Vol. 16 : No. 6< >
Research Advice for Today’s Online Doctoral Students
Distance education students are naturally anxious about completing their doctoral dissertations. The task is challenging because students must do the majority of the work apart from having face-to-face meetings with their committee members. The focus of this month’s column will highlight ways to conduct an effective literature review.
Problem Formulation Stage
The problem formulation stage is the first step in the research process because it establishes the basis for the entire project. On the surface, identifying a problem to investigate appears quite simple because their area host of social, business, educational issues to study. In reality, it is one of the more difficult aspects of the research process. Students have an assortment of ideas about possible research ideas but are not sure what area merits their attention. Graduate students need to devote time to selecting a research problem that is significant because their study can have positive impact on their academic and professional life. Gay & Airasian (1996) observe that students usually start with a general research question. Then, they will need to devote time narrowing their focus of their investigation. The problem formulation process can be frustrating because it sometimes takes awhile to identify a relevant educational or social issue that can be handled by students with definite time and financial restraints.
Research problems exist because people are perplexed about an issue (i.e. the problem of homeless people). Often, individuals believe there is not enough available information to answer their question. The absence of knowledge can lead people to study a topic. How do students become aware of educational or social problems that need further investigation? Merriam and Simpson (1995) state, “The process of problem identification involves refining and narrowing the topic of interest. This process can be helped along by reading widely on the topic, talking with other people, especially those who are familiar with the area, observing closely situations pertinent to the problem, taking notes as thoughts on the topic occur to you, and so on (p. 17).”
Conducting an Effective Literature Review
It is somewhat comforting to know that there are no formulas to creating realistic research problems. Rather, students should be encouraged to be use their creativity and common sense during their selection of a research problem. The literature review is a valuable opportunity to take a critical view of research studies that are related to your work. Leedy & Ormrod (2001, p. 70) highlight the benefits of a review of the literature:
It is important to realize that the literature review is not just a summary or concise description of various studies. The review must identify vital relationships between different studies while showing how it relates to your project. Students can avoid writing a superficial review by using critical thinking techniques that reflect an in-depth of analysis of the subject matter. The Internet offers sites that have a diversity of perspectives and their credibility must be evaluated like printed materials. Browne, Freeman & Williamson (2000) note “there is no governing board or editorial staff whose responsibility is to ascertain that Internet sites well-informed conclusions or even truthful statements (pp. 395-396).”
An Example of Literature Review Material
The author has taught numerous graduate online research classes for the University of Phoenix. Students appreciate having concrete examples that help them understand important research principles and practices. The author has used the following example of a literature review on moral theories to provide insights into this vital research task.
Contemporary writers have heavily criticized Kohlberg’s cognitive-developmental theory. Woolfolk (1990) notes that his stage theory fails to show how people make moral choices. Often, people will operate within several stages within a moral episode. Additionally, the sequence of stages reflects a bias for Western values such as individualism. Some cultures place a greater emphasis on family or group oriented decision-making. Feldman (1997) raises concerns that his theory does a better job of describing moral judgments and struggles when predicting actual behavior. For instance, one experiment revealed that students who were considered to be operating in the postconventional stage (highest moral category), 70% of them were found cheating on a task. The study reveals that knowing what is right or wrong does not always translate into positive moral behavior. Woolfolk (1990) cites a research study of 1,100 high school students who gave three reasons for cheating: “too lazy to study, fear of failure, and parental pressure for good grades” (p. 108). Every moral developmental theory must deal with the fact that individuals can have ethical knowledge but choose to ignore it.
The studies cited demonstrated various dimensions of investigating moral theories. A valid and logical question for researchers is how can they evaluate moral development theories before encouraging others to use them in schools and business settings? Moral developmental literature contains an advocacy element that sometimes complicates the reader’s ability to evaluate the educational merit of every theory. Individuals need to devote time and energy into studying the validity of moral development theories.
Thomas (1997) has done extensive investigations into analyzing moral theories by asking specific questions and here are several that are quite relevant:
Tips on Writing Your Literature Review
Teachers need to remind their graduate students to always focus their literature review on the major purposes of their project. The brief example involving moral theories revealed that the writer had two primary goals:
Students should always read research materials with a definite purpose in mind.. They must learn to discern what ideas and information are worthy of being put into their review. Then, decisions must be made about whether to briefly mention the information, include a more detailed discussion of the data or not mention the study in their review. Students should read information and note whether the articles have similarities or differences from their study (i.e. find a gap in the information). The reading process will provide the framework to clearly define the research problem by narrowing the focus of the study. Also, the investigation of materials might involve locating articles or a completed dissertation that might operate as a model for their project (Varerka & Fenn, 2001).
Yet, students should learn to integrate writing into their daily plans. Writing rough drafts provides another way of thinking through issues and reflecting upon the information. Students who delay their writing until they have completed their intensive reading of materials are risking the possibility of forgetting valuable insights (Asian Institute of Technology, 2002).
Students should have a basic plan to implement and effectively complete their review of the literature. The review should constantly remind the reader that the literature is related to the research problem. Leedy & Ormrod (2001, p. 84) suggest practical ways to develop a synthesize of diverse studies:
Today’s online doctoral students must devise a relevant plan to conduct their dissertation research. The literature review is a key element in the research process. Ultimately, students should create a meaningful summary of studies that highlights their relationship to the research problem. A well-written review will provide new knowledge to the academic community and establish a basis for future journal publications.
Asian Institute of Technology (2002). Writing up research: Using the literature. Retrieved May 6, 2002 from the World Wide Web:
Benard, B. (1993). Fostering resiliency in kids. Educational Leadership, 51, 44-48.
Browne, M. N., Freeman, K. E. & Williamson (2000). The importance of critical thinking for student use of the Internet. College Student Journal, 34 (3), 391-398.
Curwin, R. L. (1993). The healing power of altruism. Educational Leadership, 51, 36-39.
Feldman, R. S. (1997). Development across the life span. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Gay, L. R. & Airasian, P. (1996). Educational research: Competencies for analysis and application (6th ed.). Upper Saddle Creek, NJ: Merrill.
Leedy, P. D. & Ormrod, J. E. (2001). Practical research: Planning and design (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merill/Prentice Hall.
Merriam, S. B. & Simpson, E. L. (1995). A Guide to Research for Educators and Trainers of Adults (2nd ed.). Malabar, FL: Krieger.
Sockett, H. (1993). Can virtue be taught? Educational Forum, 60, 124-129.
Thomas, R. M. (1997). Moral development theories---secular and religious: A comparative study. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Woolfolk, A. E. (1990). Educational psychology (4th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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