The research questions series: #0
Why should any of us care about research questions?
At first blush, the topic of this post may seem a tad esoteric to some readers. I hope those who see it that way will stay on the pony for long enough to give me a chance to make the case that we educators will benefit from thinking about the research questions that researchers investigate. The post is fewer than 1000 words, so you can read it in only about five minutes—including think time if you think rapidly, though I hope readers reflect about it for much longer.
My long-term goal here is to discuss with both my friends who are consumers of research and my academic colleagues who generate research that research questions are too often overlooked, ignored, or even dissed in our business.
I consider the scientific questions that researchers pursue to be incredibly important for we educators (and representatives of other disciplines, too). They influence both matters of practice or application (what educators do from day to day, minute to moment) and matters of science (how our discipline advances by generating a trustworthy body of evidence).
Research questions should be the drivers of each and every research project
One reason that I consider research questions particularly important is that the question dictates the kind of research methods that should be employed. Some questions are descriptive, some are predictive, and others demonstrate control (I’m working on posts explaining these differences.) Research methods are important, to be sure. We researchers should employ trustworthy methods! But those methods simply describe how we sought an answer to…the research question.
From 1979 through 2017, I taught a research methods class at UVA about employing what is often called single-subject, single-case, or N=1 research. If a student came to me and said, “I want to do a single-case study,” I’d pretty much immediately ask, “What’s the research question? Why do you think single-case is the right way to examine your question?”
If the student’s research question was about why, for example, one group of people differed from another group, I’d say, “Hey...that’sinteresting, but it’s not a single-case design question. That’s group-comparison research. You should talk with Professor G.” If the student’s research question was about, for example, describing one person’s experiences, I’d say, “Sorry...that’s not a single-case design question. It’s a case-study question. You should talk with Professor C.” I might often follow along with another observation: “Now, if you want to know whether people behave differently under one condtion than another condition, that could be an SSD question…[or]…if you want to know whether that learner you just described had higher levels of X and lower levels of Y in one environment than in another, well that could be and SSD question.”
Another reason that I consider research questions to be of importance to practitioners is that research questions should lay bare the connection between a given study and everyday practice—if there is such a connection. Some researchers—folks who often describe thier work with the term “basic research”—may pursue research questions that seem to have little to do with teaching. They may ask questions about cognition, working memory, rehearsal, bloodflow in the brain, and etc. In the discussion of their (often methodologically pristine studies), they may proffer implications for practice, but when those folks are reasonable, they don’t contend that their findings tested different teaching practices (there are exceptions; read future entries in this series).
Sources of RQs
Many research questions that are of interest to practicing educators could come directly from educators’ day-to-day experience. Educators simply wonder about things. Their wonders are rarely about esoteric matters (working memory, for example), but about whether students get things right tomorrow.
A thoughtful teacher might observe a student struggling to complete the steps in some specific task (e.g., sounding out a word; completing a long-division problem; completing a lab experiment in chemistry) and, think to herself, “I wonder what would happen if I gave him a cheatsheet....”
That teacher’s wondering is the first step along the path to a research question. In fact, it’s damn close to a more formal question such as
Whether giving students a simple summary of the procedures to complete [“cheatsheet”] increases their performance [accuracy, efficiency, joy, etc.] in completing such tasks.
Now, teachers might have many other related thoughts:
“I wonder what would happen if I gave him concrete representations...?”
“I wonder what would happen if I paired him with a peer who knows how to do it...?”
“I wonder what would happen if I gave him a pep talk—pumped him up!—before he started the assignment...?”
“I wonder what Ms. Perone would say; she knows a lot about teaching this kind of task...?”
“I wonder what would happen if I got him into special education...?”
Well, there’s lots to discuss when we think about research questions. I’ll return to the topic in subsequent posts. For right now, please consider questions (a) through (e) and identify one that is different from the others. Which is an outlier? Why do you think it doesn’t belong?
Tune in soon when I’ll offer my answer to that query. I’ll also discuss why I think that research questions should have pretty much two basic characteristics: (a) “Comparisons” and (b) “Outcomes.”