All entries for September 2015

September 07, 2015

Reflection of the first year of the Ph.D!

The first year of the Ph.D. has been fun! The year has been dominated by the Advanced Research Methods course that contained a couple of assignments and plenty of course materials that introduced many research methods and research Philosophies, and encouraged thinking about these in the context of own research. Obviously the course was not an extensive introduction, but rather brief introduction given the complexities of research methods and the extensive argumentation and potential uses of each method. It was a brief introduction because it would be impossible to cover every aspect of each research method (textbooks have been written for specific research methods) and also impossible to cover every possible argumentation for and against each method (for which there are countless, and more arguments can be development: it’s really a limitless area). The course assignments were enjoyable and I feel that the development of particular research methods progressed well, and the assignments laid the foundations of some of the argumentation and reasoning that I shall be exploring further in the thesis. The course therefore has had an important part to play in forming the structure of the thesis, particularly the earlier chapters, early in the process of the Ph.D.

The research conference attended earlier this year was also part of the course and I enjoyed the experience of developing and presenting a conference poster. It built my confidence in the general methodology that I am developing and where I am going with the research itself. I even had nice complements from those who were in their second years and beyond on their own Ph.Ds. I was going to write a conference paper for this conference, but didn’t feel confident enough to have produced a substantial, well informed paper, so decided to go with the conference poster. At next year’s annual post graduate conference at Warwick University I certainly plan to write a conference paper as my confidence in my own research methods and the development of these methods have increased and shall increase further in the future. Currently, the conference paper shall focus on the survey method that has been written about in the second Advanced Research Methods assignment. I could write about my entire methodology and methods but I don’t believe that given the time between now and next year’s conference I’ll be able to get everything completed to that point. Perhaps something to think about for the 2017 research conference? If the conference paper and presentation are well received and if the supervisor recommends it, I would like to convert the conference paper into a publishable research paper and submit it to a respectable research journal.

A key awareness that has been developed during the past year is the fact that in Social Sciences the aim is not to find the “wrong” or “right” answer, but to develop a strong argument. If an argument is effective enough, then an idea or use of a research method can be considered acceptable; not the right or wrong answer, but an acceptable argumentation based on its strength through the use of appropriate evidence and reasoning. Not a lot of people really like the idea of something being acceptable based on the strength of argumentation and reasoning rather than it being a straight black or white yes or no answer, but I like this kind of investigation!

That’s about the main points of the year: lots of other little successes have happened but to detail them all here would be like writing a thesis! I am excited about the second year, it’s going to be an extremely interesting year of wonder, of argumentation development, lots and lots of reading, and lots of lots of thinking and writing! It will be a challenge, but I’m ready for it. The annual conference next year at Warwick University is going to be a challenge as it will really be the first time that I expose the intricacies and specifics of a research method (not the findings from that method yet: the research is still in developmental stage) to the public. Not only this, but I shall be entering what is known as the Upgrade process: this is a process where I prove the worth and value of my research through writing and sending in a four thousand word report, and present my proposed methods and methodology to an expert panel before actually doing the research. When this Update report is handed in and when the presentation is needs to be agreed with my supervisor but I’m suspecting towards the end of next year or early the year after.

Been an excellent first year and if I do have any regular readers out there (hello!) hoping you have enjoyed my academic ramblings. I shall try to keep the blog more updated during the next year as ideas come to me, but obviously I need to focus on the Ph.D. documentation which during the next year shall include: the Upgrade report, a conference paper, a possible research paper, and the early Literature Review and Methodological chapters of the thesis, as well as beginning to develop the methods themselves!

Thank you all for reading during the first year!

September 02, 2015

Managing notes for the literature review: general advice and some of my experiences so far

As has been mentioned in previous blog posts, the literature review is a serious piece of work that needs careful planning, arranging, thinking, considering and probably piles upon piles of written notes that have been stored in various places that you probably shall not remember when coming to writing your literature review! As with anything else, what you write will depend on your discipline and your research topic, but regardless it is important to have an effective management system where you can access your notes easily and efficiently, and arrange these notes in a way that does not interrupt your flow of thinking and writing when it comes to writing your literature review. Obviously, whatever extensive amount of notes you have you are not likely to have an extensive set of notes to complete the literature review because there shall always be something else to consider as you are writing. I find that when I am writing I have new ideas come to me that are worth exploring further: this is fine, it does not interrupt the flow of writing as I note down the ideas and explore at a later time when I come out of that mode of thinking and writing.

Regardless of the research topic and the discipline it’s likely that separate sets of literature shall be explored: with mine, philosophical, theoretical and empirical sets of literature are being explored, and each command a separate set of extensive notes. As I have indicated in an earlier blog post, I am following a Theory-Practice approach to the review therefore I shall be writing about philosophical and theoretical literature first, followed by empirical. This way, I can more easily be able to associate and compare empirical findings with philosophical and theoretical discussions and evidence the need of my research and reason the findings of problems in that way. Again, it depends on what you prefer to do: you might prefer to explore empirical findings first and then match findings with philosophical and theoretical literature, and that can be just as effective. Also, you wouldn’t have to necessarily construct your notes following a set pattern of philosophical and theoretical discussions to empirical findings: you can mix it all up as much as you want it just depends on what works for you! Just make sure that you keep a separate set of extensive notes for each set of literature and make sure you manage these notes effectively. Keep things simple, and keep things logical because when it comes to writing the literature review you want to make sure that you can access your notes easily and quickly and in that logical order so that you don’t have to go searching around and forgetting where you are.

As for my own management system, my extensive notes are kept in a display book that contains about twenty plastic wallets, with each wallet relating to a particular “theme” of a particular set of literature, beginning with philosophical themes moving to empirical themes. As an example, a philosophical “theme” could be the ideas of a Philosopher, or the ideas of several Philosophers that relate to a particular phenomenon. Another example could be that empirical findings could relate to the effectiveness of a teaching method upon a particular set of learners, or the way that a particular set of learners perceive a particular teaching method. Both of these are different empirical themes that can have their own separate places inside whatever management organisation you choose to have.

Simplicity of access and logical orderings are keys to developing a simple yet effective management system of these extensive notes. Remember, you don’t need a chaotic, complicated management system as there shall be enough chaos and disorders as you produce your first set of notes!

Current thoughts on the structure and layout of the literature review

As has been mentioned in a previous post, a literature review is not an annotated bibliography nor is it some set of unconnected narratives, neither is it a part of the thesis that can be written in a single setting: it is an evolving, ever developing chapter of a thesis that needs to be kept up to date, which shall evidence a couple of key characteristics: that you have gone to great lengths to prove the need of your work, and that as a researcher you have been able to keep up to date. Remember to take notes of the ways that you have been keeping up to date with the latest research papers and reflect on these methods. As with all thesis chapters it is likely to stretch to several thousand words, probably over ten, perhaps twenty, thousand words depending on your research topic and discipline. Given that my thesis is based on a Social Science discipline, I’m expecting the literature review to be between fifteen and twenty thousand words; however, it’s important to remember that quality should always come before quantity. It’s alright to aim for ten thousand, twenty thousand, or whatever words you want but they must be meaningful.

Either way, the literature review commands an order of reasoned and elaborated discussion that enables logical orderings of discussion and development of argumentation, so that reasoning can be easily tracked with efficiency and convenience throughout the literature review. Although this shall take time to achieve, what will assist from the beginning is thinking about the structure of the literature review because setting a structure will assist in documenting the general areas that the literature review, and ultimately the entire thesis, shall cover. Every researcher will structure their literature review differently, so what is going to be detailed next is based on my own ideas and preferences.

I like to discuss theory first; practice second. What is practice without theory? Indeed, what is theory without practice? In my opinion (and not every person shall agree with this: that’s fine) practice without theory or a certain Philosophy is a directionless venture without any real aims or objectives and no desire to progress or move society (or anything else) forward. A theory less practice simply becomes nothing more than a mechanistic, automatic process void of dynamism and unpredictability that makes theory led practices that bit more exciting. Theory without practice (or experimentation) however becomes stagnant and unmovable, and theoretical work must be able to be moveable either through experimenting with a theory to prove or disprove various aspects, or to generate a new theory. Theory feeds into practice, and practice provides feedback to particular theories; theory and practice are separate fields, but are interconnected.

I am currently structuring the literature review to reflect my mode of thinking about the relationship between theory and practice. I am structuring it so that I discuss the philosophical and theoretical aspects of the research areas first, which involves detailing and critiquing each relevant philosophical perspective and theory and interconnecting them, then following this moving into the area of empirical literature: the “practice” aspect of research literature, if you want to view it that way. When I move into the empirical literature I shall then connect the empirical findings with philosophical and theoretical discussions: this is the “feeding back” that I talked about earlier. Constructing the literature review at this point does not prove or disprove the actual correctness of existing theories: I would be merely identifying philosophical and theoretical areas that have been appropriately covered and therefore begin to evidence the need to explore areas that have not been appropriately covered or areas that have not been considered at all with the existing theories and discussions. Of course, the reverse could also be true: you could use philosophical and theoretical discussions to identify problems with empirical findings. Or, sometimes you would not have to refer to any empirical literature in this manner in order to find out problems with existing philosophical and theoretical discussions.

It really is limitless and it really depends on your project and the way you structure your literature review. You need to do what works for you and what words for the research within the context that you choose to set it. Just make sure that you provide sound reasoning and sound argumentation on why you have structured the literature review the way that you have done, and make sure that everything reads logically.

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!

September 2015

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