Getting started on a research project….

I was just asked about how I approach research or research projects so I thought I would share some of my answer on the blog in case it is helpful for others. Here is an outline of what I do:

The first step is to look at what interests me for a topic.

  1. Do I have a question that needs to be answered for something I am doing at work? For ex. I explored how middle age and older women learn technology because I was constantly training women of that age in libraries how to use computers, etc. and I wanted to know how best to do that, what would be most meaningful from their point of view.
  2. I explore things that interest me. I once did a paper for an ethics class on ” just war theory” because it was at the time when the US had gone to war for the first time in Iraq and I was personally grappling with when is it or is it not ok to go to war. Learning about “just war theory” gave me insights about the topic.
  3. I look at other projects I have done that may have generated additional questions after I did the study. For example: Dr. Valerie Bell and I did a study on how student teachers use computers and technology in the classroom. As a result of our findings we started to ask about how the student teacher supervisor may or may not be an influence in the student teacher’s use of technology and whether, if the supervisor was not a strong technology advocate, they became influenced by a student teacher who used technology so we did a second study on that.
  4. Look at trends in your profession or new initiatives at work for something you want to explore. An example of this is the current project I am working on with Dr. Ron Musoleno on implementing kindles and ipads in the college classroom.
  5. If I have read something in a professional article or heard a presentation and it brings up important questions in my mind I explore that.

Having formulated a question I want to answer or decided on a topic I usually do a concept map of what I know about the topic. You can do this on paper or use Inspiration software ( or Webspiration (

or other mindmapping software. This can then be turned into an outline of what you want to cover. I will come back to this as I work on the project and add to the concept map as I gain new insights. I like concept maps better than outlines as they allow you to think more broadly not requiring a linear mindset.

Once I have chosen the topic and have some basic concepts in the mindmap I do a first swipe at a literature review, using library databases, books and authoritative web sites ( for example education sites like ISTE or ASCD) to gain background on the topic and begin to come up with a basic structure for the project. I also talk to colleagues or others to get their ideas about the topic.

I tend to do qualitative research so it I devise the study developing questions for interviews or questionnaires, etc. based on my lit review and knowledge of the topic. I tend to use grounded theory, bringing the theory out of the data. I code the data and then use thematic content analysis to get at themes in the data and then bring theory out of the data (grounded theory). Two of the qualitative theories I like to work with for the analysis are symbolic interactionism and portraiture. If you are interested in qualitative research I would recommend checking out:

Denzin, Norman K. 2008. Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials. Sage Publications.

Marshall, Catherine. 2011. Designing qualitative research. Sage Publications.

Patton, Michael Quinn. 2002. Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Sage

You may also want to look up the work of Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba..

There are a number of others who are good on this topic but these are some good starters.

I tend not to use software to analyze my data but I am experimenting with Dragonspeak software ( to see how it works with transcribing tapes of interviews. I do try to digitally audio tape all interviews.

When I have the analysis complete I write the article or create a presentation. I always go back and check the lit review as I am working on the paper as there are often new materials published on the topic or pieces of information or findings I didn’t know about when I did the first lit review. It is sometimes good to present the material before you write an article so you can get feedback from others. If you are doing something you are going to submit to a journal you should always have someone else read it before you send it out.

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