Research tries to answer questions. The range of education research questions is vast: why do some pupils truant? What is the best way to teach fractions? Which pupils are most likely to fall behind at school? Is there a link between the A-levels pupils study and their later earnings in life?
Despite the bewildering array of questions, education research questions can be put into three main groups.
- Description. Aims to find out what is happening, like how many teachers are there in England? What is the average KS2 SAT score in Sunderland?
- Association. Aims to find patterns between two or more things, like do pupils eligible for free school meals do worse at GCSE than their more affluent peers?
- Causation. Aims to answer if one thing causes another, like does investing in one-to-one tuition improve GCSE history outcomes?
The research question determines the method
A really boring argument is what is the best type of research. Historically, education has been plagued with debates about the merits of qualitative versus quantitative research.
A useful mantra is questions first, methods second. Quite simply some methods are better suited to answer some questions than others. A good attempt to communicate this comes from the Alliance for Useful Evidence’s report, ‘What Counts As Good Evidence?’
Have a go at classifying these questions into the three categories of description, association, or causation.
- How many teachers join the profession each year in England?
- What percentage of children have no breakfast?
- How well on SATS do children do who have no breakfast?
- Does running a breakfast club improve pupils’ SATS scores?
- How prevalent is bullying in England’s schools?
- Are anti-bullying interventions effective at stopping bullying?
- Does reading to dogs improve pupils’ reading?
- Is it feasible to have a snake as a class pet?
- Is there a link between school attendance and pupil wellbeing?
- Does marking work more often improve science results?
Answers: 1) descriptive 2) descriptive 3) associative 4) causal 5) descriptive 6) causal 7) causal 8) descriptive 9) associative 10) causal
Finally, if you want a fantastic guide to research questions, then Patrick’s White’s Developing Research Questions is an excellent read.