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Answers to what questions are relatively easy to count or quantify, but how and why call for explanations and qualitative methods that elicit meaning.
TIPS
For the purposes of References list entries, keep track of websites that have contributed to your thinking about your topic by saving the home page. All the information required besides the title of the article and name of the author is contained on that page.
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One of the most useful initial tasks is to access a few successful submissions. It is not about close reading; it is about scanning the documents for formatting styles (headings, fonts, spacing, and citation conventions) as well as the structure of the presentation.
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Review not one, but several documents, not only for style and format issues, but also the kinds of headings included when discussing a topic; most important of all, review the quality of the writing.  It will give you a benchmark for which to aim or exceed.

To achieve truly refined knowledge, one must first allow consciousness to expand and then contract one's observations to a refined focus.
Purposeful Integration

Students often end up pretty confused because on the one hand, they are told not to repeat information, and on the other, they should include information that has already been discussed several pages back.
        When it comes to integrating previous research and theory into a foundation for one's own research, it is best to create a structure that includes most of the relevant literature without having to repeat the details.
        Thematic analysis of the literature and mind maps are helpful tools for organizing the literature coherently, but one's attention must always be guided by the purpose of the research. How one puts the literature together is determined by the purpose of the research. The purpose of the research, or frequent links to it, is one piece of information that cannot be repeated too often in a research report because it is what holds the research together.
                                                        [December Week 1]
It's a step-by-step journey

Most students intend to be very systematic about, for example, citing sources as they go along and making sure they enter the sources included in the document into a References list because one of the conventions is that everything cited should be listed in the References, and everything listed in the References should be cited. The truth of it is that as one becomes swept up in the process of constructing one's understanding of one's topic and linking ideas between authors, one forgets: the commitment being systematic about citations and references entries falters and dies.
        At the same time, there is nothing worse than running around frantically searching through sources accessed at the end of the process, wondering in which source one found a particular idea, or worse still, a turn of phrase because a turn of phrase demands that one also record the page or paragraph number.
For these more mundane tasks, it is a good idea to spend just one half hour a week developing the References list. That not only saves one time and a great deal of pain at the end, when one should be celebrating a journey done, but also, one learns what information, order, and punctuation is required for a correctly formatted References list and citations. Like any learning curve, the effort required evens out when one engages in a step-by-step process.  
                                                                                        [December Week 2]
Figuring Out What is Expected I

I guess in the halls of the academe, it is that time of the year, at least for South Africans. Course handouts are being constructed and handed out by the dozen, demanding a mountain of literature be read, lectures attended, and papers written. It can be both invigorating and overwhelming.
        In most reputable academic institutions, postgraduate studies require one to sustain one's interest in and focus on one topic over an extended period of time and for an extensive number of pages.
        It is a good idea to be clear about what is expected of you with a dissertation* by the institution with which you are registered. Some of the facts required can found in course handouts, for example, faculty, supervisors, and instructors may set guidelines about possible topics and general page limits. Most often, if attending a brick and mortar institution, one would be expected to meet with a supervisor/mentor to discuss one's proposed topic; often, one would be expected to write a formal proposal about what one intends to do for one's dissertation. The proposal, which may or may not go through various committees or gatekeepers, tells your peers about the focus of your dissertation, or extended discussion about a topic, and why and how you will go about discussing your topic.
        One of the most useful ways for coming to understand what is required of one is to review published dissertations from the institutions at which one is registered. 
[January Week 3]
Figuring Out What is Expected II

One kind of dissertation at postgraduate level is those long papers. Sometimes it is a critique of others' ideas, from a particular angle. Other times, you will be asked to consider a particular topic in a particular way, for example, examine a case according to a particular theoretical framework or even synthesize various theoretical frameworks in preparation for applying the theoretical conclusion to a case study. These are important exercises for honing your skills at critical thinking, synthesis, and application. They are also opportunities to prepare the ground for that very long thesis or treatise that presents the culmination of your knowledge in your field, if you know what area of your field you wish to focus upon.
        The trick with respect to meeting the challenge of a long paper is to know how to interpret the question asked of you: What is your instructor expecting you to do with the topic. For example, using a theoretical framework to gain an understanding of a case, event, or context demands a different process to, for example, comparing theoretical frameworks or looking  at particular frameworks from particular angles. The first asks for the application of theory to a real example, the second a synthesis or pulling together order of theories to understand a phenomenon*, and the third intimate knowledge of a theory and a lens through which to examine the theory. 
[January Week 4]
* One's field of study may be social, psychological, or business related. One's subject, phenomenon, topic, or specific area of study are all synonyms for one's point of focus on a process. One's point of focus is a particular issue or problem in the knowledge base within one's field of study. It may be a theoretical, practical, or empirical problem, but one's intent or purpose is to solve or at least provide insight into the problem in a methodical, systematic, and rigorous manner.
Using the Skills Learned from Short Papers

Most papers at a postgraduate level are long papers; however, do not assume that you will not need the skills you learned when writing short papers for undergraduate courses. For example, each section in a longer document, including a dissertation, is much like a short paper in so much as you would need to introduce the main point of the section, and if it is a section with subheadings, forecast the subpoints you will include in that section. Moreover, the final paragraph (or sentence in a short section) requires that you provide a summary of the main points that have been made in that section.
        So much like a short paper, in each section of a longer paper, you would need to tell the reader what you will do in that section, do what you said you would do, and then remind the reader about what you have done before transitioning into the next section. Providing a map that informs the reader about where you are going is a very important process in writing a dissertation; it is also an important technique for maintaining your focus and keeping your writing on track. So, like all papers, developing outline of the points to be included in a section is helpful. 
[January Week 5,]
Forecast, Inform, Remind....

The importance of thesis statements should never be underestimated. Even at a postgraduate level, one might be asked to submit papers in a question-answer format, in other words, respond to a series of particular questions about a particular subject. While one might include the actual question, verbatim, before responding, it is good idea to begin the response by transforming the question into a statement about the focus of one's response and end with a statement that reiterates the initial  statement; in other words, it is best to ensure one has a clear thesis statement for a paragraph or series of paragraphs. The first sentence of the response would inform the reader about the topic and the main points one will make in order to answer the question, and the final sentence would reiterate the topic or focus of the response and briefly summarize how one has answered the question.
        This technique serves to whole the response: one tells the reader what one will do, one does what one said one would do in the way one said one would do it, and one reminds the reader about what one has done. The essence is contained in the use of repeated keywords. The technique is a sound principle for transmitting any kind of knowledge: forecast, inform, and remind, or introduce, discuss, and conclude.
[February Week 1]
Being Rigorous, Systematic, and Methodical

One of the important aspects of constructing a dissertation is to convince the audience that you have conducted your examination in a rigorous, systematic, and methodical manner. That means convincing the audience that your methodology, or the manner in which you gained your knowledge and treated it would stand up to scrutiny if challenged, re-examined, or examined in a different way.
        One of the central issues with respect to methodology concerns the appropriateness of the methods used to gather information; in other words, the methods used must be appropriate for answering the research question posed. For example, if you want to know what people mean when they say, "I am stressed out,  measuring people's heart rates or counting how many people in your class make that claim would not tell you what stress means. It would simply tell you what the heart rate is of people who claim to be stressed and how many people in a given population claim to be stressed. In other words, unless you can clearly define the subject of study and its associated variables using the literature, counting incidences and variables and their relationships does not make sense.
[Februay Week 2, 2011]
Considering the Sample

A second consideration associated with being rigorous, systematic, and methodical concerns whether you have targeted a sample that can provide relevant information for answering the research question. For example, if you wanted to examine teachers' willingness to include children with special needs in their classrooms, you would need to target teachers in general for your sample. If you used parents in the sample, you would be restricted to observations about parents' perceptions of teachers' willingness to include children with special needs in their classrooms.
        Moreover, the size of the sample you use and the method used to select the sample would determine the extent to which the findings of your research can be generalized. In most instances, findings can only be generalized if you have used a large sample that has been randomly selected from the population of interest. For example, interviewing 10 teachers from one school in one geographical location in South Africa is not representative of all teachers from all schools in South Africa. One would not be able to say that teachers in general are willing or unwilling to include children with special needs in their classrooms based on such a small sample. One would only be able to generalize teachers at a particular school.
 
[February Week 4, 2011]
Samples and Data

When selecting a sample, one must not only select participants or subjects that can speak with authority about the topic of interest, as suggested in the previous blog, but be clear about the kind of data one needs to collect in order to answer the question. For example, there is a difference between asking teachers if they would include certain categories of children in their classrooms, which demands a yes/no response, and why they would or would not include such children in their classrooms, which demands an explanation. The former would offer a measure of teacher's willingness to include such children. The latter might offer insights about the reasons teachers are willing or unwilling to include such children in their classrooms.
        While it is true that one could quantify reasons, or count the frequency of particular responses, applying statistical tests would be suspect. First, if it is a truly open-ended response, for example, "Why do you say this?  one has no idea how many teachers would have placed ticks against the reasons other teachers mentioned if they been given a chance. Second, even if one has listed all the possible reasons for including or excluding children with special needs, it is difficult to be definite about which are the most common reasons because some teachers might place a tick against just one reason and others place ticks against several of the reasons listed.
        So bear in mind that the way you ask a question has an influence on the kinds of answers elicited and what you can claim based on those answers.
[March Week 1, 2011]
Methods and Samples

The methods used and the sample selected also affect each other. For example, if you wanted to know how many teachers have included children with special needs in their classrooms, the best method would be quantitative: you would ask a sample of teachers in general if they had or had not included special needs children in their classrooms. Then you would count how many have and have not.  However, if you wanted to explore the challenges teachers experience when including children with special needs in their classrooms, the sample would need to be restricted to only those teachers who have included children with special needs. The responses of those who have not would be mere speculation about the challenges. Moreover, the data required would be more descriptive than numeric: you would be seeking to acquire knowledge about the kinds of challenges that arise.
        In short, all methods have their limitations, so most researchers apply mixed methods, or a careful combination of quantitative and qualitative methods in order to access the data that would go some way to answering the research question.
        One way of ensuring the academic community takes your findings seriously is to be clear about the limitations of the design and methods used, to be aware of and honest about those limitations from the outset, and to work within those limitations when presenting your findings. It is not possible to answer all the possible questions related to a topic in one research project; therefore, it is important to confine the research to those questions that can be answered with a given method.
[Michelle L. Crowley, March Week 3, 2011]
Interpretation and Samples

A third consideration associated with being rigorous, systematic, and methodical concerns the manner in which the data gathered is interpreted. For example, if you restricted your questions to identifying the challenges teachers who include children with special needs in their classrooms, you would have asked teachers who have included such children, "What challenges present when including children with special needs in your classroom? 
        The teachers' answers would provide information from which you would extract themes in order to identify the most common challenges. However, those answers do not provide data about how many teachers are willing to include children with special needs in their classrooms because your sample is restricted to those teachers who do include children with special needs. Likewise, if you restricted the data collected to how many teachers have included children with special needs in their classrooms, the frequency with teachers have done so says nothing about the kinds of challenges those teachers face when doing so or even if teachers' consider integrated learning contexts beneficial or detrimental to higher performing students in the class. 
        If you have gathered anything from the past several blogs it should be this: The question you ask must be congruent with the method you employ, and the data you collect and what you can claim with any certainty based on the data collected will be limited by that choices, so best you choose your methods for data collection wisely.

[Michelle L. Crowley, April Week 1, 2011]
Research and Ethics

I had  rather interesting request this week. A student whose doctorate I edited some months back wanted to publish a paper in an academic journal, after having been awarded the doctorate. Could I rework a chapter from the doctorate I edited for that purpose? On instinct, I drew back from the request despite other editors apparently considering the request legitimate.

Let me use an analogy: A script writer adapts a book so that a movie can be made based on a book. The book still belongs to the author, and that much is acknowledged in the titles; however, with respect to the script, the scriptwriter is acknowledged as the author. The same principle pertains in this case. If a student wants ownership of the paper in the publish-or-perish academic world, he or she must do the work and make the decisions about what and what not to include in a paper.

I informed the student that I would only be willing to work on the document once the focus for the paper was established and the dissertation material tailored to that focus and the requirements of the publisher. Then, as an editor, I could focus on the language issues, and as a reviewer, alert her to any gaps and contradictions in arguments.

In short, it is a author's responsibility to decide on the focus for the work submitted, not leave those decisions up to the editor, and tailor the document accordingly. Once that is done, an editor can edit based on what is presented. In short, if a person wants to take ownership of a product, the person must do the work, not expect the editor to do it.
[Michelle L. Crowley, April Week 4, 2011]
The Proposal

Most research starts with a proposal. A proposal is a document that informs the institution about what you intend to research, why you intend to research the topic, and how you will go about researching the topic. It involves stating the purpose of the research, defining the problem to be researched, and refining the question(s) to be answered by the research. It also involves providing a literature review to show how the problem has been explored in the past, describing your theoretical framework, and developing a language with which to speak about the topic. Finally, it involves outlining the method one will use to gather data that will answer the research question.
        Gaining permission to conduct research can be a harrowing journey. It involves defending your intention as well as deciding how to integrate feedback along the way. It is important to welcome the feedback, rather than see it as an attack or criticism. Celebrate the fact that someone was willing to dialogue with your ideas. Integrate the feedback given, or at least be able to defend your decision not to integrate the feedback, even if the defense is that what the feedback points to is beyond the scope of the research.
        In short, suck as much juice out of the feedback as you can; it is not the details that count, but the process you are engaged in that is important. Remember much of the feedback given is intended to sharpen your thinking, not necessarily shift your thinking in a particular direction.
        
[Michelle L. Crowley, May 14, 2011]

Academic thinking is about linking concepts you read about, linking the data that you collect, and then making links between the links in the concepts and the links in the data.

The emphasis for the problem statement is what needs to be solved or known. It is not about how to solve the problem or how to gather the data so that more can be known, but about the issue that motivated one's research interest.

It is strange activity, editing. It requires entering the intellectual realm of another through words, resonating with the spirit of what is being presented, and ensuring that what is meant is expressed in a way an academic audience would understand and according to its conventions.

It is a good idea to reframe anxiety as suppressed excitement and treat your dissertation as an intellectual adventure.  

The purpose statement includes the focus of the research, the what, and design to be applied, or the how. The what is the research question rephrased, and the how, might be a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-method design.

Review not one, but several documents, not only for style and format issues, but also the kinds of headings included when discussing a topic; most important of all, review the quality of the writing.  It will give you a benchmark for which to aim or exceed.

Remember that human beings are very seldom singularly motivated; seldom is there just one reason for taking action.

Long papers are not only a stepping stone to hone the kinds of skills required to write a dissertation, but also a means to widen one's knowledge base for the thesis or treatise. 

Whenever you use the word should, think, "Should according to whose ideological frame of reference?"

Research questions are the questions that motivated the study; survey or interview questions are the questions used to collect the data.

Blogs previous to this are now part of a collection called
Snippets to Facilitate the Dissertation Process
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The Importance of Asking the Right Question
        
Different kinds of questions demand different methods. If you want to know whether teachers are more or less satisfied with their salaries, you could ask them a yes/no question and you will have your answer, but that will not tell you much about why teachers feel that or what teachers mean when they claim satisfaction or dissatisfaction. So the research question, "Are teachers satisfied with their salaries" is not an appropriate research question.
        "What constitutes teachers' satisfaction with their salaries" or even "To what degree or extent does emotional support from colleagues contribute to teachers' satisfaction with their salaries" hold promise as research questions. To what degree implies measurement, or a quantitative approach. If one rephrased that question, to "How does emotional support from colleagues contribute to teachers' satisfaction" one is asking about processes and meanings and a more descriptive, qualitative method may be appropriate. One might even take it further by combining the questions: to what degree and how does emotional support from colleagues contribute to teachers' satisfaction with their salaries and adopt a mixed methodology. That might involve measuring teachers' satisfaction with their salaries, asking to what extent they feel emotional support from their colleagues, and then asking them to clarify what they mean by emotional support by giving examples or asking why they gave that response.
        Remember that even if your focus is on processes and meaning or you claim to be using a qualitative method, if you count anything, even the number of times a theme arose or use a statistical database to establish a relationship, you have a mixed method methodology. To count and measure is a quantitative endeavor.         
[Michelle L. Crowley, June 2, 2011]

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The point of doing research is not only to answer the question tugging at your intellect, but to offer knowledge about your topic that is valid and reliable and can be depended upon for making decisions.
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