All entries for Tuesday 01 September 2015

September 01, 2015

My current literature review journey

The literature review is an extensive early thesis chapter to write: it’s not simply a list of books and research papers that you have read and it’s most certainly not an annotated bibliography but an extensive, detailed analysis and synthesis of existing literature. The objectives of the literature review are: contextualise your research, provide appropriate theoretical and logical grounding for the research, analyse literature, synthesis and connect literature findings, identify and present gaps in the literature, and give the opportunity to present a developed argumentation for the need of the research: its research questions, the general themes to explore, the methods, and overall methodology along with the assumptions that you are making. The chapter structure and contents will obviously differ from research to research and it has to be up to you in agreement with your supervisor to confirm a structure that is most relevant.

Having already started the Literature Review, it has been found that the process for collecting, analysing, evaluating and storing literature to be used in the thesis is more advanced that what is expected for a typical Master’s Thesis. For a start, at Master’s Degree level you are not expected to document to a significant detail your search methods or the way that you have evaluated literature for relevance to research, but at Ph.D. level you are expected to document this process to a fairly detailed level. Knowing and documenting the whole process of literature search, identification, selection and evaluation is also important for the Upgrade assessment where you need to prove the worth of your research through a several thousand words report and presentation so those of you who are just starting your Ph.D. might be worth keeping that in mind when you begin your literature searching.

The best advice that I can give at this time is start writing notes about what you read very early in the process (if you have not started your Ph.D. but are in the process of applying you should have already started your reading anyway, so keep written notes) and this includes what search terms you use, what sources you have used to gather your literature, your mechanism of evaluating literature for relevance, and your storage procedures. All this takes time to document properly, so make sure you have an effective systematic process in place early so that you’re not spending lots of time later trying to find out and remember everything! Detailing all your search methods, evaluation criteria, and so on, shall inform your Ph.D. supervisor and the assessment committee of where you obtained your literature, and that your ideas and research have not been built on an ad hoc, informal basis. Again this is important for the Upgrade process.

The journey towards a competed literature review is therefore different for each Ph.D. candidate and therefore it depends on the context of the research and the research methodology, as from what I have been reading so far each research methodology influences the design of the literature review so it is quite important to be able to as best as possible decide on your research methodology early so that the literature review can be appropriate for the methodology.

Not only that but there are also various types of literature reviews that can be written, from the less structured narrative synthesis up to the advanced and structured critical interpretive synthesis and all points in between. I’ve been considering critical interpretive synthesis for quite some time but because I’ve decided upon a particular research methodology I don’t believe that a critical interpretive synthesis shall work properly but is something that I shall be needing to investigate further in the next few weeks. However, regardless of the type of literature review I shall be writing I do like the rigorous structure of literature searching and evaluating that is used by critical interpretive synthesis so I have adopted that for my own research.

So, what advice can I give so far during this relatively early journey in the literature review construction process? It must not be considered as a slap dash list of unconnected narration of existing literature: this is a serious piece of writing that shall take months to construct (actually, it should be an ongoing and ever developing document throughout your time on your Ph.D. as a role of a researcher is to keep constantly up to date therefore it should be your role as a Ph.D. candidate to ensure that your literature review is as up to date as possible upon thesis submission) and is the chapter that proves the need and worth of your research. Remember, there is no other person who knows your ideas and research better than yourself, but you need to communicate these ideas and the need for these ideas effectively, and the literature review provides you with this opportunity to do so. If you get the literature review wrong then it’s not going to tally up with the rest of the thesis and it won’t be easy to refer back to it and explain the way that it acts as an input to the rest of the thesis. Get to know the types of literature reviews that you can write early and try to align the type of literature review with the research methodology. Get this right and start thinking about this from the very beginning if not before you actually start your Ph.D.

This is an ongoing process with my own journey and is something that will be seriously considered during the next few weeks, months (er, years) now that the first year introductory research modules have now been completed.

Happy reading and writing!

Current thoughts about Educational Research

Having just completed the first year of the Ph.D. I have had a fair amount of time to think about what Educational Research is really all about and what Educational research actually means. You can read through a dozen (and more!) textbooks on the subject and you’ll be greeted with an assortment of definitions and goals of Educational Research. Read through the vast empirical literature and you’ll find a vast quantity of different areas of teaching and learning explored using a variety of different methods and methodologies, all led by the intentions, aspirations, desires, and even agendas of the researchers.

To define Educational Research after the first year of the Ph.D. is not quite easy and any attempts on my part will obviously be driven by my own interests and research passions, but in any case currently I view Educational Research as a set of Psychological, Sociological, Anthropological, and Philosophical methods and theories that are used to explore the relationship between Learners, their Psyche, and the applications and approaches that they use for their learning with the aim of better understanding learning processes within a variety of learning environments. At primary and secondary school, and probably also at College level, this can be expanded to include the teacher or tutor and their teaching or tutoring processes.

The more I explore Educational Research the more expansive the field is realised and that it’s a continuously growing field of research and practice; however, I must keep focus of my own research interests and therefore explore Educational Research within the context of my own areas of interests. Even then, I’m only just scratching the surface here as not only are there many methods and approaches to Educational Research, but near enough limitless debates and discussions about using these methods and approaches to explore constructs of a particular research area, and more contributions to these discussions and debates can occur as well as ways in which methods and approaches can be used for different purposes.

In what way should Educational Research be performed? There shall never be a general agreement or consensus as to the most ideal way that Educational Research should be carried out because near enough every researcher carries a set of assumptions regarding the way that knowledge of reality can be or should be obtained, which impacts on their preferred research orientation therefore it really depends on their Ontological and Epistemological assumptions of reality. For me personally, I do not view Educational Research as a Scientific endeavour; I view it as a Social Scientific endeavour, because I believe that to investigate all aspects of Education using a Scientific method would be too restrictive and would give too narrow a focus when analysing data and dealing with the research subjects in general. Quantitative data and methods dominate Scientific research, but I do not believe that it should dominate Educational Research because teaching and learning and the ways to make this more effective cannot be expressed in just quantitative data alone: there is a need for qualitative approaches and data as well. Some people perceive Science and the Scientific Methods as the be all in answering everything and whilst I respect that, I don’t agree with the view that it can answer everything and this is something that I will be expressing more in my thesis.

Like I said, I’m only just scratching the surface here and so far along my Ph.D. journey. I have chosen my methods, general approach, and methodology and shall be developing arguments that support their selection and use within my research. Will my methodology and methods change? Not likely: I’m settled on these now; I always have been, but needed to read more to understand the constructs that needs to be explored and these I am also beginning to settle upon.

With that, and because there are so many definitions and approaches to Educational Research, the best advice I can give any person doing a Ph.D. in Education is to really explore the methodological literature and select the method or methods that best answer the questions that you have formed from the problems that you have identified.

There is no right or wrong answer: just know what you are going to do, what methods you are going to use, and develop arguments that support your selection.

Happy research!

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