Finalising Your Dissertation Research Question

After thinking through your philosophical standpoint and the kinds of data you’re going to need for your dissertation, you should have a clear understanding of what your research question involves. Your research question defines your project and marks the boundaries of your work, driving your data collection and data analysis and giving your data a clear purpose.

The Internet provides a valuable source for checklists for assessing the suitability of your research question. Some of the best include ‘The Research Room’ from Empire State College, New York and the ‘Companion for Undergraduate Dissertations’, from the Higher Education Academy.

The checklist here that can also be helpful, but remember that you and your supervisor are really the best judges of a topic that’s suitable and realistic for you to research. Go through the following checklist, considering each point and hopefully ticking each of the boxes:

  • Your question and the field of study:

    • You’ve chosen an area that’s significant in your field

    • A reasonable body of literature exists forming a context for your work

    • Your supervisor and fellow students can see the value and relevance of your ideas

    • The area is worth making the effort to research

  • Your question is clearly expressed:

    • You haven’t made any assumptions

    • Your research terms are clearly defined

    • There’s no ambiguity

    • You’ve been as specific as possible

    • The research question is reasonably clear and concise

    • You’ve avoided using loaded language

  • Your question is manageable:

    • You have access to subjects that make the data collection feasible

    • The scale of the project is right for an undergraduate

    • You can obtain the necessary ethical clearance

    • It’s within your area of knowledge (or at least you’ve enough background to help you out – your material isn’t all brand new)

    • You don’t need expensive equipment or a budget for travel to carry out your research

    • You can easily get the results you need within the timescale

    • Your question genuinely interests you – but you’re not obsessive:

    • You’re going to stay motivated about your topic during the time you’re spending on your dissertation (or you think it more likely than not)

    • You’re genuinely interested in your research question but not to the exclusion of other areas of your life (so you don’t end up getting too involved)

    • You’re not so involved that you can’t stay objective

In the list that follows you can see examples of dissertation research questions collected from students over the years. Your supervisor will make comments and where appropriate reframe the student’s original research question making doing the research feasible. Using the criteria from the checklist, consider which questions in this list are sensible and can actually be addressed, and which are rather too wide-ranging, or are impossible or inappropriate.

All the research questions (except for Example 9) are best answered by gathering empirical data. Example 9 is likely to be answered through mainly library based research, using the non-empirical approach.

  1. How gifted children aren’t having their needs met in schools.

  2. Preschool children on gallery visits: which workshop pedagogies best help them engage with artworks at Tate Britain?

  3. A review of support for children with dyslexia in schools in the UK.

  4. A review of the Son-Rise and Lovaas methods for helping children with autism: which is most effective for encouraging verbal communication with a small group of seven-year-olds?

  5. Learning in museums: how well is it done?

  6. How well do school children manage their dyslexia in maintained primary schools? A case study of a Key Stage 2 boy.

  7. An investigation into the problems of children whose mothers work full-time.

  8. An investigation of how twins communicate in general.

  9. Free for all? A review of the effects of recent policy developments on museums and galleries.

  10. What teachers think about the Gifted and Talented strategy for primary pupils: an investigation into the policy and practice of a school.

Examples 1 and 7 make assumptions, the outcomes of which have already been decided. They therefore need to be reframed more objectively. Something like this would be better: ‘A review of evidence for the claim that highly able children would benefit from more targeted attention in primary schools’, or ‘A survey of the effects of working parents on young children’. Although these are still unsatisfactory, they’re an improvement on the first versions.

Several of the questions are far too broadly conceived. Example 3 is too ambitious (All schools in the UK? All age phases? How is this measured?), and examples 5 and 8 are too vague to be put into practice (What kind of learning in what kind of museums? Who is doing the learning? Children? Adults? Tourists? What is meant by ‘how well’? / Communicate with whom? Each other? Their families? What age are these twins? and so on) The questions lack clear definitions and parameters.

Numbers 2 and 4 are better; nicely limited and clear. Both cite specific instances to be reviewed and the claims they make from their results can be easily related to similar scenarios. They don’t need to be grandiose and don’t claim influence beyond their particular situations.

6 and 10 are all case studies with rather precise descriptions of what is to be undertaken. They may seem rather narrow (as do 2 and 4) but they’re clearly based on feasible, accessible situations and if the students provide a thoroughly researched context and rationale, their conclusions can provide a useful support or refutation of current practice.

Question 9 is rather more theoretical and has carefully avoided subjectivity in the title. I’d expect that the student may conclude that recent policy has been good, bad or mixed in terms of supporting the aims of museums and galleries, but there’s no inkling of any bias in the title which is a positive start.

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