Writing Good Qualitative Research Questions

Got a great handout a while back that I stumbled over today, hopefully it’s as helpful to you as it was to me. Here are the steps for writing good (mass communication of course) qualitative research questions:

Specify the research problem: the practical issue that leads to a need for your study.

Complete these sentences:

  • “The topic for this study will be…”
  • “This study needs to be conducted because…”

How to write a good qualitative purpose statement: a statement that provides the major objective or intent or roadmap to the study. Fulfill the following criteria:

  • Single sentence
  • Include the purpose of the study
  • Include the central phenomenon
  • Use qualitative words e.g. explore, understand, discover
  • Note the participants (if any)
  • State the research site

A good place to start: The purpose of this ______________ (narrative, phenomenological, grounded theory, ethnographic, case, etc.) study is (was? will be?) will be to ____________ (understand, describe, develop, discover) the _____________ (central phenomenon of the study) for ______________ (the participants) at (the site). At this stage in the research, the ___________ (central phenomenon) will be generally defined as ____________ (a general definition of the central concept).

Research questions serve to narrow the purpose. There are two types:

  • The most general questions you could ask


  • Subdivides central question into more specific topical questions
  • Limited number

Use good qualitative wording for these questions.

  • Begin with words such as “how” or “what”
  • Tell the reader what you are attempting to “discover,” “generate,” “explore,” “identify,” or “describe”
  • Ask “what happened?” to help craft your description
  • Ask “what was the meaning to people of what happened?” to understand your results
  • Ask “what happened over time?” to explore the process

Avoid words such as: relate, influence, impact, effect, cause

Scripts to help design qualitative central and sub-questions:
Central question script (usually use only one):

  • “What does it mean to _________________ (central phenomenon)?”
  • “How would ______________ (participants) describe (central phenomenon)?”

Sub-question script:

  • “What _________ (aspect) does __________ (participant) engage in as a _____________ (central phenomenon)?”


  1. Cresswell. J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  2. Creswell, J. W., & Plano Clark, V. Principles of qualitative research: Designing a qualitative study. You can download the entire document here.

16 thoughts on “Writing Good Qualitative Research Questions

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