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Author: Ann Grand

EPQs: designing your research question

Updated Wednesday, 3 May 2023
You’ve already decided to do an EPQ, so it might seem a little odd to start this resource by asking you to consider why you want to do a research project. 

People do an EPQ for all sorts of reasons. Why do you want to do an EPQ?

The Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is an opportunity for you to work independently on a topic that really interests you or that you think is important. It is equivalent to an A-level qualification. These articles are designed to help you if you are enrolled on an EPQ.

Why do research?

Pause for a moment and think about this. You could think about this on your own, or you could talk to friends, colleagues in the same class, or your family.

Perhaps there’s something that you’re already very interested in and you want to take a bit further. It might be that you want to develop skills that will be useful to you at university, such as studying independently, understanding how research works and communicating well. Perhaps it’s as simple as you’d like something to put on your UCAS statement, to show you can be self-motivated and self-managed. It might be that you enjoy finding things out, asking a question no one has asked before and uncovering answers that no one else has found.

All of these are excellent reasons for undertaking an EPQ.

Understanding why you want to do a research project will help you in your first task: designing a research question.

Designing your research question. 

The research process is a cycle (Figure 1): we design a question, we gather some evidence we hope will help us answer that question, we analyse the evidence to find the answer, we communicate with other people about our answer and from that we realise there is probably another question to ask!

An illustration depicting the research processFigure 1 The research cycleFigure 1 illustrates the research cycle represented by a circle divided into four segments. Around the circumference of the circle are arrows indicating this is an ongoing process. The four segments are (clockwise) design, data collection, data analysis and communication. The design segment is highlighted.

What makes a good research question?

Once you have decided on a topic to research, the first step for a dissertation/research review EPQ is to design a good research question.

In other words, how do you move from ‘this is a topic I’m interested in’ to ‘this is the question I want to ask’? 

Alessandra, a Senior Research Fellow in AstrobiologyOU, offers her thoughts on what makes a good research question. As you listen, pick out what you think are her main points.


Alessandra: What makes a good research question? 

Many people would say that it is important to have a research question that deals with the big problems of our time, that impacts on most of the world population, that can provide an answer to some of the big challenges, the big questions. 

Well, I will say that this perspective needs to be reversed. To have a good research question you need to start from what bothers you? What’s your original perspective? 

Where is it that you have an original point of view on the problems? The challenges of our time? It’s only through your voice and your unique point of view that some of the problems, the challenges, can become opportunities.


Doing something novel means asking a question that no one has asked before and finding answers that no one else has found. 

Vague questions are very tricky to answer, especially if your time is limited, so keeping your question focussed helps it to be answerable

Leaving room for development helps ensure you will stay interested through the process of planning, research, development and review. 

Questions that are open to a range of perspectives will give you much more opportunities to develop your skills in presenting arguments and discussing their strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, the question should be interesting – for you, of course, but also for those who will read your dissertation or watch your final presentation.

The ‘ten words’ technique and exercise.

Developing a research question is a cycle of refining, considering and re-stating. You will have to go round a few times until you settle on something you’re happy with. One tool you can use to develop a draft research question is ‘ten words’.

EXERCISE: Hold in your mind the thing that you are interested in and, without thinking too much about it, jot down ten words that relate to it.

Sevasti, a microbial ecologist in AstrobiologyOU, wrote down ten words to describe her research interests (Figure 2). A microbial ecologist studies micro-organisms’ relationship with one another and with their environment; in other words, their ecology.

Sevasti cheated a bit – some items on her list are more than a single word – but then she does work on some very complex science!

Photo of Sevasti's ten words in a notepadFigure 2 Sevasti’s ten wordsA photograph of Sevasti’s numbered list, which consists of the following words: 1. Survival, 2. Mars, 3. Microbes, 4. Extremophiles, 5. Deserts, 6. Space, 7. Salt, 8. Paleo-ecology, 9. Life-as-we-know-it, 10. Life-not-as-we-know-it.

Ann is a researcher in science communication and lecturer in astrobiology education. The ten words she chose (Figure 3) look very different to Sevasti’s because they have very different research interests.  

Your ten words will be unique to you and your interests.

To design a draft research question, you could look to how these words could be combined. For example, a question that comes out of Ann’s ten words in Figure 3 might be: how important were social media to the #blacklivesmatter movement?

Photo of Ann's ten wordsFigure 3 Ann’s ten wordsA photograph of Ann’s list of ten words, as follows: inclusion, social media, open, change things, communicate, experiment, experiences, issues, people, sharing.

Refining your question.

Once you have come up with a draft question, it’s a good idea to share it with others so that you can benefit from their feedback. If you are studying for your EPQ at school, you could ask fellow students or your teacher for feedback; if you’re studying at home, you could ask friends or family.

However, please remember that your EPQ must be your own work and that ideas gathered through conversation must be written from your perspective and cannot be copied from, or written by, another person

Discussing your proposed question can help you be sure it makes sense, and that it really describes what you want to research. Sometimes the comments people make will suggest a different – but still interesting – direction to go in. Sometimes you might disagree with the feedback, or it might prompt you to think so differently about your question that you decide to change it entirely. Remember that this process is a cycle!

The following audio discusses some of the comments Ann received when she asked for feedback. Recall that the first draft of the question was:

How important were social media to the #blacklivesmatter movement?


Having come up with your question, it’s time to start thinking about how we can criticise and improve it to make sure it’s a really good question that meets all the criteria we discussed earlier.

So once you’ve come up with your question, it’s time to discuss the idea with friends, family, teachers. Whoever makes sense to you. It’s about asking if this question makes sense outside your head. 

Can you clearly describe what it is you want to do? What the question is you want to ask? And also think about the questions that people ask you back. There might suggest an interesting different direction or some sub-questions that actually might be more interesting to answer. 

To take a few examples, these are the kinds of questions that colleagues might ask me if I proposed this question. Well OK, which social medium? There are lots of different social media. Is there one that’s more prominent than another and therefore more worth looking at? 

What about the role of the movement? Is this movement different to other campaigns? Are there other social movements I could compare it to, to make the question more interesting? There’s a time element.

Am I thinking about very recent events or events going back a few years? Am I interested in the momentary flowering of a movement? Or the development of a movement? Is there enough evidence for me to be able to answer this question? 

You might say that Black Lives Matter is a relatively recent movement, and therefore there might not be enough material in the research literature. By asking and answering these kinds of questions, you eventually come down and shape your question into a really solid one that’s worth your while answering.

Comments on Ann’s question

Ann received feedback such as:

  • which social medium would you look at?
  • is one social medium more worth looking at; is there one that is more used by young people?
  • is this movement different to other campaigns?
  • are there any other social movements you could compare it to?
  • you haven't mentioned time – are you looking at the last ten months, the last ten years, or what?
  • this is quite a recent social movement – will there be enough evidence?

Thinking about these comments, how would you change the question to meet all the criteria for a good research question? Look back at 'What makes a good research question' if you need a reminder.

Ann’s question could be refined to compare different social media-based movements: 

How are young people using social media for activism?: comparing #blacklivesmatter and #FridaysForFuture

This version still covers all of Ann’s interests and is novel, but it’s more answerable because: 

  • it’s more focussed – it considers a specific community (young people) 
  • it contains a range of perspectives (compares two different movements) 

To make it even more answerable, she could make a few more changes; perhaps the question could look at just one kind of social media (say Instagram) and perhaps over just one year (such as 2020). 

How did young people use social media for activism?: comparing the content of Instagram posts on #blacklivesmatter and #FridaysForFuture during 2020 

This version still leaves some room for development. In future, Ann could expand it to look at other social media platforms, other date ranges or other campaigns.

It’s ok to change your mind.

By thinking, discussing and refining, you come to a strong question that you will want to focus on during your EPQ.

But it’s important to remember that questions are never static. As you read more about your topic, gather more evidence and look into the question further, you might change your mind about the topic or want to refine your question even more.

That’s absolutely fine, and it’s a completely normal part of research. As we said earlier, getting to the right question is a cycle of refining, considering and re-stating. Don’t forget to ask for feedback each time – this will help you to reflect on what you are doing and make improvements where needed.

Getting – and giving – feedback.

Although feedback from friends, teachers and colleagues is helpful in improving our work, it can be difficult to deal with. Sometimes it can feel as if people are criticising us personally, rather than commenting on our work.

However, please remember that your EPQ must be your own work and that ideas gathered through conversation must be written from your perspective and cannot be copied from, or written by, another person

You will want to receive – and will be asked to give – feedback all the way through the EPQ, from designing your question to writing your dissertation and preparing your presentation, so it’s a good idea to think about how you will cope. 

Emotional responses to receiving feedback: crying, anger and happiness.Figure 4 A range of emotions are felt on receiving feedbackFigure 4 is a cartoon of three people. The first, a child, is crying. The second, a woman, is angry. The third, a man, is smiling.

When you get feedback:

First, take a breath. Remember all feedback is useful, no matter how it makes you feel the first time you see or hear it.

Read or listen to all the feedback before you make any decisions. Good feedback will offer you positive as well as critical comments, but sometimes we have to remind ourselves to look for the positive!

Remember that the people who give feedback aren’t automatically right. Think carefully about what they have said and weigh their feedback against what you intended to say or do. If you’re still happy with your decision, it’s your work and you have the final say.

Identify solutions to the issues people have raised. Could you find more information to back up your points? Could you write from a different point of view to make things clearer? Could you cut out material that is less relevant?

Implement your solutions, then go back to the people who gave you feedback to see if they make sense.

When you’re asked to give feedback:

  • focus on the work, not the person
  • be kind, but don’t be afraid to give constructive criticism
  • make specific suggestions about actions the person could take
A delicious-looking sandwich – bacon, lettuce and tomato in toasted breadFigure 5 A ‘feedback sandwich’Figure 5 is a photograph of a sandwich. A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich on brown bread.To give constructive feedback, you could use the ‘feedback sandwich’ technique:

  • give one piece of positive feedback. For example: ‘this is a really clear question …
  • give one or more pieces of critical but constructive feedback. For example: ‘but did you mean … here?’ or ‘it would help me to understand if you talked more about …’
  • give one piece of positive feedback. For example: ‘I’d like to know more about …’

Another method is the ‘start stop continue’ technique, which is where you suggest one thing they could:

  • start doing
  • stop doing
  • continue doing

Feedback is an important and valuable part of doing research at all stages in the research cycle. Getting into the habit of asking for feedback early on, at the design stage, will be beneficial as your project progresses.


In this resource, we have looked at the first part of the research cycle – how to design a research question, and how you can refine and improve it through feedback. When you have settled on your research question, you’re ready to move on to the next step: gathering evidence (or data) to help you answer it. 

Extended Project Qualification bannerThis article is part of our ‘EPQ - help and tips’ series. Click here to view the other articles or find them listed below.


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