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NUR2 612 Research Methods in Nursing 1

Determine an answerable question

"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask."   

(Incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein in many forms, but makes the point)

Asking Answerable Questions

Before you begin searching for information it's important to know what you're looking for.

What makes a question answerable?

An answerable question is formed with your literature search in mind. It contains the "key concepts" or ideas that you can use to build your search. You will need to look for different types of information to answer different questions, and you may need to look in different places.

A patient scenario, situation or story, may include several questions, which should be formed separately as each will include different key concepts and lead to a different search.

A research topic may also include several questions, which should be formed separately as each will include different key concepts and lead to a different search. This is true for CQI and questions related to implementation as well.

There are two types of questions:

  • Background questions are about general knowledge and can best be answered using textbooks.
    • Example: what are warts?
    • Go to STEP 2 on the menu on the left to learn how to answer a foreground question.
  • Foreground questions are more specific and relate to patient care or research. There are several types of foreground question, and each is best answered by a different type of study:
    Type of question Best Evidence (pre-appraised and synthesized if available)


    (questions about the effectiveness of interventions to prevent morbidity or mortality)

    Randomized controlled trials
    Prospective studies


    (questions about the effectiveness of treatments or other interventions to improve patient outcomes)

    Randomized controlled trials

    Diagnosis (differential or test)

    (Differential: questions about a possible diagnosis given a patient's signs or symptoms)

    Test: questions about specific diagnostic tests and how well they work)

    Prospective Studies
    Comparison to Gold Standard
    Diagnostic validation studies


    (questions about a harmful effect or exposure on)

    Observational studies (cohort or case control)


    (questions about how likely it is for a patient to develop a disease or condition or side-effect, or the probable course of a disease)

    Observational studies (cohort or case control)


    (questions about cost of healthcare)

    Cost-effectiveness studies


    (questions about patients' experiences and concerns.)

    Qualitative, Mixed methods
    Case studies, ethnography, grounded theory, phenomenologic approach


    (questions about barriers/facilitators to, and methods for implementing, research in practice)

    Quantitative, Mixed methods
    Many of the above types of study methodologies can be used in implementation research, but additional types of studies such as evaluation studies and participatory action research and others can be used.
    • Example Therapy question: Is duct tape an effective treatment option for cutaneous warts in children?
    • Go to STEP 2 on the menu on the left to learn how to answer a foreground question, or search for evidence by type of question using:

IMPORTANT! Don't forget to identify your key concepts or ideas first!


Additional reading:

Stillwell, S. B., Fineout-Overholt, E., Melnyk, B. M., & Williamson, K. M. (2010). Evidence-Based Practice, Step by Step: Asking the Clinical Question: A Key Step in Evidence-Based Practice. AJN, American Journal of Nursing, 110(3), 58-61.

Straus, S.E., Glasziou, P., Richardson, W.S., Haynes R.B.(2019) Evidence-based medicine: How to practice and teach EBM (5th ed.) Elsevier. ISBN: 978-0-7020-6296-4


Tools & worksheets:

Quick links to popular tools

Search strategy worksheet:
Combined evidence pyramid:
Nursing model at McGill:

Video- Asking Answerable Questions

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Sabine Calleja
Schulich Library of Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, and Engineering
Subjects: Nursing

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