What makes good research? Some reflections

Some ideas concerning the features of good research in education developed through dialogue with colleagues and international masters students:

  • a focus on a definable issue or problem. Research needs to be focused and have a clear area for exploration. If it is too broad it becomes too unwieldy and difficult to collect meaningful data. In attempting to develop a coherent focus for research the use of research questions is extremely important;
  • the need for an ethical approach. All research in education should be developed with an explicit understanding that it should be an ethical process. The vast majority of research in this field includes human participants in some way. Our research should always protect the well-being and dignity of both the participants and researchers. This is often the stated purpose of research ethics, the ‘legal’ aspects which are often the focus of review panels. However, we also stress that ethical research should also focus on the need for honest and transparent reporting so that the work completed can be read critically and fairly by peers. This includes the reporting of research approaches, any conflicts of interest and the context of the research. It also requires that when we rely on the work of others we reference them fully so that they are given due recognition for their work;
  • give a clear outline of the context of research. The process of education is highly complex. Therefore, when writing about research it is always important to give readers a clear context (albeit anonymised) for the research. If a small-scale study is completed with a class of 12 and 13 year olds, in an inner-city school, composed predominantly of more able students then it is important the reader has this information so that they can understand the context of the research data gained. This also allows the reader to consider the degree of relevance of the research to their own situation. It is a central part of honest and transparent educational reporting and debate;
  • making use of research literature to inform the research design. The vast majority of research builds on work already done. It is important to begin to gain an understanding of the research which has been published previously in an area of interest. We need to be good at reading and assessing research so that we can judge the degree of evidence on which we might build our own work;
  • gives a clear outline/discussion of the methodology and methods which have been used to collect data. Ethical research should make the methodology and methods which have been used to collect data transparent. Readers need to know how our research has been carried out as this is crucial to being able to interpret data, and therefore engage critically with any claims which are made. Decisions concerning preferred methodologies gives an insight into the way the research is positioned and the nature of claims made.An account of the data collection tools (methods) used are equally important for the same reasons. If a study has used interviews, are the questions reported so that we can judge the level of neutrality? Where observations are used, is the focus and method of data capture explained? If these issues are not thought through and reported then a considered, critical reading of the research cannot be achieved. Where research occurs at a meta-level, through the use of literature reviews for example, it should include a methodology outlining search criteria, filtering processes and how publications have been analysed. If the literature review merely presents an area of research with no methodology, it needs to be read with caution as we have no way of assessing its validity;
  • uses appropriate methods which clearly link back to the initial issues/problems and research questions. Well-conceived research will be able to make clear as to where particular methods help in investigating the chosen issues/research questions; this gives the research coherence;
  • analyses collected data in a transparent way. In the same way as it is important to carefully consider the reporting of methodology and methods, so it is the case with analysing the data which has been collected. Analysis is often not considered to the same level of detail as methodology and data collection, but it is crucial in ensuring a reasoned and valid consideration of the data, particularly in trying to minimise biases and selective use of data. To make the process transparent it is again important to report how data has been analysed;
  • develops explanations and discussion derived from the data. Good research develops a clear discussion of the data which has been collected. This is at the centre of reporting research as it is where the interpretation of the project is developed. It is crucial that explanations emerge from the data provided and is not dissonant with the evidence provided. In addition the discussion of the data should be related to the literature which you have engaged with and which is the foundation upon which the research study rests;
  • offers measured insights/conclusions. Finally, good research is measured in the claims made. Small-scale research cannot easily make claims which can be scaled up to a large scale, in other words an analysis of one cycle of action research focusing on improving questioning practices in one class cannot act as the basis for national policy. However, small-scale research can still provide extremely important insights for further study and for practitioners by providing useful information as to where good practice might be found. Where conclusions include polemic and assertive language, it can often be the first sign we need to explore the study and its messages further. Many large-scale research projects rely on quantitative analyses. Insights are often based on statistical manipulations and offer a great deal of useful exploration of patterns and trends. However, in-depth explanations are sometimes more problematic as this type of research is often much stronger in providing answers to the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’. All research has potential shortcomings as no approach is perfect or has all of the answers to an area of interest. Often, deep insights occur through a long-term application of a number of both qualitative and quantitative approaches, used to augment understanding, and giving progressively fuller and more critical perspectives on the issue of interest.
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