?
Independent variable – nurse staffing
Dependent variable – number of medication errors

You will also need an operational definition, so it is possible to measure and manipulate the variable. The operational definition is essentially your measure.

Example: Nurse staffing will be measured as the number of full-time equivalents per patient. Medications errors will be those reported on a medication error form by either a nurse, physician, or pharmacist.

STEP 2: Find a Topic and then Narrow

What is your research problem? It should be an area of concern where there is a gap in knowledge necessary for good nursing practice.

Adding to the risk of a radiation event, according to Ready.gov 3 million Americans live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant,7 putting them directly within the plume exposure pathway should there be an accidental or intentional radiation or nuclear release. Potential exposure from the transportation of nuclear waste via rail, plane, and highway threatens communities across the United States. In any of these potential events, nurses will be critical to an effective response to the resulting public health emergency.8-11 Schools of nursing (SONs) are responsible for developing a competent nursing workforce prepared to assess a population’s public health emergency needs and respond to an event according to the circumstance.12,13

STEP 3: Narrow the Topic

Even if a broad area is given, you still need to narrow the topic. Some ways to do that include:

  • Choose an interesting topic from within the scope of your assignment.
  • Search the literature. In nursing do a search of CINHAL or PubMed and find some research articles on the broad topic you have some interest in. Identify any research gaps.
    • Start with general references sources. Most universities have a search engine such as WorldCat for books, journals, articles, and more. Another place to start may be GoogleScholar. You only need a few articles to see what scholars in the area are doing and to help narrow your topic.
    • Once you do the broad search, consider the following questions:
      • Are there subtopics?
      • Do the subtopics raise any specific questions?
      • What is of specific interest to you?
      • Are there how and why questions about this topic I should ask?
    • Consider who your intended audience is for your research. There may be a tendency to think it is your class or your professor, but I suggest you think broader and decide who you want to be your audience, not who the class requires.
  • After reading the articles, narrow the topic to a specific area.
    • Identify a theory or research finding within the assignment that needs further testing.
    • Consider a patient care experience that impacted on the nurse’s or the patient’s experience.
    • Talk to your colleagues and classmates. Be willing to question authority. Too much of what we do results from the way it has always been.
    • Identify a knowledge gap.
  • Apply personal experience and take the time to consider what is important to you. The research question should be more than a class assignment. It is an opportunity to express your concern about what matters and your commitment to taking responsibility for what happens to patients and nurses.
  • Make a final research question selection by considering whether the idea is innovative, significant, reasonable, ethical, and will promote health equity.

STEP 3: Write Your Research Question

The FINER criteria are one way to write a good question (Hulley et al., 2007).

  • The question should be feasible. Focus on one problem that can be accomplished within the semester and the time allotted for the assignment and is within your ability. Try not to have more than one or two variables.
  • The question should be interesting to you. Even within limited topic made available to you choose what is most interesting and tweak it. If you are interested in the topic you will be more motivated.
  • The question should be novel. You should bring new insights to the chosen topic. This may include confirming or expanding on prior research. There must be primary and secondary sources available to help answer your question.
  • The question must be ethical and avoid any deceptive practices, such as only including articles that support your conclusion. Your research question and study must be able to be approved by appropriate review boards or authorities.
  • The questions should be relevant to the assignment and of interest to nursing. It should also be relevant to public interest.

Ratan et al. (2019) add to FINER in their research question guide. They suggested the purpose of your paper and should be feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, relevant, manageable, appropriate, have potential value and publishability, and be systematic (Read more: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6322175/ ).

  • A manageable question can be managed by the researcher.
  • The research question should be appropriate logically and scientifically.
  • The research should have significant health impact and be of value and publishable.

Draft your research question based on what you hope to achieve. You can have primary and secondary research questions but remember that more questions generally mean more time and resources. McCombes (2019) suggest the table below as a way to consider drafting your research question.

Research AimsResearch Question
Describing or exploringWhat are the characteristics of X?
How has X changed over time?
What are the main factors in X?
How does X experience Y?
How has X dealt with Y?
Explaining and testingWhat is the relationship between X and Y?
What is the role of X in Y?
What is the impact of X on Y?
How does X influence Y? What are the causes of X?
Evaluating and actingWhat are the advantages and disadvantages of X?
How effective is X?
How can X be achieved?
What are the most effective strategies to improve X?
How can X be used in Y?
From: https://www.scribbr.com/research-process/research-questions/

Many nurses use the PICOT framework to construct research questions. If you prefer the PICOT format then follow this format.

  • P – patient or population (age, gender, location, characteristics)
  • I – intervention (diagnostic test, exposure, management strategy)
  • C – comparison group (a comparison to the intervention or indicator)
  • O – outcome (what are the consequences of the intervention)
  • T – timeframe or type of the study (time periods that should be considered or study types most likely to have relevant information)
Example: What is the duration of recovery (O) for patients with a c-section (P) who developed a post-operative infection (I) as opposed to those who did not (C) within the first two weeks after delivery(T)?

STEP 4: Evaluate Your Question

  • Can you identify the relationship between the variables?
  • Did you indicate the population to be studied?
  • Did you identify a problem that can be addressed (in the time available)?

STEP 5: Making your research question strong

Focused, clear, feasible, specific, and researchable

Answerable within practical constraintsBe clear by providing enough specifics that the audience can understand the purpose of the research without needing more explanation. Ensure you have enough time and resources to do the research required to answer the question. If you think you might struggle to gain access to enough data or articles, consider revising the question to be more specific.
Uses specific, well-defined conceptsThe research question should flow from the research problem and all the terms you use in the research question should have precise meanings. Avoid vague language and broad ideas, and be clear about what, who, where, and when your question addresses. The question clearly states what you as the researcher/writer want to do.

X What effect does health education have on people’s ability to manage their own health?
(Better)  What effect does nurse-provided health education have on the ability of people over 60-year-old being able to manage their medications?
Does not ask for a value judgment, conclusive solution, policy, or course of actionAsk open-ended how and why questions about your general topic or using value laden words (good, bad). Research informs. One way to consider the “so what” of your questions. Why does it matter to you and others? Even if your project focuses on a practical problem, it should aim to improve understanding and suggest possibilities rather than asking for a ready-made solution.

X What should healthcare do about bad vaccination rates?    
(Better) What are the most effective communication strategies for increasing vaccination rates among nurses under 30 years old?
Adapted from: https://www.scribbr.com/research-process/research-questions/

Complex and arguable

The question should be complex, not simpleClosed yes/no questions are too simple — they don’t provide enough scope for investigation and discussion. As nurses you are taught how to ask open ended question with patients. Apply that same concept to your research question.

X Has there been an increase in medication errors in rural hospitals in the past ten years? (Better) How have nurse staffing and hours of work affected patterns of medication errors in rural hospitals in the U.S. over the past ten years?
Cannot be answered with easily found facts and figuresIt is probably not complex enough if you can answer the question through a Google search or through reading a single book or article. A good research question requires original data, synthesis of multiple sources, interpretations, and arguments to provide an answer. At a minimum search CINHAL and PubMed.
Provides scope for debate and deliberationThe answer to the question should not just be a simple statement of fact: there needs to be space for you to discuss and interpret what you found. This is especially important in an essay or research paper, where the answer to your question often takes the form of an argumentative thesis statement.
HypothesizeAsk yourself why your argument matters and how others might challenge your argument? What is the “so what”?
Adapted from: https://www.scribbr.com/research-process/research-questions/

Relevant, original, and clear

Addresses a problem relevant to nursingDevelop the research question based on initial reading around your topic. The research question should focus on addressing a problem or gap in the existing nursing knowledge.
Contributes to a topical social or academic debate relevant to nursingThe question should contribute to an existing debate — ideally one that is current in nursing or in society at large and has a link to nursing. It should produce knowledge that future nurse researchers or nurses can build on.
Has not already been answeredAn original idea is not required. In one semester it is not possible to do groundbreaking research. Still the question should have some aspect of originality (for example, by focusing on a specific location, a different population, or a different theoretical approach.
Is the question clearBe clear and focused. The research question needs to be specific enough for the time available for the work. For most undergraduate students, this is one semester.
Adapted from: https://www.scribbr.com/research-process/research-questions/


Burns, N. and Grove, S.K. (2001) The Practice of Nursing Research: Conduct, Critique, and Utilization, 5th ed. Elsevier Saunders.

Hulley, S.B., Summings, S.R., Browner, W.S., Grady, D.G., Newman, T.B. (2007) Desiging Clinical Research. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Kerlinger, F.N. (1979) Behavioral Research: A Conceptual Approach. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

McCombes, S. (2021) Developing strong research questions. Scribbr. https://www.scribbr.com/research-process/research-questions/

Polit, D. and Beck. C.T. (2022) Essential of Nursing Research: Appraising Evidence for Nursing Practice, 10th Ed. Wolters Kluwer.

Ratan, S. K., Anand, T., & Ratan, J. (2019). Formulation of Research Question – Stepwise Approach. Journal of Indian Association of Pediatric Surgeons24(1), 15–20. https://doi.org/10.4103/jiaps.JIAPS_76_18.

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