The Study Dude – How to Turn Your Topic into a Research Problem

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to transform a paper topic into a viable research problem.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

The book The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams gives rise to today’s Study Dude article. The book serves as a go-to source for anyone wanting to hone the art of research drafting, especially for crafting a thesis or journal publication.

The Planning Stages of Your Paper
The more I learn about the benefits of journaling, the more inclined I am to dump ideas onto a piece of paper or a Word document, elaborating on anything that comes to mind. The process of idea dumping can lead to insights, can help structure your essays, can provide essay fodder that you would not have otherwise considered. The benefits of journaling ideas extend beyond merely setting the stage for your next paper.

I also enjoy creating outlines and placing research ideas on cue cards. Whether the research goes into a computer-generated outline or on a cue card?or both?doesn’t matter as much as getting the ideas documented. Once I document the ideas, I either cut and paste Word outline entries or sort cue cards until the paper structure magically materializes.

Historically, I focused on outlines or cue cards, but never began journaling ideas or doing an initial free flow of writing. Now, engaging in a free flow writing or journaling project not only enables idea creation and confidence to flow, but also relaxes me. With free flow writing, you can really get into a mindset for idea generation. Not only that, you can also begin the synthesis process well before you outline. The free flow writing or journaling helps you to zero in on what matters, making your research a more manageable, more thoughtful task.

By all means plan your research with as many resources available to you, especially the journaling one.

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams provide lucid advice on how to get your research plan rolling:
– Adjust your topic scope so that you can fit the research and writing into your allotted time frame. Opt for a narrower topic when you have limited time to research.
– Ask yourself an abundance of questions concerning your topic until you find one or two research questions that pique your interest.
– Evaluate what kinds of evidence you’ll need to address your question. This evaluation will help focus your research efforts.
– Determine whether you will need primary data (quantitative data, interviews or quotations from actual people, observations) or whether secondary data (data from a journal article) or tertiary data (data from an encyclopaedia or other source that quotes from secondary data). Generally, theses require primary data while undergraduate papers often only require secondary or tertiary data.
– don’t begin writing on your chosen topic until you can confirm that you have enough data to fulfill the word quota of your assignment.
– Your data can include numbers, quotes, facts, or any other type of evidence.
– You may even modify your topic the more research you get, but it is wise to settle on an argument once you have enough data to begin supporting your view.
– Take copious notes. Write lots of reflections. Design outlines. Write out why you disagree with some of your sources. Make summaries of different sources. Jot down your whims and thoughts concerning the data you find. Journal your ideas and questions. All of these exercise, while seemingly innocuous, contribute to the overall quality of your finished work.

Let Your Topic Transform into a Research Question
My thesis topic focused on Suncor’s environmental positioning, but, truth be told, I didn’t have a well-thought out research question. I posed a number of unstructured questions that needed, well, structure. I needed to create questions that would guide my research with clarity and soundness. I needed to create questions containing targeted keywords to ease the library search process. I needed to create questions that would narrow my search so that the broadness of the topic would not overwhelm me.

On many of my papers, although I received A grades for the majority of them, I resorted to fact dumps where I would accumulate facts and structure them according to topics. From there, I would connect the strings of facts together in a type of argument, although loosely structured. My papers would have been stronger had I formulated a tight research question and research problem at the get-go.

Finding a viable research question can make a world of difference for a student’s paper or thesis. A structured research question can make your paper stand out in the crowd of student submissions, and who doesn’t want to make the grade with writing assignments? Before drafting your next paper, ensure that your research question solidifies your focus with the following advice from the book The Craft of Research:
– Avoid selecting a topic, accumulating facts, and dumping all the facts under different categories. No-one wants to read a fact dump. Instead, compose some sort of question that solves a cared-about problem.
– If you have a problem or question that only you care about at the outset, it could lead to some ingenious findings, but ultimately, you want that question or problem to be something the reader cares about as well.
– Pick a topic that interests you. This makes for a good starting point. Jot down every topic that interests you. If you are stuck for a topic, go to the Reader’s Guide of Periodical Literature, encyclopaedias, blogs, and Wikipedia for inspiration.
– Pretend you want your topic specific enough that you can become the resident expert on it.
– “A topic is probably too broad if you can state it in four or five words” (p. 39).
– When selecting topic, use complicated nouns (nominalizations) that were once verbs, such as “description” for “describe” and “development” for “developed.”
– Turn your topic into a claim by changing the nouns that were once verbs (the nominalizations) back into verbs. For example, the topic “The contribution of the military in the DC-3 development over the early years of commercial aviation” becomes the claim, “in the early years of commercial aviation, the military contributed to the way the DC-3 developed.”
– Turn your claim into a question by emphasizing “how” and “why” questions.
– Ask questions about the composition or parts of something and how they fit together. Ask questions about categories your topic fits into and how the categories are similar or dissimilar to one another. Ask questions that tend to answer “what if” speculations. Ask questions that build on questions asked in other articles. Ask questions that pose disagreement with other sources.
– don’t ask questions that just result in a fact dump (for instance, answering when did World War II begin and who started it). If you can look up a fact and thereby answer your question, then you are on the wrong track. don’t ask simple factual or a “who cares?” question like what was Hitler’s dog’s name.

Let Your Research Question Transform into a Research Problem
When you write about a research problem, you surely don’t want to replicate other researcher’s findings. Whenever you bypass replicating other people’s research problems, perhaps you have lucked out on a proverbial “gap.”

I know what a gap in a tooth is (as I had one that my dentist sealed over with some white enamel), but what is a gap in the research? Is it some heinous omission that we instantly pick up on or is a gap something more subtle, more insidious? Most importantly, how do you find a gap in the literature? Do you cross-examine an article, read it backwards and then forwards until you solve the puzzle (some authors do recommend you read your writing backwards to zero in on spelling and grammar errors). These are questions that remain unanswered for me today, but each book I read brings me closer to figuring out what exactly a gap is.

Maybe simply creating something unique means you’ve filled the gap. But how unique does it need to be? Can you just address some minor point already addressed in other research, but in a new way? Maybe a gap represents something not addressed before, something you add to and extend, something you alter, even something you discredit, all of which potentially culminates into your very own fabrication.

Filling the gap remains a big part of the conundrum of crafting your research problem. Familiarize yourself with what it means to create a research problem–and what it means to fill a gap with a research problem–with the advice of Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams:
– If you aren’t armed with a research problem at the outset, don’t be concerned. Try to find a research problem as soon as possible.
– Pose your question and ask teachers and friends why they would or wouldn’t find your research question compelling.
– Look at last few pages of a research article to determine whether they suggest there is a gap in the literature, or an unanswered question, that you can address in the form of a research problem.
– Think of ways you can extend an argument presented in a paper, thereby filling the gap.
– Examine your articles for anything you disagree with, contradictions, loose ends–gaps–that you can work on as part of a research problem.
– Examine your articles for points in which the authors bicker with one another’s point of view. Their contentions may expose a gap for you to go on.
– Formulate a research problem in the following format: “I am studying/working on____ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how_____ in order to help my reader understand_____”(p. 47). The first part is the claim. The part that follows immediately after “because” provides, of course, the reason. The final part that follows “in order to help my reader understand” answers the so what question.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Booth, Wayne C., Colomb, Gregory G., & Williams, Joseph M. The Craft of Research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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