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Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) : Your research Question

A guide to support Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) students with preparation of Research Proposal and Draft Literature Review.

Finding your research question

Defining your research question

You can start by:

  • Writing down a broad topic of research interest.
  • Brainstorming or mind mapping the specific areas you wish to examine within this topic.
  • Writing down or keep a record of the main themes and specific topic areas to investigate in depth.
    • Tip: The keywords describing these themes and topics can also be your search terms to use later when you are searching for literature. See Keeping a record of your search activity below.
  • Determine how to work these themes and ideas into your research question.

Your supervisors will be looking for these key factors in your research question proposal:

  • What new knowledge will be generated for the discipline?
  • Why is it valuable?
  • How can the reader be assured the conclusions will be valid?
  • How will you present your findings?

Search frameworks

Search frameworks are mnemonics which can help you focus your research question. They are also useful in helping you to identify the concepts and terms you will use in your literature search.

PICO is a search framework commonly used in the health sciences to focus clinical questions.  As an example, you work in an aged care facility and are interested in whether cranberry juice might help reduce the common occurrence of urinary tract infections.  The PICO framework would look like this:

  Population/Patient/Problem

  People living in aged care facilities

  Intervention  

  Cranberry juice

  Comparison

  No cranberry juice (status quo)

  Outcome

  Prevention of UTIs

Now that the issue has been broken up to its elements, it is easier to turn it into an answerable research question: “Does cranberry juice help reduce urinary tract infections in people living in aged care facilities?”

Other frameworks may be helpful, depending on your question and your field of interest. PICO can be adapted to PICOT (which adds Time) or PICOS (which adds Study design), or PICOC (adding Context).

For qualitative questions you could use

  • SPIDER: Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type  

For questions about causes or risk,

  • PEO: Population, Exposure, Outcomes

For evaluations of interventions or policies, 

  • SPICE: Setting, Population or Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation or
  • ECLIPSE: Expectation, Client group, Location, Impact, Professionals, SErvice 

See the University of Notre Dame Australia’s examples of some of these frameworks. 

You can also try some PICO examples in the National Library of Medicine's PubMed training site: Using PICO to frame clinical questions.

TIP:  If you use all the elements of your search framework to combine terms, you may find you have narrowed the search too much and will struggle to find relevant studies. Try using only the most critical elements from the mnemonic for concepts to search. For example, in a PICO search, you would sometimes exclude the O (outcome) terms in your search strategy as the outcomes may come from combining the other terms. If the C (comparison) is the status quo, you wouldn't use those terms either. Try to avoid concepts that have vague or broad meanings, such as benefits or health effects.

Ask your Faculty Librarian for help and advice!

Keeping a record of your search activity

Good search practice could involve keeping a search diary or document detailing your search activities (Phelps et. al. 2007, pp. 128-149), so that you can keep track of effective search terms, or to help others to reproduce your steps and get the same results. 

This record could be a document, table or spreadsheet with:

  • The names of the sources you search and which provider you accessed them through - eg Medline (Ovid), Web of Science (Thomson Reuters). You should also include any other literature sources you used.
  • The search strategies that you applied when searching different sources (eg Medline, Web of Science) can be added as an appendix to your document. This provides additional detail on:
    • how you searched (keyword and/or subject headings)
    • which search terms you used (which words and phrases)
    • any search techniques you employed (truncation, adjacency, etc)
    • how you combined your search terms (AND/OR). Check out the Database Help guide for more tips on Boolean Searching.
  • The number of search results from each source and each strategy used.  This can be the evidence you need to prove a gap in the literature, and confirms the importance of your research question.
Tip: you will be doing a number of searches as your initial search evolves. As your thesis, discussions and argument develops you will search for further evidence and support from the literature. Each search should be included in your search record.

A search planner may help you to organise you thoughts prior to conducting your search. If you have any problems with organising your thoughts prior, during and after searching please contact your Library Faculty Team  for individual help.

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