Defining the Research Question


  • To identify the issue of interest to be researched


  • “What Makes a Good Research Question?” handout (1 per participant)
  • “Identification of the Issue” handout (1 per participant)
  • Relevant data (optional)
  • Scrap paper
  • Pens or pencils
  • Flip chart paper
  • Markers

Prepare Before


Warm Up

Let the participants know that you are about to decide, as a group, what the topic for research will be. It is important for everyone to participate in this activity so they can have a say in the project, which the group will be working on for the remainder of its time together. Start by walking the group through the “What Makes a Good Research Question?” handout. Discuss that answerable questions only address one idea:

  • They look at relationships and not causes and effects.
  • They are clear and concise.
  • They can be easily understood.
  • They are manageable to answer in a couple of months.


STEP 1: Deciding what the research topic will be

Present the question to the group, and have participants write down three answers individually on a piece of paper. Your question can be very general, such as “What are some issues that are important to teens?” or can be more tailored to the purposes of your program or funding requirements, such as “What are some physical health issues that are important to teens in Oakland?” or “What are some education issues that are important to Oakland High School students?” It is important to keep the question as open as possible so that teens can come to an issue that is truly theirs to research, rather than adults telling them what the problem is. This is crucial to establishing youth ownership of the project and getting teens invested in the process of research. Note that you can use data or school or community assessments (e.g., Oregon Healthy Teens data) to help the group identify priority issues.

STEP 2: Suggesting research topics

Ask the participants to share one of the topics identified on their list. Go around the room, listing each topic, exactly as they are said, on a flip chart, whiteboard, or chalkboard. Once you have gotten a contribution from everyone in the room, ask people to share any other topics that have not yet been listed. Next take a few minutes to try to combine any topics together. Ask for suggestions from the group and make sure that whoever thought of the initial suggestions agrees with the way it is being renamed or incorporated into a broader category, to ensure that no one’s thoughts or ideas are lost.

STEP 3: Selecting the research topics

Once you have a list of topics that everyone agrees on, split the group into teams of two. Have each team select the two topics it feels are the most important from the list. Have the team fill out the handout “Identification of the Issue” for each item they choose.


Have each team present the two topics chosen, explaining to the rest of the group why the team members think the issues they chose are the most important. Once a topic has been chosen, have any other team who chose it report on it as well, so that you can have a running record of each topic selected. Once all the groups have shared their selections, create a new listing of the topics chosen by teams in Step 3.


The final step is to negotiate and decide on a topic for research. There may be choices that seem fairly obvious because a majority of people selected them. The facilitator should try to get the group to think about how easy or difficult it will be to research certain topics. There also may be relationships between items on the list that the facilitator should point out. It is recommended that each group work on one topic/problem even if it is difficult to get resolution or agreement within the group, because:

  • It builds group identity.
  • There are more people to work on different facets of the problem.
  • It doesn’t split the staff between two projects.
  • It is easier to schedule learning activities.
  • It is much easier to identify enough key adults for youth to interview if there is only one topic to consider.

If the group can’t come to agreement through discussion, voting can work. Ways to vote are:

  • Hands up for one versus the other topic
  • Written secret vote

Youth participants generally find it more important to work with their peers than to compete over topics and are satisfied with the resolution no matter what process is used to arrive at it. A useful way to deal with disagreement in the group is to show how a topic members want to include may be an important part of the research model as an independent rather than a dependent variable. In other words, it can be a cause of the problem rather than the problem itself. This means that to change the problem, the cause itself has to be changed or improved.



Once the group has come to a decision on the final research questions, congratulate everyone! Thank everyone for their openness, honesty and willingness to work together. They have just completed a very important step of their action research journey!