Research question frameworks

Research question frameworks

If you are trying to define a research question for a dissertation or research project this guide is for you. Research question frameworks can be used to help frame a question and plan for empirical research or structured literature review. They are widely used in the field of health to investigate practice-based questions but they are also useful in other fields of research.

What is a research question framework?

A framework provides a structure to organise the components of a balanced and focused research question. Once you have ideas about a topic you would like to investigate you need to frame it so you have an answerable research question. Frameworks use acronyms that serve as prompts to consider an area of interest in more detail. These prompts will help you to define your research clearly in such terms as population, intervention or phenomenon of interest, comparisons, settings, outcomes and more. Well known frameworks include PEO, PICO, SPICE and SPIDER.

How can I use a research question framework to focus my research question?

Focused questions enable easier planning of empirical research and more effective retrieval of appropriate evidence for structured literature review. Your question may start off fairly unfocused.

Here is an example of how a question might develop from unfocused to very focused:

  • Unfocused: What is it like to be enrolled on an online course?
  • Focused: What are postgraduate student’s experiences of learning alongside students from other countries in an online course?
  • Very focused: What are the experiences of UK-based postgraduate students of learning alongside students from other countries in online distance learning courses as compared with on-campus education.

In the example above, framework prompts were used to:

  1. Clearly define the persons of interest such as non-students, students, undergraduates, postgraduates, UK-based students, international students, students with disabilities, students of a certain age range.
  2. Cleary define the phenomenon of interest such as non-educational or educational courses, online distance learning, online as part of a blended learning course, a course that has switched from in-person to online.
  3. Think about whether a comparison would be appropriate to include and, if yes, describe the comparator.
  4. Think about the kind of outcomes and measures to be included such as qualitative or quantitative or mixed methods.
Which research question framework should I use?

There are lots of different frameworks available. The one that is best suited to your research may be defined by your field of study. Other things to consider include the aims and scope of your research. You may find that your topic does not perfectly fit into a framework and sometimes it may be appropriate to use only part of an existing framework.

In the field of health science, the PICO framework (Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) and variants of PICO are often used. In the field of social sciences, the SPICE framework (Setting, Population or Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation) is more common. For further information on the frameworks that are available and examples of how they can be used read our guide.

If you are unsure or need help identifying which framework would be most suitable for your research, please seek support from your dissertation or research supervisor.

How does this link in to developing a search strategy for a literature review?

Once you have a focused research question you can begin to identify appropriate resources to search and to define the search terms that will retrieve the most relevant evidence.

Your library subject guide will highlight recommended databases for your subject area but a focused question may be useful for identifying additional resources that are suited to your research topic.

The acronyms provided by a framework also provide a useful structure for planning search terms and combinations. For an example watch our short video, planning a structured literature search, which demonstrates using the PICO framework to plan search terms for a health-related topic.