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Writing: Literature Reviews for Culminating Project

Formulating a Problem or Question

"...problem formulations are themselves problematic and so require continual attention to assure that the questions being asked will direct research toward the desired end."  - from "Formulating Research Problems." In Foundations of Multimethod Research, edited by John Brewer and Albert Hunter, 38-58. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2006.

Question formulation, or problem formulation, is a key part of the research process, and should be something you give some thought to before you begin a literature review.  Chapter 3, "Getting Ideas for Research," in Bordens and Abbott tackles this specific question.

While you may not be able to formulate a problem or question in great detail until after you've reviewed the relevant literature, you need to have enough of an idea of your question to be able to generate keywords and think about what literature you want to include and exclude when going through your search results.

For an excellent guide to formulating a research question, see Queensland University of Technology's guide to how to formulate a good research question.


Be as specific as you can: 

Try to avoid vague terminology such as "best practices" or "stakeholders" in favor of more specific terms, or at least define them in your own mind -- what constitutes a best practice? How is this evaluated? Who are your stakeholders, and how might you engage them, and to what end?

Using PICO to Formulate a Research Question

The PICO model of formulating a clinical question can be very useful to a literature review.

P:  Patient, Population, or Problem How would I describe a group of patients similar to mine?
I:  Intervention, Prognostic Factor, or Exposure Which main intervention, prognostic factor, or exposure am I considering?
C:  Comparison or Intervention (if appropriate) What is the main alternative to compare with the intervention?
O:  Outcome you would like to measure or achieve What can I hope to accomplish, measure, improve, or affect?

A special PICO search box is available in the CORE Library.


Breaking Down a Question into Concepts to Research

You'll need to break down your question into individual concepts for the purpose of searching literature databases. While Google is very good at analyzing long phrases, figuring out what you mean, and searching for synonyms for your terms, most databases do not have this functionality, and you'll have to input all of these terms and their synonyms. It's usually useful to create a table like the one in the example below to organize your concepts.

Example question: 

What suicide prevention interventions are most effective when working with Canadian indigenous communities?

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
suicide prevention indigenous Canada
mental health services Aboriginal British Columbia
counselling services First Nations Alberta
Metis Saskatchewan
Inuit etc.


Thanks to ...

The University of Calgary for sharing the content on this page.