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Welcome to the Getting Started in Research, Developing a Research Plan Tutorial (Click to hear audio file).
Establishing a line of research always begin with a plan of action that we will call a research plan. In the research plan, the foundational structure is the identification or development of a theoretical framework to guide your research decisions. (Some scholars refer to this as core concepts). The theoretical framework grows out of the research focus, guides the design of individual studies, and structures your research presentations and publications. It is one of the first components discussed in each manuscript or presentation – the foundation for your work. It also is included at the end of each publication and presentation to tie your new findings back to the original structure, thus extending and contributing to the body of knowledge in your discipline. As you begin to formulate your research, the five elements that organize the development of the research plan are as follows:
The idea…The research plan begins with an idea or construct that is of great interest to you. You may begin to design your research plan as a doctoral student using your major professor's theoretical framework or, early in your career, as an assistant professor using the research and analysis tools learned during your doctoral program. There are different paths that novice researchers may choose. Some scholars work closely with a senior mentor during their graduate work and follow their line of research using well-structured and readily accepted frameworks. Others may work with a scholar who has a more open perspective, permitting them to search for their research focus or vision. This can be more challenging because the novice must identify topics of significance and in some instances teach themselves to conduct research within the accepted perspective or framework.
To begin… It is easier to begin if you choose an area of interest in which some philosophical or experimental work already has been published, although a few of you may identify an idea that is yours alone. Despite the fact that you may be interested in many aspects of your discipline, it is important to narrow your research focus as quickly as possible, then to maintain that well defined focus.
2. Identify a Theoretical Framework
WHY? A theoretical framework provides you with both structure and boundaries within which to work. The theoretical framework identifies and defines the components or core concepts of the theory and their accepted or proposed relationships. Theories are usually composed of interrelated ideas or core concepts that explain (or propose to explain) some phenomenon. The nature and structure of a theory often reflects a particular paradigm consistent with a philosophy or school of thought. It organizes a complex environment, like an elite performance, a disabling condition, or a physical education class, for example, and helps you to know where to look, what questions to ask, and which answers are more likely to provide new insights. It also helps you to understand what is already known about the topic and what needs to be learned or discovered.
Identify a scholar in your discipline area who has developed and followed a research plan. Contact that individual and discuss their plan to gain insight on how the development of a plan might be tailored to your research interests and your discipline area.
3. Outline a Progression of Studies
The theoretical framework permits you to develop the step-by-step progressions of research questions and studies that constitute your research plan. This will take you down various paths at various stages, including:
- Moving deliberately from question to question and study to study;
- Lingering on one question, devising several studies to answer the question;
- Occasionally, you may find the progressions you envision may not be correct, thus causing you to back up, refocus, or create a new way of addressing the problem.
Regardless of the path, be sure to connect each study directly to the theoretical framework and follow the progression as closely as you can. This provides a cumulative body of information that builds on previous research and sets the stage for your next study.
4. Conduct Pilot Studies
In some cases, when examining a new phenomenon, working in a new setting, or using an instrument that is new to you or that setting, you may want to begin with a pilot study. Pilot studies are not just torture treatments devised by your major professor to extend your dissertation research… in fact, they are very helpful studies to test and refine your initial ideas or test the protocols and applicability of new instruments. Pilot studies are particularly helpful during the planning process and usually constitute time well spent in the research process.
Connect with others…
As you begin to develop your research plan for several studies or the design of your next research study, be sure to talk with others about the feasibility of this line of research or the opportunities available to collect these types of data in your new or current setting. You may need to pause in your plan to gain access to a physical activity organization, develop a working relationship with a senior colleague across campus with the laboratory facilities or contacts you need, or gain access to a school district.
5. Follow the Theoretical Framework
Most effective and productive scholars have multiple opportunities to collaborate with other scholars on research projects that directly or tangentially related to their research plan. When you are just getting started, avoid the easy path of joining others to have your name on a publication. Instead, evaluate each opportunity to be sure it is consistent with your research plan and contributes to the development of your work. It is easy to be distracted from your research plan and pulled away from your theoretical framework. Remember, experts have a deep understanding of their topic or research focus. They are specialists. Avoid the Jack-of-All Trades syndrome. Instead, encourage others to work with you on collaborative projects that further your research goals and move you one step closer to your research goals. Self-discipline is an important quality often found in top scholars.
There are two types of "discipline" that are equally important in completing your research plan:
1) Self-discipline: we just have to be persistent and work hard to complete the project and meet deadlines.
2) Intellectual discipline: we have to stay tightly focused on the theoretical framework and research plan.
6. Communicate Your Research Within the Theoretical Framework
STOP! Have you been following closely? If so, you may recall there are five elements that organize the development of the research plan….So why #6? The best research plan will not take us anywhere unless we can explain the nature of the plan and theoretical framework and how each study builds and extends the body of knowledge. This can be done through presentations and publications intended for a variety of audiences.
The best research plan will not take us anywhere unless we can explain the nature of the plan and theoretical framework and how each study builds the scaffold extends the body of knowledge. Taking the time to develop your plan and then periodically giving it a tune-up will pay dividends!
Complete the attached worksheet. Be patient! This may take some time. Once you have carefully written out and reviewed your responses to the questions on the worksheet, follow the instructions to receive a complimentary consultation from a Research Consortium Fellow in your discipline area.
This tutorial is adapted with permission from Human Kinetics, from following article written by Dr. Catherine D. Ennis.
Ennis, D. C., (1999). A Theoretical Framework: The Central Piece of a Research Plan; Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 18, 129-140.
Thanks to Catherine Ennis, Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for providing the core content as well as the review and editing of drafts. Thanks are also extended to Susan J. Hall at the University of Delaware, and R. Scott Kretchmar at The Pennsylvania State University, for their review and insights as we strive to make the tutorials relevant and inclusive across the kinesiology disciplines.