Physiotherapy: Develop your research question

STEP 1: understand your research objective

Before you start developing your research question, think about your research objectives:

  • What are you trying to do? (compare, analyse)
  • What do you need to know about the topic?
  • What type of research are you doing?
  • What types of information/studies do you need? (e.g. randomised controlled trial, case study, guideline, protocol?)
  • Does the information need to be current?

Watch the following video (6:26) to get you started:

  • All good academic research starts with a research question.
  • A research question is an actual question you want to answer about a particular topic.
  • Developing a question helps you focus on an aspect of your topic, which will streamline your research and writing.
  • To create a research question:
    • Pick a topic you are interested in.
    • Narrow the topic to a particular aspect.
    • Brainstorm some questions around your topic aspect.
    • Select a question to work with.
    • Focus the question by making it more specific. Make sure your question clearly states who, what, when, where, and why.
  • A good research question focuses on one issue only and requires analysis.
  • Your search for information should be directed by your research question.
  • Your thesis or hypothesis should be a direct answer to your research question, summarised into one sentence.

STEP 2: search before you research

The benefits of doing a background search:

  • You can gather more background knowledge on a subject
  • You can discover new articles which may help you:
    • explore different aspects of your topic
    • identify additional keywords and terminology
Note: You can do background searches at any stage of the development of your question.

STEP 3: choose a topic

Pick an area of interest and explore its different aspects to identify a topic. Image of turning your interest to a topics: first step, explore the different aspect of your interest

In this step, a background search will help you identify articles and books which can inspire more ideas and reveal aspects of your research interest that you may not have considered.

The resources linked below are a good place to start: 

STEP 4: brainstorm your questions

Now you have explored different aspects of your topic, you may construct more focused questions (you can create a few questions and pick one later).

construct more focused questions (you may create a few questions and pick one later on)

A background search will show you how others formulate their questions, hence expand your research direction.
Learn more: 

STEP 5: Pick a question and focus

Once you have a few questions to choose from, pick one and refine it even further.

STEP 4: pick a question and focus

A background search may help you identify additional keywords in this step.

Are you required to use "PICO"?

The PICO framework (or other variations) can be useful for developing an answerable clinical question. 

The example question used in this guide is a PICO question:
 How does speech therapy compare to cognitive behavioural therapy in improving speech fluency in adolescents?

P Population OR Patient OR Problem
What are the characteristics of the patient or population? OR
What is the condition or disease you are interested in?
teenager with a stutter
I/E Intervention OR Exposure
What do you want to do with the patient (e.g. treat, diagnose, observe etc.)?
speech therapy
C Comparison OR Comparator
What is the alternative to the treatment (e.g.placebo, different drug, surgery)?
cognitive behavioural therapy
O Outcome
What is the relevant outcome (e.g. morbidity, complications)?
speech fluency
Note: PICO is one option, there are other frameworks you can use too!

Use the interactive PICO worksheet to get started with your question, or you can download the worksheet document.

Here are some different frameworks you may want to use:

PICO(T) Population (patient), Intervention, Comparison (control) and Outcome. Add a Timeframe if required. Used particularly for treatment type questions.
PECO(T) A variation of PICO where E= Exposure and T=Timeframe if required.
PIPOH Developed in the context of practice guideline adaptation. Includes P= Professionals/Patients, O= Outcome and H= Healthcare Setting.
SPICE S= Setting (where), P= Perspective (for whom), I= Intervention (what), C= Comparison (compared with what), E= Evaluation (Booth 2006).
SPIDER S= Sample, P= Phenomenon of interest, D= Design, E= Evaluation, R= Research type. Useful for qualitative or mixed method studies (Cooke, Smith and Booth 2012).
ECLIPSE E= Expectations, C= Client group, L= Location, I= Impact, P= Profession, SE= Service (Wildridge & Bell 2002).
PESTLE P= Political, E= Economic, SSocial, TTechnological, E= Environmental, L= Legal (CIPD 2010).

There are a number of PICO variations which can be used for different types of questions, such as qualitative, and background and foreground questions. Visit the Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) Guide to learn more: