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October 05, 2017

The Difference Between Research Background and Research Backdrop

In the previous blog post I suggested that there is a difference between a research background and a research backdrop, and that it is my belief that both need to be treated separately though in relation to each other. What do I mean by this? Let’s take a look at each term for clarification.

The Research Background

The research background typically comes as a separate chapter in a Masters dissertation or a Ph.D. thesis. The chapter typically outlines and details the problem context of your research. By this, you are specifying the exact research problem; explain how you are exploring this problem, and why you are exploring this problem. When I say what you are exploring, you are describing the research problem: what is the research problem that you are exploring and what are its defining features and concepts. When I say how you are exploring the research problem, you are briefly explaining the methods and approaches that you are going to use in order to explore the problem and provide a possible solution. When I say why you are exploring the problem, I am suggesting that you explain your interest in the research problem, explain why you are carrying out your research, and why there is a need for your research and reasons for solving this problem.

The background therefore addresses the relationship between the research problem and your reasoning behind the research, but it does not address the relationship between the research problem and the general disciplinary context. This is where the backdrop plays a role.

The Research Backdrop

The research backdrop situates your research within the wider disciplinary context. The background is the explanation of the research problem and problem context, and the backdrop is the explanation of the wider disciplinary context therefore appropriately situating the research problem and research context and establishing the relationship between research problem context and the wider disciplinary context.

Using my research as an example, my research focuses on the description and explanation of a learning phenomenon, therefore my research can be classed as both descriptive and explanatory. It explores the learning phenomenon from, what I believe to be, a different philosophical perspective than most research projects. As for the research problem, briefly I am attempting to argue that this particular learning phenomenon has not been explored in a particular way, leading to fairly narrow assessment opportunities over a longer period of time or larger amount of instances. And, that there are benefits in moving away from a typical view of the learning phenomenon to another way that from what I can understand has not been properly or fully explored.

Because of my increasing interest in the Philosophy of Education, I am situating the learning phenomenon within the backdrop of Philosophical considerations of Education. Typical questions involved with the Philosophy of Education are: what is the goal of Education? What are the aims of Education? What is the nature of teaching and learning? What is the nature of the teacher and the learner? What are the contemporary characteristics of teachers and learners? What are the contemporary characteristics of learning environments? What is the relationship between Education and the wider society? What is the nature of society and what is the role of Education within contemporary society? What are the nature, role and function of classrooms? What is the nature of the relationship between teachers and learners?

When answering the questions relevant for my research, the focus is on the learning phenomenon. The learning phenomenon becomes the key guide in all of my questions and discussions that shall involve three different literature reviews that addresses different questions using a variety of different types of literature.


Remember: the background addresses the characteristics and concepts of the problem context as well as your own interests in the problem. The backdrop situates your research problem and problem context within the wider, traditional and contemporary discussions and debates of the discipline within which the problem is based.

February 10, 2016

Conflicting Issues In Literature: Design And Methodology

Another issue that new researchers and Ph.D. candidates shall have to deal with is the conflicting terminology within literature. Terminology is conflicting because writers use different terms interchangeably to mean the same thing but the meanings behind the terms differ significantly. In the case of this blog post, the terms “design” and “methodology” have been and continue to be used in literature to mean the blueprint of a research project but they are terms that carry different meanings and I shall use this blog post to present my own definitions (and add to the already confused mess of terminological definitions), which are probably likely to change in the future!

A research design is the blueprint of a research project: a logically designed or constructed document that defines the layout of the research project, illustrating through narrative and diagrams (usually the case for the thesis) the methods used to collect and analyse the data in a way that provides answers for a hypothesis or research questions. A research design illustrates the relationship between the defined research problem, the defined research question, the methodologies and methods, the underlying Philosophical assumptions of these methodologies and methods, and the way in which data shall be collected and used to answer the research questions. Research design should be considered and developed following the identification of a research problem and the construction of the research questions. The different research designs within Educational Research include Experiment based, Observation based, Longitudinal based, Case Study, Ethnography, Grounded Theory, and Phenomenology, among others, all of which define that previously mentioned relationship and characteristics of that relationship in different ways.

Methodology is part of a research design that provides a framework for the data collection and data analysis. A methodology defines the methods that are to be used, the approach or model used to implement the methods, the timing of implementing these methods, the importance of these methods, and therefore the way in which assigned questions shall be addressed and the data that is to be expected. The key difference between methodology and design therefore is that methodology does not explain the overall research problem or research questions, but is associated with a particular research question or questions to address a particular aspect of the research problem. A design does illustrate the overall research problem and questions and the relationship between the research problem, the research questions, the methodology, methods, and expected data in answering aspects of the problems and the questions. A research methodology can be quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods.

I mentioned that Grounded Theory can be an overall design but it can also be a methodology within a design and, in the case of my research, a method within a methodology. Constructivist Grounded Theory was originally going to be a methodology within an explanatory research design, but this was dropped because Constructivist Grounded Theory as a methodology works exclusively with qualitative data. There was no way I could use quantitative data with the Constructivist Grounded Theory methodology therefore switched the methodology to Mixed Methods, and repurposed Constructivist Grounded Theory as a method within a Mixed Methods methodology. As I began to elaborate on my methodology in the Upgrade Paper I did come across a stumbling block: the literature and its conflicting approach to defining methodology and design, and authors were referring to Mixed Methods as both a design and a methodology.

What did I do to overcome this barrier? I thought carefully about the different types of Mixed Method methodologies and their suitability for the context of my research. The type of Mixed Methods that has been selected as suitable is convergent parallel and this has been referred to in the literature as a convergent parallel design although some authors have called it a convergent parallel model, but that’s just going beyond the point of driving a person insane.

I think therefore considering that the methodology defines the way that research questions are addressed, and that the design acts as the blueprint or illustration of the way in which the research shall proceed, it’s safe to say that the methodology is definitely Mixed Methods whilst the design of the research can be defined as a Convergent Parallel design.

This post is attempting to highlight the difficulty that some researchers might come across when dealing with terminology use in the research literature, and that it is so easy to be thrown off course initially as you try to develop a more substantial understanding of these terminologies. Developing that substantial understanding and a detailed, careful consideration of the terms “design” and “methodology” is the only way you are going to be able to properly define them.

Till next time: don’t accept a definition in the first resource you come across! Question and explore!

December 07, 2015

Beginning of the reflecting, planning and wind down processes

Recently I have managed to complete the most challenging and most significant academic task that I set myself between late September up to Christmas and that is understanding Grounded Theory enough so that I can start laying out the outline and structure of the literature review and the positioning or ordering of the discussion of different sets of literature. Further, to also understand the way in which other sets of literature shall be used within the analysis of data, which shall be reported within the methodology chapter. I have completed and sent the first draft of the outline of the Grounded Theory literature review recently to the supervisor but since then, I have had more ideas about what should be in the literature review. Therefore during the past week or so I have been improving the layout and the structure of the literature review so shall send this to him at a later date before the Christmas holiday. I’ve also been working on ideas for magazine articles and identifying more magazines to contact but this is my research blog, not a business blog!

I would rather have completed the task earlier and be ahead on schedule than be struggling with it right before Christmas as that would not have been nice. It is always better to complete a task early and effectively if you can, because it does give you a nice feeling that you have completed a task that you set yourself. It also gives you a chance to bring forward certain plans so that you can start the next task early. I could have done that, but I have realised this time period to be better spent improving the layout and structure of the literature review so that I have a better understanding of what it is I am writing about. Because I’m taking a Christmas holiday it is better to do this as I can then remind myself of my progress after the holiday and be able to quickly move on with the reading and construction of the chapter without struggling to know where to start next.

So, the tasks that remain Ph.D wise up to the holiday is to complete improvements of the literature review structure and layout, to reflect on the past year, and to plan for the next year. Therefore the next post shall more than likely be a more reflective post discussing the main points of the past year and what I felt I have achieved, and then the post after that shall discuss planning and activities for the next year, and what I would like to achieve.

That’s about it! Christmas is on its way so whilst there shall be some reading taking place, any significant tasks shall now take place in the new year else if I do start any new and significant tasks I’ll just be thinking about them during Christmas. Quite frankly there shall be far too many mince pies, Christmas cake, turkey pasties and alcohol to consume to worry about anything to do with my work!

‘till next time folks, remember: Christmas is coming! Actually, I started listening to Christmas songs from the beginning of November!

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!

May 28, 2015

My First Research Conference Presentation!

I have had the absolute pleasure and delight recently in being given the opportunity to attend and present at the third Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference at Warwick University. I was rather concerned about this and a little nervous, because it had been the first time in a couple of years since I had presented my own ideas but regardless of the time span, any event that involves a person presenting an aspect of their own work that they have been thinking about for a while always brings on a set of nerves.

I found the research conference very encouraging and inspiring because of the positive feedback that I had regarding the research methodology that I’m planning and designing, and also what took me by surprise is that people who have been on their Ph.D. projects for longer than I have been on mine said that they found the poster presentation and my own discussions of my methodology to be uplifting and inspiring. This I found particularly encouraging and surprising given that I’m in my first year and given that formal planning and designing of the methodology are in their very early stages. Not sure if I’m going to upload the poster to an online avenue, but I might create some sort of online version of aspects of the poster at a later time.  I have also found the discussions following other Ph.D. presentations and the debates that I was involved with were also quite encouraging and inspiring and made me think about my own research particularly the further directions I could go with my literature review.

This was a very important day for many reasons: to receive feedback on my work so far, to find out if I could inspire others, to find further inspiration, and to show willingness to be involved with academic discussion and debates at conferences. It delivered far beyond my own expectations and assumptions and, most importantly for my own research that, despite the very early stages of the methodological planning and designing, that I’m on the right track with the methodology.

Encouraging, inspiring, networking, humbleness, being willing to get involved with various aspects of a conference are all important characteristics of a conference and of being involved. It would have been very easy to have refused to have taken part in anything if the nerves were too consuming, but despite the nerves I fell back into the role of presenter and, if you like, teacher, without even thinking about it. Sometimes you need to attend these conferences to remind yourself of exactly who you are and where you are going, so not only are conferences important to engage on an academic, social setting, but also on a personal level.

I do encourage all Ph.D. researchers to engage, attend, and present at conferences whenever they can. I remember attending a conference a few years ago and the result of that conference was a near total dismantle of my research proposal to the core of my research, and a rebuilding of ideas and directions to what it is now. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have attended that conference several years ago and to the Professor who said to me that in time, I would understand the importance of being able to dismantle your own research, or aspects of that research, and rebuild it from a particular position. It is very important therefore to never attend conferences with a set agenda or a set mindset that you are correct and that your ideas are unchangeable: they are changeable, I experienced that a few years ago! Attend conferences with an open mind and a mindset to listen and accept new ideas and perspectives, and decide if whether or not what has been presented is suitable, in some way, to the research that you are developing.

Be open minded about everything: being closed minded is never recommended or beneficial for anything except the pretence that what you believe to be true is true in reality and that every person should follow what you believe is true. Having such closed mindedness is a reason why certain political agendas and political parties can become more favourable or more dominant than they really should be, but that’s an aside and this is not a political blog (well, not too much of a political blog). Nevertheless, closed mindedness is not, and should not, be an academic agenda or goal. Open mindedness is the best approach, not just when attending conferences but within academia in general!

Oh and a couple of other things that might be useful: presenting at conferences might also help you with your Upgrade paper, and shall help towards whatever Professional Development courses or schemes that you are a part with at your own University!

October 20, 2014

Ph.D thesis and creativity: some initial considerations

There is little doubt that many PhD learners have been pouring over many, many guides giving advice on the way to set up a PhD thesis and the way that they should present their PhD thesis. All of the guides online that I have come across have obviously been very useful, but they have something in common: they have not at all touched on the creativity that is involved when writing a PhD thesis. But what is creativity? What is the process of being creative? Is it a behavioural measure? Is it a particular type of thinking? Is it a cognitive state? Is it a mental state? No doubt my conception of what it means to be creative on a PhD will perhaps change during the PhD, but let’s have a little exploration in this initial post on creativity exactly what it means to be creative with the thesis.

It’s important, and probably figured out, by now that there is a definite structure to the PhD thesis. There is the background / introduction chapter, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, and then an assortment of different appendices. Within each chapter there will be sub chapters and various headings flying about the place. Some people who are not academic writers have dismissed this approach as suppressing creativity; that too much structure and the language used does not promote creativity. But really, there is an element of creativity, and perhaps at the moment at least initially, this could be called controlled creativity, not supressed creativity: the structure of the thesis allows for your creativity to shine, but in a controlled, structured way. I’ll explain this further.

I do view the PhD thesis so far as creative, simply because of this: this is your research, this is your chance to explore the areas that you want in various creative ways, this is your chance to communicate creatively with the technology that you have, this is your chance to use technology creatively to assist you with your objectives, this is your chance to communicate using academic language creatively to effectively, and creatively, communicate your research ideas and findings to the academic and wider community.

You can be creative in terms of the research areas you want to explore. Investigating research literature can be very creative even though you are following a process of literature investigation. From investigating the literature you can select and design your methodology creatively. You can use and present the data that you have collected and analysed creatively. You can explore and discuss research results in creative relevant to the research questions and hypotheses, which themselves have had an element of creativity in their design and development.

As can be imagined I do believe that there are many ways in which any PhD learner can be creative in their research from research conception, through analysing existing literature, through designing research questions and hypotheses, through designing and implementing methodologies, through analysing collected data, and through discussing and disseminating research findings.

This is an area that I shall be discussing a fair bit on here as I travel through this long and winding journey of post graduate research. Till the next creative related posting, keep creative, creatively!

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