Getting Started: Research Question vs Hypothesis

Believe it or, I often see confusion between these two things. To the beginning student, they often seem like the same thing. There are important differences between a research question and a hypothesis, however, and until you have these clearly defined you should not begin working on your project in earnest. Hopefully, some explanation will clarify why I say this.

A research question is the very question (or questions) you are trying to answer by conducting your study. For example, you might be wondering if stress levels decline as a person ages, or whether there are male/female differences in the way college students experience stress. This is very different from a research hypothesis, which is not a question at all, but a bold, clear, concise statement about the theory driving your research. The way you ask questions and state hypotheses is extremely important, as they determine how you will conduct your literature review, your methodology, and how the data will be collected and analyzed.

Sample questions:

Quantitative research questions tend to be about measurable differences or relationships between variables, such as How much? What is the relationship between X and Y? Is there a significant difference between groups? For example:

What is the relationship between gender and stress?

Qualitative research questions might be more vague and exploratory in nature and could be answered by something as simple as yes or no. In other words, since qualitative research is done using open ended questions on your survey or interview instrument, your research question will probably be framed a bit differently.

What are the experiences of seniors living in southern California?

While you cannot make generalizations about the population because qualitative research is more exploratory and/or investigative in nature, you can certainly glean vital information that can help in decision making, gaining a deeper understanding of a phenomenon, and in providing a broader base of understanding that can help in policy making decisions.

Combining both methods together in a mixed methods research design is becoming more and more popular and can easily be accomplished as long as you understand the unique nature of the differences between the two and plan your analyses accordingly.

Sample research hypotheses:

Quantitative: Here you will make a clear statement about what you expect to find once your study has been completed. You might do this by looking at relationships or talking about differences between your groups or variables. You might also describe something about the variable(s) you are testing. For example:

H0: There is no significant difference between the GPAs of students who play a musical instrument and those who do not.

Ha: Students who play a musical instrument will have a higher GPA than students who do not play a musical instrument.

Further, hypothesis can be non-directional (two-tailed) or directional (one-tailed) in nature:

Non-directional hypothesis: There will be a relationship between stress and social support.

Directional hypothesis: Those who have a strong social support system will experience lower levels of stress.

Qualitative: Generally speaking, qualitative, unlike quantitative research, tends to be more framed on a particular phenomenon or concept, and seeks to understand (ethnography), discover (grounded theory), explore processes (case study), describe experiences (phenomenology), or report stories (narrative research). Because of this, hypotheses may be stated as less of a theory or prediction and more of a question. This is very different than a quantitative hypothesis, where the researcher makes a very clear prediction based on some type of expectation about the outcome.

Mixed Methods: If you are using a mixed method research design, it is best (in my opinion) to state your questions/hypotheses separately rather than combine them. It will make analyzing your data much simpler once you have it.

Research question: How do the experiences of domestic abuse survivors impact their decision making abilities?

Research hypothesis: Survivors of domestic abuse will report high levels of depression as measured by the Beck Depression Inventory scale.