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Training Master Youth Studies: Step1: Phrasing the question

Activity: phrasing the question

Formulate your main questions and subquestions. Write them down on the form.

Think also of the phrasing of the inclusion criteria. Fill them in on the form.

Use the instructions in the adjacent boxes.

Define your research question

vraagstellingBefore you start your actual search, it is wise to start by finding out what topic really interests you and what you would like to research specifically with regard to this theme.

This is not always easy, especially when you are not really familiar with a certain research area. If this is the case, you could create a preliminary research question and find out first if there is enough (or maybe too much) literature about this specific theme. In this way you will get a picture of what kind of research already has been carried out and this may lead you to a sharper definition of your research question.

Before you start your actual search for literature, you must have defined a clear research question for your review.

Determining inclusion criteria

Inclusion citeria describe specific characteristics which a study must meet to be included in your literature review.

Determining your inclusion criteria will partly run parallel with creating your research question. This is because the question already partly defines which characteristics are important, and at the same time you will enable yourself to accentuate your research question by determining your inclusion criteria.

The questions "who, what, how and where?" may help in establishing your criteria. Try to answer these questions as specifically as possible.

An example how to develop inclusion criteria

Below you will find an example of how to specify the questions "who, what, how and where?"

Research question: 

What influences the use of drugs in adolescence? 

  • who: adolescents (age range?)
  • what: drug use (the question focuses on what drugs?)
  • how :  not specified
  • where: not specified


If we develop the questions "who, what, where and how" further, the research question may become: 

Is cannabis use in adolescence influenced by using social network sites?

  • who?: adolescents: 14-16 years
  • what?: cannabis use (use or addiction?)
  • how?: social network sites (specify further?)
  • where?: not specified (use in a special setting or general use?)

Developing your research question

For your systematic literature review you will need, besides a clear main question (in which you research the effect of an independent variable on a dependent variable), also subquestions (think of a mediation or moderation effect).


A research question in which mediation is researched could be:

  • Is the relation between impopularity and symptoms of depression in adolescents mediated by the use of social network sites?

You research the direct relation between impopularity (independent variable) and symptoms of depression (dependent variable) and the indirect relation between these two variables via social network sites (mediator).

Schematically a representation of mediation could look like this (in which 1 is the original relation and 4 the relation checked before the mediator):


Moderation (interaction effect)


A research question in which moderation (interaction effect) is researched could be:

  • To what extent is socio-economic status related to cannabis use in adolescents and is this relation moderated by their parents style of upbringing?

You research the relation between socio-economic status (independent variable) and cannabis use (dependent variable) and check if this relation is influenced by education/upbringing (moderator).

Schematically a representation of moderation could look like this:




onafhankelijke variabele = independent variable
afhankelijke variabele = dependent variable

Points of special interest in determining your research question

  • Make sure you have a well-defined and specific research question. Phrase it clearly.
  • Each subquestion must have a theoretical and empirical basis.
  • Pay attention to the set-up/design of the empirical studies you will be collecting. Which data will you be using yourself (longitudinal or cross-sectional)? It may be useful to adjust your search question based on these decisions (you could even include them as inclusion criteria).
  • Include interdisciplinarity in your literature review. Try to collect literature coming from several research areas so you can combine several points of view in your introduction
  • Make sure there is an innovative component in your review. Particularly in your subquestions try to add relations which have not been extensively researched before.