Research and Development Group




Research Essentials

Planning your research

  1. Developing your research questions
  2. Establishing the trustworthiness of your research
  3. Ethical issues

1  Planning your research project

There is no one single design for undertaking a research project.  Instead the approach adopted should be ‘fit for purpose’ – ie form should follow function.  However, it is possible to identify a number of areas that need to be addressed in every project.

Setting up the project properly is critical to its success.  The design phase itself involves both divergent and convergent elements.  The divergent phase is concerned with opening up opportunities, whilst the convergent centres on sifting these for practical solutions.

Cohen, Manion and Morrrison (2005) identify 4 broad areas to address in planning a research project:

  1. Orienting decisions
  2. Research design and methodology
  3. Data analysis
  4. Presenting and reporting the data

Orienting decisions set the boundaries for the work, covering the strategic priority for what will follow and therefore serve to identify the constraints for your project.  Questions to consider include:

  • Who wants the research?
  • What is the purpose of the research?
  • What are the timescales of the study?
  • What resources are available?
  • What are the areas to explore?
  • Who should I talk to?

Research design and methodology is concerned with tactical aspects of collecting the data from your study.  This involves the process of operationalisation – translating the very broad research aims to move concrete and specific ways forward.  Questions to consider include:

  • What is the specific purpose of my research?
  • How can I operationalise it?
  • What approaches should I adopt to collect my evidence?
  • Who do I need to collect evidence from?
  • What kind of data do I need to answer my questions?

Data analysis is concerned with creating the meaning from your work.  This needs to be considered as part of the overarching research design.  Questions to be considered include:

  • How will my data be analysed?
  • Will I analyse manually or using a computer?
  • How will I verify and validate my findings?

Presenting and reporting the data centres on how the key messages will be communicated with the targets audiences.  Again the connection with the design phase is clear as issues relating to this need to be addressed from the start.  Questions to consider include:

  • How will I present my data?
  • What structure should I use?
  • What will be the key foci?
  • Who will be the audience?

Questions for reflection ahead of Session 1:

A)  What resources are available for you to complete your study?  Are you sufficiently clear and realistic about the constraints that govern it?

        B) Who is your core audience for this work?  How best can you engage them, in this work and its findings?


2.        Developing your research questions

It is difficult to overstate the importance of your research questions.  They set the tone for your whole study and effectively determine the approaches you adopt for collecting and analysing your data.

Establishing your questions is not a single one-off event, nor should they be fixed in stone too early.  Instead it is more helpful to view your questions as developing iteratively over the early stages of your work, as they are informed by your early reading and conversations you may have.  They will also be informed by the purpose of your work – ie what is it you really want to achieve?

Research questions:

  • offer direction and coherence
  • show the project’s boundaries
  • keep the researcher focused
  • provide a framework for the write up
  • point to the methods that will be needed
  • take us beyond common sense, personal experience, hearsay and rumours

Good research questions are:

  • Clear, concise and focused
  • Informed by what’s already known
  • Motivating
  • Significant but manageable
  • Not immediately answerable [but can be answered eventually]

Research questions should also reflect the purpose of your enquiry.  There are three main aims for research, which inform the structure and wording of your questions.  These are:

  1. Descriptive: to portray an accurate profile of a phenomenon
  2. Explanatory: to gain understanding of a context, possibly but not necessarily in terms of cause and effect
  3. Evaluatory: to understand and assess the value of a situation or activity

Therefore, if your aim is to make recommendations on the structure for developing middle leaders for instance, you will need to ensure that you include some evaluator questions.  Alternatively, if you’re more focused on developing understanding on the linkages between leadership and follower behaviour, explanatory questions will be needed.  In practice, many projects will often combine questions from more than one category.

Questions for reflection ahead of session 1

  1. What are your working research questions?  Do they currently reflect your true ambition for work?
  2. Is it possible to answer your questions as they stand?  Do they need to be refocused and/or simplified?

3.        Establishing the trustworthiness of your research

A further consideration centres on how you can promote the quality of your research.  A range of alternative and competing theories exist, informed for instance by competing philosophical viewpoints and the nature of data collected.  A common test particularly for quantitative [numerical] data relates to the notion of validity and reliability.  These may be defined as:

  • Internal validity – to what extent are the findings from my research supported by the evidence I collected?
  • External validity – how confident can I be that my findings can be generalised more broadly, based upon the evidence I have?
  • Reliability – how confidence can I be that the techniques I use will consistently achieve the same results if repeated?

The notion of reliability is contested in qualitative [textual] research methods that instead emphasises more generally the need to avoid bias.  Triangulation – the collection of data from a range of sources and perspectives – is one helpful strategy in reducing this and therefore promoting the quality of your research.

Questions for reflection ahead of session 1

  1. How can you ensure that your findings are trustworthy?
  2. Which different groups of individuals should you research to triangulate your findings?

4.        Ethical issues

Ethics refer to rules of conduct, typically relating to an agreed set of principles.  In broad terms, ethics are intended to protect participants in the study and the quality of the research itself.

Essentially, the ethics governing R+D at STMCTS centre on:

  1. Keeping disruption to the minimum
  2. Ensuring informed consent of all parties
  3. Taking particular care with children and the vulnerable
  4. Ensuring people aren’t pressurised to participate
  5. Protecting the identity and confidentiality of all participants [including observing the Data Protection Act]
  6. Gathering data openly and fairly
  7. Not breaching people’s trust
  8. Being honest in your findings and reflecting your data

Questions for Reflection Ahead of Session 1

G) What ethical considerations do you feel may apply to your project?


(adapted from: Coleman, A. (2009) NCSL Research Associate Programme.  NCSL, Notts.)

Recommended Reading

Silverman, D.  (2005) Doing Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition.  London, Sage

Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2005) Research Methods in Education.  Abingdon, Oxon, RoutledgeFalmer.



Dr Alan Lee

Federation of Bedford Catholic Schools

April, 2012