Anyone who has registered for a Masters or doctoral programme in education will inevitably be required to do either a Project Paper, Dissertation or Thesis. It is basically an academic exercise involved in the investigation of a phenomenon in the student's area of specialisation whether it be curriculum, instructional technology, language teaching, psychology of learning, sociology of the school, educational management, measurement, etc. The phenomenon could be low ability primary school pupils learning science using an inquiry approach and whether the particular pedogogical strategy enhances understanding compared to low ability pupils taught using the 'chalk and talk' method.
Identification of the Problem
(What is it that you want to study?)
Perhaps, the most difficult phase of research is identification of the problem. "What is it that I want to study?". Students have been noted to spend months and even years trying to find an area of research. Begin with a vague and general idea that interests you; something that is is 'bugging' you. Look around you, in your place of work or what you have read or head that needs investigating. Many statements made about education in Malaysia are seldom based on research or empirical evidence but rather based on perceptions, opinions, feelings and even hearsay. Isolated incidences are generalised to the population and this can be misleading and even dangerous. Read in your field of specialisation and examine the research being done at the moment. What current thinking in the field?
For example, you may be interested in finding out why low ability learners not interested in studying or why are some principals successful in motivating teachers to work together to improve school effectiveness or why do students bully or how can teachers be encouraged to use the internet in their teaching. Keep on asking the WHY question and soon you will arrive at a problem worth investigating! In doing research, you are seeking to establish the truth within specific constraints and parameters. For example, to what extent is it true that self-esteem influences the desire or motivation to learn? Or how does computer animation facilitate the learning of physics? Or does instantiating schema of learners enhances reading comprehension?
Having identified a broad area of study, the next step is to focus and narrow down the vague or general topic into something that is manageable given your limited resources in terms of time and budget assumong you do not have the luxury of getting additional resources. 'You are not attempting to change the whole education system but may make a small contribution towards this end".
"Two years has gone by and you do not have a convincing research proposal". Doctoral or PhD students spend too much time on their proposal and even after VETTING are still unclear and more confused after listening to the suggestions of the committee. How can you avoid this?
A good piece should be grounded in theory. What is a theory? Simply put, a theory is a statement explaining a phenomenon.
Socio-economic status influences academic performance
Metacognitive ability influences performance in school subjects
Knowledge of story grammar enhances reading comprehension of narrative text
Discipline problems is more common among students with low self-esteem
Presenting information visually enhances recall and understanding
Inquiry learning methods improves understanding of material
Critically examine the literature in your field of study and you will come across the many different theories put forward. Some of these theories have been tested empirically while others remain theories yet to be tested. However, in education many of the theories tested remain inconclusive (with some studies supporting the theory while others providing contrary evidence). This is not surprising because the variables being studies in education is the human being, whether it be students, teachers/lecturers/ instructors, headmasters/principals, parents, etc. The variability of the human being and the difficulty of controlling factors impinging on human subjects explains why research in education tends to be inconclusive unlike the physical sciences or even the natural sciences where greater control can exercised in laboratory settings.