Writing research questions with the help of killer whales

Did you see the news story yesterday about Orcas playing games with boats off the coast of Spain? This captured my attention, so I’m going to use it to help explain research questions. The link to the BBC news broadcast is provided further below.

Once you’ve completed your secondary research and written up your literature review, you’re ready to refine your research questions. Studying the literature should have allowed you to narrow the focus of your project, allowing you to write a sharper research question and write the questions to guide your primary research. That’s what we’re going to look at today.

Once you’ve completed your literature review, you should be able to ask yourself questions – What questions are left unanswered by the literature? Is there anything you want to find out more about? Is there anything you feel could be developed further? What do you want to test or explore further?

Why do I need to write research questions?

We write questions to keep us focused on the project; to stop us going off at tangents. Come back and ask yourself how what you’re looking at or considering moves you towards or answers your questions. It will help keep you on track and test the validity of what you’re reviewing.

Throughout your project you will find many themes croping up which, while they might be really interesting, are not relevant to your project. Referring back to your questions means you won’t waste time going down these rabbit holes.

What is the difference between questions and hyptheses?

BBC News yesterday shared a story about a pod of Orca bumping the rudders of small sailing and fishing boats. Scientists are studying (researching) the whales to understand their behaviours and to figure out what can be done to protect the ships. You can have a look at the video if you wish more information, but I’m going to use this story as the basis for my examples.

Definitions and examples: Questions

I’m sure most people know what a question is, but basically, we’re looking to find an answer to a specific query. Examples of questions, looking at our whales, could be:

  • Investigate why the whales are targetting these boats
  • Are the whales teaching each other the new “game”?
  • What is the impact on the boats, and on the fishing communities of the attention of these whales?
  • Are these attacks dangerous to the whales or the people on board the boats?

The scientists are able to see what the whales are doing, but are seeking a greater understanding. Asking questions gives them focus and they can now design their research activities so that they will get the answers to these questions.

Definitions and examples: Hypotheses

Alternatively, rather than questions, you could decide on using hypotheses. These are ideas/theories that you have, that you want to test to see if you’re right. For example, the scientists believe that the whales are teaching each other this new trick. They think its a game and the whales are playing; they don’t consider that they’re attacking the boats or the people. Therefore the scientists will set up experiments to test these hypotheses – which are usually presented as a series of statements:

Deciding between research questions and hypotheses

Research questions and hypotheses can be used together in research, but often we would use one or the other. It could be that there is a question you want to answer, but as you can see from the above, it is possible to ask questions or hypotheses to get the insights sought.

One of the problems with hypotheses is that you could be making assumptions to test and are “looking” for particular answers. The scientists could make assumptions about what the whales are doing and why, and then create an experiment to test (prove or disprove) their theory. We need to be careful with this kind of situation that we don’t only seek the answers that reinforce our beliefs.


I hope that’s helped you think about whether you want to write hypotheses or questions and what you should be trying to achieve with those research questions. Please feel free to pop any of your own questions in the comments section.

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  1. Love your point…hypotheses can be fun…but they do lead us in a direction, don’t they? Great use of the Orcas – bringing a fun twist to your post about research, Brenda! Love your creativity. 😎

  2. these shares are always enjoyed and appreciated, Brenda.
    the information is great and I especially like how you structure these posts… to detail and in a sequence that makes it easy to understand. 🤍

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