A number of skill problems are listed below to support you when doing research. Click on your skill problem and find more detailed information how to deal more effectively with this skill problem and make it a skill advantage instead. The Skill Sheets book gives you even more detailed information on subjects related to doing research.
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Problem statement and subject of research
The type of research you want to undertake depends as much on the problem you address, as on the type of researcher you want to be/become. What are your aims in a research project? This is always the first question that you should ask yourself when beginning a research project. Two general research aims can be distinguished: basic and applied.
A basic research project is aimed primarily at understanding the problem at hand:
- Aim 1, Problem definition: deals with semantics and philosophy. You often need to go beyond the problem experienced by the people who are directly involved, and find out the context of their problem in order to formulate the appropriate problem of definition.
- Aim 2, Diagnosis: This type of research aims at analyzing all the ins and outs of a particular problem; its causes, level(s) of analysis, theoretical approaches and methodologies available for analysis. You can also chart the consequences if the problem were to persist. An applied research project focuses more on the outcome of the problem, and the design of possible solutions.
- Aim 3, Design: This type of research aims at giving advice, but from a distance.
- Aim 4, Implementation: This type of research aims at active intervention.
- Aim 5, Evaluation: This type of research not only aims at active intervention, but also at revision of the design in the proposed solution was not successful.
A research project can focus on just one of these research aims. For example, if you aim at researching questions of implementation, then you leave the design problem and the problem of definition to others.
One of the most difficult skills to master is how to formulate a relevant, clear, and feasible research question. Choosing the appropriate question does not mean knowing the answer beforehand. On the contrary, it should enable you to come up with a relevant answer. Never start your practical research without a clear question or set of questions. In order to reduce the risk of you coming up with a question that you cannot, should not, or need not answer, consider the following six suggestions (Skill Sheet A14):
- Ask yourself first what you want to know, only then should you consider what information you need to help you answer the question.
- Take your research time frame into account. The shorter the time available:
- The more your first question should also be your final question;
- The more modest your research question should be;
- The more you will have to build your question on what others have specified as ‘good questions for further research’ in their research conclusions.
- Your research question should enable you to be critical and creative
- Compile a list of key words that you think best cover your research topic. It helps you focus on the most important research topics and makes it easier to find relevant sources.
- Decide on beforehand what you consider to be the clearest value (added) of your research.
- Ask yourself what kind of research questions you yourself prefer to read. See Skill Sheet A13 for detailed information on how to formulate a research question.
An assessment of the ‘researchability’ or a research project is one of the most important phases in doing research. A feasibility study needs to be done before you formulate your (detailed) research question, do interviews and the like.
The most important aim of a feasibility study is – in a relative short period of time – to reveal the kind of (re)sources available and how difficult/easy it is to use them. A feasibility study can take considerable time. For an M.A. thesis, for instance, expect to take at least one week to do a feasibility study or your initial research question(s).
Three main categories of resources to consider in a feasibility study are personal resources, secondary sources – relating primarily to literature – and primary resources. Personal sources:
- Time: How much time is available?
- Intellectual: What is your experience in the topic and in doing this kind of research?
- Social: Who do you know who you could contact to help you with the research?
- Financial: Do you have an opportunity to hire assistants? What is your budget for making photocopies, or for travelling?
- Ambition: Your ambition level defines the ‘energy’ resources available for a project; do you go for a ‘pass’ only, or are you only satisfied with a ‘distinction’?
Find out what kind of information is available on the topic. This is called secondary data. Make a distinction between theoretical and empirical literature. Theoretical literature will be more important in the first phases of your research project, because it can put your research question in a wider perspective. The empirical literature (of the lack of it) will be more important later on. Assessing the availability of these categories separately will enable you to plan more realistically. See Skill Sheet A13 for six techniques for assessing the availability of literature.
Making use of primary resources means that you collect information from the original sources. You should at least consider the availability of two sources of primary information:
- Your own observations through participation
- Interviews and/or questionnaires.
Three principles help you to organize your files:
Principle #1: Categorise Start organizing your files in terms of categories that are linked to your interests or research topics you are working on. Create sufficient files, the initial overcapacity you create is bound to disappear in due course. You can choose any area you like, but to begin with, it is helpful to organize your files into three reference areas:
Principle #2: Be selective Collect and store only those sources that are difficult to get in libraries, which might not re-appear on the Internet or which you consider to be basic reading for your general interests. In case you want to store hard copies, it is good to have the following sources readily available:
- Copies of articles from newspapers and magazines, which you cannot obtain from libraries or that you are not allowed to copy information from. Use a personal code to note the sources of the information.
- Chapters of books that you consider to be important. Write the basic bibliography on your copy. As a general rule: do not make copies of whole books.
- Original sources: white papers, transcripts of speeches by managers of politicians.
Principle #3: Register bigger sources separately Create a separate system of paper or electronic ‘index cards’, on which you note the full bibliographical information of larger sources.
Not being able to find good sources for your research project may be the result of:
- Not performing a feasibility study; or
- A poor search strategy in databases or on the Internet.
A feasibility study is meant to determine the ‘researchability’ of a research project. Its most important aim is – in a relatively short period of time – to reveal the kind of (re)sources available and how difficult/easy it is to use them. If you fail to perform a feasibility study at the start of your research project, you may find that your research fails as data is not available (at least not within the time frame available). Consult Skill Sheet A11 to learn more about what types of (re)sources might be at your disposition and how to determine whether your research project will be feasible.
The rise of the Internet and online databases has significantly improved access to information. To have access to information, however, does not mean that it is easy to find the relevant information. A three-step search strategy may help you.
Step 1: Orientation In the first phase of a research project you can use existing literature to see your research ‘through the eyes’ of previous researchers. Diverse types of data-bases are available to help you in your literature search: encyclopedia, introductions and textbooks. ‘To Google around’ can be useful in this phase, but do so with a critical attitude (A21, A22).
Step 2: Define Qualitative Keywords Qualitative online databases offer the possibility – through using keywords – to identify whether a research project is relevant and feasible. Define a hierarchy of important keywords and synonyms. If you start and the number of ‘hits’ is big, you know you are in a very topical research area. Read a few key articles that you have found, and then come up with perhaps other synonyms that you see are relevant for your particular research project.
Step 3: Define Quantitative Challenges Whether you use quantitative data in your research project depends first on the nature of your question, but also on the availability and reliability of quantitative databases. If sufficiently reliable and proficient data exist on a topic, try to include that in your research.
Because Internet is freely accessible to almost everyone, its information overload is enormous and its reliability open for discussion. As a basic rule, consider the Internet as a not very reliable source. If you visit a website, you have to make sure that it is a reliable source. What can you do to check the reliability of an Internet source?
- Check the website’s name and reputation
- Check the publisher’s name
- Check the suffix of an URL (.com/.org/.tv/.gov)
- Check when the website was updated for the last time
- Check several other sources to increase the reliability of your source
- Check the number of visitors to the website
- When referring to an Internet source in your writing always refer to the date you visited the website
- Always make references of Internet sources in footnotes and endnotes the moment you make use of this particular source in your analysis
- Use Wikipedia prudently (see Skill Sheet A22)
Save and/or print the information that you used of websites. If you are accused of plagiarism (see Skill Sheet E8), you must be able to provide the source of your information. The rate of circulation of websites is very high and many websites disappear into the mysterious landscape of the electronic highway. The validity of your research decreases if you are unable to provide the source to somebody who uses your bibliography.
The site www.archive.org allows you to search for old websites. It is a digital library. Their ‘Wayback Machine’ could help recover your lost URLs.
Research projects are very difficult to manage. It is important to be aware of the phases that a research project could go through, before you start a research project.
There are at least sixteen known steps to be taken in research projects. The table below gives you an overview, with brief explanations. You can systematically check during the research process what phase of the process you are in and what you could do.
Researchers should take the following general rules into consideration if they want to ‘survive’ a research project:
- Needs - Specify your research needs/problems, or those of your client
- Aim - Specify your research aims: a) Personal (A4); topical. Formulate a problem definition and an initial research question. What outcome and impact do you want the research to have?
- Time - Specify the time available for the research project: a) In weeks/days/hours; b) What other obligations do you have during the project? Consider lay-out and language style (who is your audience?). Designate an editor.
- Feasibility - Make a feasibility study of the topic and planned methodology (A11). Is it ‘researchable’ considering available resources and your own capacity/time? Revise the initial question (A22). Decide upon method(s). Remain with this.
- Question - Develop a question hierarchy: a logical sequence of research (sub)questions, which also contribute to the contents of your research report. Specify the concrete end product of your research (A13).
- Linkages - Link each (sub)question to a preferred method. Write a rough introduction.
- Labour Division - If you work in a group: what would be a useful division of labour for the remaining steps? Create sufficient overlap in your labour division.
- Budgets - Specify the ‘budgets’ available:
 Time budget. Set clear deadlines. Specify time modules;
 Page budget. Clarify the importance of each part in your end product;
 Social budget. What networks (of informants) are you in?
 Financial budget. In case of a commercial product; if this budget is not approved, you will probably have to stop the project;
 Energy budget. Make clear what your ambition is and how much energy you (and your group members) would like to put in the project
- Theory - Finish the conceptual/theoretical part as soon as possible. The main content of your feasibility study has dealt with this already. Elaborate on paper, do not keep it in your head! This Elaboration will probably trigger further specifications of your research question and the concepts used when collecting data.
- Data - Only now do you come to the part where you collect primary data, do interviews and so forth. Specify a further labour division if you are part of a group.
- Analysis - Write down the results of your empirical search. Analyse and interpret them.
- Conclusion - Always repeat your research question(s), form conclusions
- Summary - Write an ‘executive summary’, this should be approximately one page long.
- Preface - Write your preface and rewrite your introduction. Reveal all of the analytical and methodological choices which you have made!
- Lay-out - Finalise the lay-out of your report.
- Letter - Send a well written letter to the person/organisation who commissioned the research project (also teachers), in which you explain the status of the report.