d i g i t a l   a d v i s o r . . .

What makes a Research Question Important?

1.  It asks about something other people care about 

You want to avoid questions that reflect your own idle curiosity or idiosyncratic interests, because no one else will be interested in what you learn about these questions.  Instead, try to derive your question from prevailing interests in the community: develop it from the findings of other research, from a theory, or from a prominent social issue.  Studies that are linked to the concerns of the larger community are more likely to be of interest to that larger community and to contribute to the larger conversation.  

2.  It builds on what you and others already know 

Use your current knowledge, and the knowledge of others, as a stepping stone to learn something unknown, to define a set of "givens" that form the basis for a new question.  For instance, "Given Smith's recent findings about student drop-outs, how do teachers' treatment of marginal students influence their motives to stay in school or to leave?"  Or "Given social construction of knowledge in the classroom, how does student bullying influence subject matter understanding?"

3.  It allows you to learn something you don't already know   

It might seem obvious that you should learn something you don't already know, but this is actually hard to do because you design your study based on what you DO know, so it is easy to design it to reinforce what you already know. Of course, at some level, anything you learn is something you didn't know.  But it may not be important new knowledge.  The more important learning affects deeper levels of your knowledge. 

Think of your knowledge in layers like this:

a.  At a superficial level, you will certainly learn some specific details that you didn't know.  You could learn that Ms Jones taught math on Wednesday, or that half her students scores higher on their test this month than they did last month.  This kind of knowledge is relatively superficial and not very important.  If this is all you learn from your study, you will not be satisfied and your audience will not be either.

b.  Underneath this level, we all "know" many things about how daily life works. We hold images of "typical" elementary school classrooms and high school corridors that include ideas about how people interact, what is done, what the setting looks like, who is in charge, what everyone in the situation thinks about it, and so forth.  These we consider to be reliable patterns.  They differ from superficial details in that they represent things that happen with relatively predictable regularity, or that regularly coincide with each other. So if your study informs you about some reliable patterns that you hadn't been aware of before, you've learned something more important than simply that Ms Jones taught math on Wednesday.

c.  Deeper still are a complex set of explanations for why things are as they are. These include a variety of models of mechanisms and motives, (punishment discourages bad behavior, knowledge is socially constructed; the dean has the power to overturn certain faculty decisions but not others; schools reproduce the existing power structure, students' peer groups discourage academic behavior).  These ideas enable us explain the reliable patterns we observe, to interpret surprising events, and to come to terms with new things that arise as we go through life.


So what does it mean to say that a research project should help you learn something you don't already know?  Certainly you want to learn more than simply a new specific detail. At a minimum, you should seek new knowledge about reliable patterns--phenomena that you believe are stable and predictable, or that have greater significance than superficial facts have.  If you really want to challenge yourself, you need to ask questions that test your explanations and interpretations for these are the heart of your knowledge.  These are the things that you are most committed to and are the most resistant to change.  So an important study will produce some new knowledge about reliable patterns of practice, and a really important study will test an explanation for these patterns.

© Mary Kennedy, 2006


Evaluating Research

Reasoning with Evidence

Doing Your Own Research