Research Methods: Developing your research design

Eira Patterson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Developing your central research focus

In order to identify a relevant and useful research question it is first necessary to define an initial research focus. It is essential to select an area of research that interests you as this will help to maintain your motivation, in what is a long and rigorous process. In addition the relevance of the research focus needs to be considered in relation to how it links to current policies, research and developments in education (Menter, Elliot, Hulme, Lewoin, and Lowden, 2011). The feasibility of the project relates to the timeline for the research and researcher expertise in developing and using the chosen methods. In addition it is necessary to consider the study population, i.e. where or from whom you plan to obtain your data to enable you to select the most appropriate groups or contexts for answering your research questions and to ensure that there is sufficient accessibility for you to carry out your research (Kumar 2011).

Key things to consider:

  • Which aspects of education would you be interested in researching? It is very important for you to select an area of research that you are interested in as the research process is very intensive and you will be far more motivated to research an area of interest.

  • Are there aspects of your own practice or of the educational setting in which you work which you would like to investigate as a precursor to implementing change? This can be a rewarding field as research as findings can directly influence practice, however it is necessary to ensure that any area you choose an area that where there is existing research for you to build on.

Some features which characterise the early stages of a successful research project are listed below (Campbell 1982, cited in Robson, 2000):

  • The research arises out of a real world problem.

  • The researcher develops a good understanding of relevant theoretical perspectives by reading literature focussing on theory and research in the area of interest.

  • Well-developed contacts are developed with professionals within that field of study.

A framework devised by Cresswell (2011) as a template for structuring the development of a research problem has been adapted below to help you identify areas that you need to consider when developing your central research focus:

  • Topic: general statement of the area to be researched

  • Research problem: an issue within that research area which could form the basis of research

  • Justification for the research problem: evidence of some form which identifies the issue as being one which would benefit from further exploration e.g. deficiencies in existing research; personal observations; research findings.

  • Relating the discussion to audiences: explicit identification of audiences who would benefit from the research or find it of interest.

You may find it helpful to use the questions below which are based on Cresswell’s framework to help you evaluate your ideas for possible central research questions:

  • How could you justify researching this issue?

  • What evidence do you have for your justification?

  • Who would be interested in / benefit from this research?

Often it is necessary to have some form of stimulus to help you develop your initial ideas about what you want to research. Different starting points for research from which it is possible to develop your research focus include:

  • published research which focuses on effective practice

  • reflections on personal practical experiences and observations

  • educational theories

  • contemporary issues of significance in development of policy, exploring the possible impact of policy decisions on practice

  • responding to stakeholder needs e.g. those of a particular group of pupils.

Identifying issues to research

Identify some issues within education and write three questions in relation to this that could be a starting point for research. You can get ideas from this from your educational setting or from current issues, for example see resources below:

  • Websites for organisations which fund research projects:

Economic and Social Research Council

The Nuffield Foundation

The Leverhulme Trust

  • The Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education Supplement

Evaluate the questions you have identified and choose a question to develop further and carry out some reading on related research. Rework your question based on the ideas from your readings. How has your initial question changed?