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Chapter 10

 

 

IDENTIFYING A TOPIC TO RESEARCH

 

 

Where do research topics or problems come from? Where one look to ferret out topics to study? Three major sources of research topics are theories, personal experiences, and replications. One of the most meaningful sources of research topics is derived from theory. A theory is an organized body of concepts, generalizations, and principles that can be subjected to investigation. There are many educationally relevant theories from which problems can be drawn, such as theories of learning and behavior.

      A second common way to identify research topics is to examine some of the questions we  commonly ask ourselves. It is hard to imagine an educator who has never had a hunch concerning a better way to do something (e.g., a way to increase learning or improve student behavior) or asked questions about a program or materials whose effectiveness was untested (for example, questioning serve schools, teachers, programs, and news articles about schooling, and we ask ourselves questions that are usually stated in the following ways: “Why does that happen?” “What  causes that” “What would happen if … ?” and “How would a different group respond to this?” Normally we think briefly about such questions and get back to our everyday business. But such questions are probably the most common source of research topics.

      A veritable gold mine of research topics arises out of the questions we ask ourselves every day about education. Note, first, that this approach to finding research topics is appropriate for both qualitative (how do teachers structure their classroom culture?) and quantitative (would achievement go up with more frequent use of quizzes?) topics. Note, also, that most of the initial topics need to be refined and clarified before they become suitable research topics.

      A final source of research topics is replications. As the name suggests, replication means “doing it again .”  Noted also that progress through research usually comes from accumulated understandings and explanations. Replication is a means used to provide such accumulated information.

      The first step in selecting a topic is to identify a general topic or problem that is related to your area of expertise and is also of particular interest to you. Examples of general topics might be: decision making in the schools, manipulatives for elementary mathematics, the effects of standardized testing, paraprofessionals in the elementary school, busing school children and whole language reading. Note that these topic areas are very broad and inclusive, containing many, many more specific research topics. Such general areas have to be narrowed to a more focused and manageable research topic or problem. Remember, you will be spending a great deal of time reading about, planning, and carrying about your ultimate research topic. Choosing a topic that is of interest to you will help maintain your focus  during the months of conducting and writing your study.

 

Narrowing the Topic

For most quantitative researchers and some qualitative researchers, the next step is to narrow down the general topic area to a more specific, researchable topic. A topic that is too broad often leads to grief. First, a broad topic enlarges the scope of the review of related literature that one must inevitable conduct, likely resulting in many extra hours being spent in the library. Second, broad topics complicate the organization of the review itself. Finally, and more importantly, a topic that is too broad tends to result in a study that is too general, difficult to carry out, and difficult to interpret. Conversely, a well-defined manageable problem results in a well-defined, manageable study.

       A quantitative research topic typically requires that the researcher spell out the topic to be studied, hypotheses related to the topic, strategies for conducting the research study. Thus, for quantitative  research, narrowing the general topic area into a more specific and manageable research topic is essential. Without a specific and manageable research topic, hypothesis, instruments, strategies, and analyses can not be specified. Conversely, for qualitative research, it is appropriate to enter the research setting with only a general topic area in mind.  Based on what is observed in the setting and the nature of the information that can be obtained (remember, qualitative research involves much more personal interaction with the participants than does quantitative research), the researcher will formulate a narrowed research topic after immersion in the selected setting. Eventually the qualitative research will narrow the research topic. One way to narrow the topic is to talk to your advisors and to specialists in your area about specific suggestions for your study. Another way is to read sources that provide overviews or summaries of the current status of research in your area.

 

Characteristics of Good Topics

By definition, a research topic involves an issue in need of investigation. It follows that a fundamental characteristic of any research topic is that it is researchable . A researchable topic is  one that can be investigated through the collection and analysis of data. Problems dealing with philosophical or ethical issues are not researchable. Research can asses how people “feel” about such issues but research cannot resolve them. Whether there is reward and punishment in the  hereafter may be an important question to many people, but it is  not researchable ; there is no way to resolve it though the collection and analysis of data. Similarly, in education there are a number is issues that make great topics for debates (e.g., “Should prayer be allowed in the schools?” “Should students be grouped homogeneously or heterogeneously?” “Should students be held back in grade if they fail to meet defined standards of achievement?”) but they are not researchable problems. In general, topics or questions that contain the word should cannot be answered by research of any kind, because they ultimately are a matter of opinion.

        Already stated that a good topic is interesting and researchable. Another characteristic of a good topic is that it has theoretical or practical significance. People’s definitions of significant vary, but a general rule of thumb is that a significant study is one that contributes in some way to improvement or understanding of education or educational practice. A fourth major characteristic of a good topic is that it is a good topic for you. The fact that  you have chosen a topic of interest to you, in an area in which you have expertise, is not sufficient.  It must be a topic that you can adequately investigate given your (1) current level of research skill, (2) available resources, and (3) time and other restrictions. The availability of appropriate participants and measuring instruments, for example, is an important consideration.

      Here are the characteristics of a good research topic:

  1. The topic is interesting . It will hold the researcher’s interest through the entire research process.
  2. The topic is researchable. It can be investigated through the collection and analysis of data and it is not stated as a topic seeing to determine what should be done.
  3. the topic is significant. It contributes in some way to the improvement or understanding of education theory or practice.
  4. The topic is manageable. It is the researchers’ level or research skill, needed resources, and time restrictions.

     

Stating Research Topics

The statement of research topics varies in form and specificity according to the type of research undertaken and the preferences of the student’s advisor. For a quantitative study, a well-written statement of the topic generally indicates the variables of interest to the researcher, the specific relationship between those variables that will be investigated, and, ideally, the nature of the participants involved (i.e., gifted students, learning-disabled fourth graders, teenage mothers). An example of a problem statement might be: “The topic to be investigated in this study is the effect of positive reinforcement on the quality of 10th graders’ English compositions.” In this statement, the variables to be examined are “positive reinforcement” and “quality of English compositions.” The sample will consist of 10th graders.

      Other possible topic statements might be:

  • The topic to be investigated in this study is secondary teacher’s attitudes toward required inservice activities.”
  • “The purpose of this study is to investigate the relationship between school entrance age and reading comprehension skills of primary-level students.”
  • “The problem to be studied is the effect of wearing required school uniforms on the self-esteem of disadvantaged sixth-grade students.”
  • “Does the effect of periodic home visits diminish the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders?”

 

       Qualitative  research topics often are stated later and more generally than quantitative ones, because in many cases, the qualitative researcher needs to be immersed in the research context before  the focus of the study can emerge. Remember, the qualitative researcher usually is much more attuned to  the specifics of the context in which the study takes place than is the quantitative researcher. Qualitative topic statements initially tend to be general, eventually becoming narrowed as more is learned about the research context and its inhabitants. Qualitative research topics are typically stated like the following examples:

  • “The purpose of this study is to describe the nature of children’s engagement with mathematics. The intention is to gather details about children’s ways of entering into and sustaining their involvement with mathematics.”
  • “This qualitative study examines how members of an organization identify, evaluate, and respond to organizational change. The study examines what events members of an organization.”
  • “The purpose of this research is to study the social integration of disabled children in an integrated third-grade class.”

 

       After a topic has been carefully selected, delineated, and clearly stated, the researcher is ready to attack the review of related literature. The researcher typically has a tentative hypothesis that guides the review. In the previous example, the tentative hypothesis would be that parent volunteers are equally effective as salaried paraprofessionals. It is likely that the tentative hypothesis will be modified, even changed radically, as a result of a more extensive review of the literature related to the topic. It does, however, give direction to the literature search and narrows its scope to include only relevant topics.

 

 

 

 

 

Wed, 11 May 2011 @16:06

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