It’s the time of year when beginning doctoral researchers start to think about formulating their research proposals. In addition to reading a lot – to locate their study and find useful ideas and approaches – they also have to come up with a research question or research questions.
I’ve just come across a little resource that might help – Paul Trowler’s set of ibooks on researching in higher education. These are self published books and are pretty inexpensive to buy (and share if you know how).
In the text on thesis structure he has a very helpful set of criteria for formulating research questions. I’ve adapted his wording somewhat to suit this blog, but this is basically his formulation. Trowler says that research questions must:
!. be answerable – even if the final answer is not definitive, there must be AN answer
2. be specific – they must establish clear boundaries. They must delineate what is included and excluded from the study
3. they must be analytic – even if there is one or more descriptive questions, there must be at least one that is analytic
4. be capable of being operationalized – they must use concepts that are able to be worked with, and on, through measurement and/or observation and/or description
5. be realistic – they can’t be bigger projects than it’s possible to do within the time and resource constraints
6 be significant – they must be able to answer the “so what” question from an audience broader than those seriously interested in the topic.
Trowler uses these criteria to generate some practical examples which leads to an elaboration of what he calls ‘the deadly sins’ that beset research questions. His list of sins are very useful… I’ve added some examples to illustrate his categories.
Towler’s sinful questions are those that are:
- too descriptive – e.g. What books do adolescents read? (This might be the first question of a set, but it needs something analytic as well in order to make sense of the description.)
- too narrow – how can we make Nottingham library subscribers read more non-fiction books? (Nobody cares about the answer to this other than the Nottingham library, so the question needs to be broader, and the Nottingham library needs to be the site for an investigation of a bigger question.
- too ambitious – what do students want from their universities? (this is only a PhD not a national study of everything in HE)
- too vague – how does the obesity crisis affect teenagers? (How long is a piece of string? Where would you start?)
- normative – what are the advantages of teaching phonics to young children? (what about the disadvantages and what about other alternatives?)
- too prescriptive – why do parents’ attitudes to school dinners need to be changed? (predicts the outcome before the research is done).
Helpful. My hunch is that it might be even more helpful to deliberately play with these questions too – so you could make up sinful questions, in the area that you want to study, in order to see what is wrong with them. Try to be normative, descriptive and not analytic, prescriptive and vague. I reckon that deliberately doing the wrong thing might help actually get to more realistic and do-able questions.