d i g i t a l   a d v i s o r . . .

How Much Time Will You Need?

Conducting research is a very different kind of activity than you have done for most of your education. Despite educators' claims to the contrary, most of your time in school, even in graduate school, has been learning about findings, concepts and theories that other people have generated. For most students, their TE 995 practicum is likely to be their first attempt at developing new knowledge on their own. It is an extremely difficult process. This page gives you some sense for the actual tasks involved in doing research and how long each is likely to take.

Incidentally, while you are thinking about the time you spend on research, and on other activities that are independent of your courses, you should also think about how to use your 999 credit hours. The reason the university requires you to sign up for all of these is because it needs a way to acknowledge that, even though you are no longer taking courses, you are still here, still a student, and still working with faculty here. These credits represent the work you are doing when you are not taking traditional courses. They are intended to be used while you are working on your dissertation, but you can use them at other times as well. For instance, the university requires you to be enrolled when you take your comprehensive exams, but you may not want to take a course while also studying for the exam. In this case, you could enroll for some credits of 999. You might also want to enroll for more of these credits during semesters when you have assistantships that pay for your credits, rather than enrolling when you will need to pay for them yourself. The point is to pace your use of these, making sure that you eventually buy as many credits and the university requires, but also making sure that you are enrolled during the semester when you defend your dissertation.

So here are some scheduling estimates for your research projects.

Phase I: Developing Purpose and Strategy

(Plan on Two-Three Months of quarter-time effort)

1. Form a research goal or research question.

Formulating your study question is actually amazingly hard, and it can take a long time. You can't really succeed at this unless you have a good sense for the literature in the area and the prevailing theories because you need to build your study from these. Many students have a hard time narrowing their interests down to a manageable area, and once they do that, they still have to read literature within that area before they can get very far.

  • Start with a general area of interest, like misconceptions or high stakes tests or teacher beliefs or learning communities.
  • Read some research on this topic. Pay attention to the author's starting idea and to the research questions that he or she developed out of that starting idea.
  • Look especially for literature reviews because these papers often point out where the contradictions and gaps are in a body of work, and give ideas for what needs to be done next.
  • Talk to friends about your interest. Sometimes when you move away from the official literature, to a more informal setting, it is easier to "see" what you really care about.

2. Figure out WHERE to conduct the study

Sometimes the question of where to carry out your study will follow easily from the question itself. The question may suggest an urban context, for instance, or early grade levels, or teachers who have relatively more or relatively less experience. Not all questions automatically lead to a particular research setting, though, and even those that suggest a particular kind of setting don't suggest the specific setting. If you are looking for an urban setting, you may need to decide between Lansing, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, etc. and you want to have a good reason for your decision. That is, you want to think about how the setting can increase your potential to learn from the study. Convenience is not a such a reason.

Here is the problem with convenience settings. Practically speaking, you need a site that you can get into. This is likely to be a place where you have worked, or done professional development, or supervised interns, or have a close friend. It is much easier to do research in a site where you have some ready access than it is to try to create access when you are a stranger. But when you write your research report, you will want to be able to justify your sample to readers by showing how this sample is relevant to your question. You don't want to say you went to this site because your cousin taught there, or because your husband is the principal there, or because you have been running a professional development workshop there for the past couple of years. While these things make the site convenient, they may also introduce a bias into the study and may make readers suspicious of how your data might be compromised by your prior relations with people in the school.

3. Figure out How to conduct the study

The question of how to conduct the study is a big one, and I have another page especially designed to help you with that.

Phase II: Obtaining Clearances from Faculty Advisors and an Ethical clearance from UCRIHS

(Plan on 3-6 weeks)

Once you have worked out the first details of your study, you need various approvals before you actually begin the work. If this is your dissertation, you need to prepare a detailed written proposal for your dissertation committee to review. These proposals range in size from around 15 pages to as many as 40-50 pages. The purpose of this review is to ensure that you understand the territory you are about to enter, and that you are prepared for the challenges you are likely to face. In essence, you committee asks demanding questions of you to protect you from discovering in mid-study that there is a fatal flaw in your reasoning or your study design.

If this is your 995 project, you will not need to write such a detailed proposal, but you will nonetheless need to persuade your faculty advisor that the study makes sense and that you are ready to go.  This may be done orally, but many advisors request a 2-3 page overview.

You also need to obtain an ethical review of your project from the University Committee on Research involving Human Subjects (UCRIHS). This committee is concerned about the ethical treatment of human subjects and reviews every research study involving human subjects that is done anywhere in the university.

UCRIHS has forms that you fill out describing your study procedures. They ask that you attach to their form copies of all data collection instruments (e.g. interview guides, questionnaires, etc.) and copies of all permission letters, including those you will send to teachers, to parents, and to administrators. The form is not too difficult to fill out, but it often takes 6 weeks or so to get their approval and they may ask for clarification on certain points before they give it.

Phase III: Conducting the Study

(Plan on 6 weeks to a year)

Once your faculty are persuaded that you are ready to start, and UCRIHS is persuaded that your procedures protect your research subjects, you are ready to begin the study itself. Your first step, obviously, is to send letters to all the relevant study participants asking them to participate and obtaining their informed consent. That means they need to sign and return these letters to you. Some school districts also have research approval processes of their own, so that you will have to again submit your plans to a district level review committee before continuing further.

Once these formalities are completed, the details of your study determine the time you will spend on data collection. If your study involves a mailed survey, you might be able to do the entire project in a few weeks. If it involves watching changes in student learning over the course of a school year, it will obviously take you a year to collect your data.

Don't forget, though, that collecting the data is just the beginning. If you are interviewing teachers, you will probably want to transcribe the interviews and analyze these texts somehow. Plan on about six hours to transcribe one hour of audio-tape.  If you can afford to hire a student helper to transcribe for you, ask several faculty members and secretaries if they know of anyone who has recently done some transcribing, who can recommend a qualified student to you. You will need someone who is reliable and who won't lose or accidentally destroy your data.

If you have videotaped classrooms, data "transcribing" is even more complicated. Most people don't literally transcribe their videotapes, but some do and this takes even more time. Many people choose to index the videotapes or to code them, rather than transcribe them, but indexing and coding are also time-consuming because you have to watch the tapes in real time, and you often have to watch them more than once.

Phase IV: Making Sense of Your Data

(Plan on 2-8 months)

Most students feel completely overwhelmed when they finish Phase III. Once you finish collecting your data and transcribing it, coding it, sorting it, or cataloguing it, you face the task of trying to make sense of it. You suddenly realize that you have far more data than you can manage and you don't know where to start or what to do.  Plan on a lot of false starts as you stumble through your mountain of data, trying to figure out what it tells you and how to summarize it in a way that is informative to the questions you originally posed. I am suggesting 2-6 months here, but many students need much more time than this.

Phase V: Writing your Research Report

(Plan on 3- 12 months)

Writing is also a highly variable process and is not unrelated to analysis. In fact, you should plan on moving back and forth between data analysis and report writing, because each will help you with the other. If you are writing regularly, your drafts will help you see what direction your analysis should go in, or what summary tables you will need in your text. If you are analyzing as you write, your nascent findings will guide your writing, helping you outline your text so that you can highlight the main findings. I have indicated here that the time for this could take anywhere from three to 12 months. Obviously you will need more time to write a dissertation than you will need to write a research report for your 995 practicum. Both texts will likely need a lot of revision though, since you are relatively new to these genres. Plan on revision and seek out faculty feedback to help with that process.

Phase IV: If this is a dissertation, you must defend it

Once you have a draft that your advisor believes is ready to defend, you will convene your dissertation committee.You will need to give each member a copy of the dissertation several weeks in advance, so that they have a chance to read it and study it. Meetings typically go like this: The chair of the committee presides, and pretty quickly turns the floor over to you. You then give an overview of your study, why you did it, what you found, what significance you think it has. Then the chair will open the floor for discussion. The format for this part of the meeting may be structured, so that you go around the room taking questions from each person, or it might be more informal, and everyone discusses one issue and then another. In either case, the meeting typically lasts for 1.5 hours, and people will be testing you to see if you are on top of the issue you have been studying.

PS: Don't forget that you need to be enrolled during the semester in which you defend your dissertation.


© Mary Kennedy, 2006

Evaluating Research

Reasoning with Evidence

Doing Your Own Research