Setting your topic

Problem definition is often considered the most important part of the research process. If we do not look for the reasons behind the problems our research may be misdirected and not solve the real problem. It may only provide temporary relief of the symptoms surrounding the problem – just like your headache tablet.Proper problem definition ensures that you are asking the right questions. Asking irrelevant questions will provide meaningless information.The initial problem that you identify in a research project is likely to be a symptom of the problem rather than the actual problem. The symptoms alert us to the fact that the problem exists. As researchers we need to investigate further to determine what the problem actually is.

How do I start defining my research problem/topic?

1.    Ask questions about what you know about the topic and what you don’t know
Example: I want to find out why pedestrian crossings are painted black and white?

What do I know: they are black and white. The road is black and the paint is white.
What I don’t know: Why white paint? Why not blue or pink or yellow? When did they start being painted in white? Were they always white? (In Australia, they used to be yellow – true story)

2.    Define the problem further from your questions
What is the benefit of pedestrian crossings being black and white? Is it the most effective combination of colours?

3.    Locate some sources of data (literature, theory, other research) about your topic
JOE MORAN (2006). CROSSING THE ROAD IN BRITAIN, 1931–1976. The Historical Journal, 49 , pp 477-496

Moran (2006) discusses the history of pedestrian crossings in the UK, with a focus on why they have evolved into the form, colour and usage we have today.

You may need to do further research on your topic before you even start to get a final version of your topic.  This process is called exploratory research

To define the problem correctly, you may need to conduct some exploratory research.  This is research that helps you to discover the problem and what is involved in that problem.

Some activities that might be considered exploratory research include;
* Experience survey  – discussion with decision makers and interviews with industry experts
* Case study – examining what has happened in similar situations
* Secondary data analysis – including historical data, government reports

The purpose of exploratory research is to gain an understanding of the major components of the problem in order to define the problem correctly.

Exploratory research will help you:
* Identify (and eliminate) symptoms
* identify the underlying problems
* develop research questions.

This will allow you to break the research problem into its key components; i.e. the key types of information that needs to be gathered. These key components can then be refined into research questions, which need to be answered in order to find a solution/s to the problem.

A properly formulated research question will make the rest of the process flow more easily, because the objectives of the research project will be clear and you will understand exactly what information you need from your research.  A question always needs an answer.

Finally, a good little test about your research problem is whether it is;

Feasible – can you do it in the time allowed, do you have the resources and skills to complete the research
Interesting – Is it interesting enough to keep you going for the year? Is it interesting for anyone to else to read and use?
Novel – Is it unique and new? Has it been done before?
Ethical – Are you dealing with children? Privacy? Is your research ethical in that it has been collected without breaking laws and ensuring that the way you have collected the information complies with ethical principles
Relevant -Does the research meaning something? Can it improve practice? Can other people use your research to investigate further?

Check out this little youtube video on research topics…

One thought on “Setting your topic

  1. Peter, Thank you for this Blog. I am reading and hearing the repeated words “when choosing a project, ensure that it is “relevant” to your practice and “manageable” within the time constraints. I have a tendency to escalate things rather than hone in on a particular aspect of my practice, but by watching the videos and listening to what the ladies had to say has really helped. Jo’s words particularly stood out when she mentioned that it is a good idea to choose a subject/question/problem that you deal with every day, that you’re faced with every day and something that you find yourself questioning or of interest to you, that niggles at you constantly and that you want to get to the bottom of. This could have potentially helped me to choose my project topic. Thank you. Best Wishes, Jo

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