Small Studies

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I’ve taken text from various sources including:

Kumar, R.(2011) Research Methodology. London, Sage.
Gass, S. and Mackay, J. (2005) Second Language Research. London, Earlbowm.
Larsen-Freeman, D. and Long, M. (1992) An Introduction to SLA Research. London: Longman

1. Formulate a Research Problem

The most important step of them all. The problem must be as specific and clear as possible, because all the subsequent work depends on it. The main function of formulating a research problem is to decide exactly what you want to find out about.

Every research study has two aspects. First, the problem: the phenomenon you want to study. Second the ‘study population’ from whom the information is collected.

A research problem should be

* Interesting Don’t select a topic which does really interest you.
* Manageable. Narrow the topic down to something manageable, specific and clear. It is extremely important to select a topic that you can manage within the time and with the resources at your disposal.
* Clearly defined. Whatever constructs you use, make sure you are clear about their indicators and their measurement.

2. Decide on the following aspects of the study:

* Who will constitute the study population?
* Will a sample or the whole population be selected?
* If a sample is selected, how will it be contacted?
* How will consent be sought?
* What method of data collection will be used and why?
* In the case of a questionnaire, where will the responses be returned?
* In the case of interviews, where will they be conducted?
* How will ethical issues be taken care of?

3. Decide on your research tools:

observations, interviews, and questionnaires, for example. Doing a small pilot study is advised.

4. Select a sample.

You need to find a sample which uses the fewest units to give a good relationship between the values obtained from your sample and those prevalent in the study population. If done well, a relatively small number of units can give a fairly true reflection of the sampling population that is being studied. There are various sampling designs and we will look at them later. Depending on the sample, you can apply different types of statistical tests to the data, and make different generalisations from the sample about the study population.

5. Write a research proposal.

Give your tutor an overall plan, called a research proposal, which explains the research problem and how you are planning to investigate. Most important: frame 2 or 3 research questions. Include:

* your research questions;
* any hypotheses that might be tested;
* the setting for your study;
* the research instrument(s) you are planning to use;
* information on sample size and sampling design;
* information on data processing procedures;
* an outline of the proposed chapters for the report;
* the study’s problems and limitations;
* the proposed time-frame

6. Do the Study.

This means creating the tools – questionnaires, interview forms, observation templates, etc., – and then carrying out the study. More later.

7. Report the Results of Findings.

There are two broad categories of reports: quantitative and qualitative. The distinction is more academic than real as in most studies you need to combine quantitative and qualitative skills. If your study is purely descriptive, you can write your report on the basis of your field notes, manually analyse the contents of your notes (content analysis), or use a computer program such as NUD*IST N6, NVivio or Ethnograph for this purpose. If you want quantitative analysis, it is also necessary to decide upon the type of analysis required (i.e. frequency distribution, cross-tabulations or other statistical procedures, such as regression analysis, factor analysis and analysis of variance) and how it should be presented. You will also need to identify the variables to be subjected to these statistical procedures. The software SPSS is the best for quantitative data.

8. Discuss the findings.

This is probably the most important part of the lot. In some cases a certain amount of commentary is included in the report on findings, but the discussion is the crunch point.

We will look at each of these steps in more detail below.

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Formulating a Research Problem

The way you formulate your research problem is crucial: everything follows from it. the type of study design that can be used; the type of sampling strategy that can be employed; the research instrument that can be used or developed; and the type of analysis that can be undertaken.

Suppose your broad area of interest is motivation, and you want to look at motivation among young learners in Germany.

* If your focus is to find out the types of motivation they have (very crudely, let’s just deal with instrumental or integrative), then your study will dominantly be descriptive, and could be qualitative or quantitative.

* But if you want to find out if a certain attribute of the students affects motivation (their social class, or their IQ, or where they live for example), then you’re looking for a correlation and the study will probably be quantitative. The methodology used will be different than the one used in the case of a descriptive study.

* If your aim is to find out the effect of high or low motivation on progress, or the effect of a teacher or institution or cultural norm on motivation, the study will again be classified as correlational and the methodology could be either quantitative or qualitative or a mix.

* If your aim is like Dörnyei’s, that is to explain SLA in terms of suggesting that if you see your future self as a proficient L2 speaker, then you want to incorporate L2 related qualities in your own self image, then you’re into theory construction and explanation.

Thus, as Kumar (2010) says, “The formulation of a problem is like the ‘input’ to a study, and the ‘output’ – the quality of the contents of the research report and the validity of the associations or causation established – is entirely dependent upon it. Hence the famous saying about computers, ‘garbage in, garbage out’, is equally applicable to a research problem”.

And here we should pause to look at the objective of the study. A study can be classified as descriptive, correlational, or explanatory.

A descriptive study describes a situation, problem, or phenomenon or describes attitudes towards an issue. For example, it describes the types of student who enroll in a course, the methodology used by an institution, the L2 needs of a community. The main purpose of such studies is to describe what is prevalent with respect to the issue/problem under study.

A correlational study attempts to establish the existence of a relationship between two or more aspects of a situation. What is the impact of asking student to keep learner diaries on vocabulary acquisition? Do those whose parents are aspirational learn faster or better? What is the relationship between the L1 and the L2? We should note that correlations are not necessarily evidence of cause. We know that education and income are positively correlated, but we do not know if one caused the other. It might be that having more education causes a person to earn a higher income. It might be that having a higher income allows a person to go to school more. It might also be some third variable. A correlation tells us that the two variables are related, but we cannot say anything about whether one caused the other. This method does not allow us to come to any conclusions about cause and effect.

Explanatory research is the most challenging of all and attempts to explain why there is a relationship between two aspects of a situation or phenomenon. This type of research attempts to establish a theory which explains, for example, why people over a certain age never lose their foreign accent, or why morphemes are acquired in a predictable order.

Something should be said about variables here. Two are most important:

1. Independent variables, which are said to be the cause responsible for bringing about change in a phenomenon
2. Dependent variables, which are the consequences of the independent variable.

To which we must add extraneous variables.

To explain these variables, we can take the case of smoking and its relationship with cancer. We assume that smoking is a cause of cancer. Studies have shown that there are many factors affecting this relationship, such as the number of cigarettes or the amount of tobacco smoked every day; the duration of smoking; the age of the smoker; dietary habits; and the amount of exercise undertaken by the individual. All of these factors may affect the extent to which smoking might cause cancer. These variables may either increase or decrease the magnitude of the relationship. In the above example the extent of smoking is the independent variable, cancer is the dependent variable and all the variables that might affect this relationship, either positively or negatively, are extraneous variables.

If we were looking at motivation and its relationship to L2 proficiency, we assume that high motivation is a cause of high levels of proficiency, and that other factors such as occupation, age, social class and country of origin, for example, affect the extent to which motivation leads to proficiency. Here motivation is the independent variable, proficiency is the dependent variable, etc.

So, how to formulate a research problem?

First identify a subject area of interest to you. But really, one that interests you A LOT, and might even be useful to you after you graduate. Look back at what you did in previous parts of the MA. What did you like most? What were you best at? Play to your strengths.

Second, focus. Questions need to be sufficiently narrow and constrained. As Mackey and Gass says “ Broad questions can be difficult if not impossible to address without breaking them down into smaller answerable questions. For example, a general research question such as “What is the effect of the native language on the learning of a second or foreign language?” cannot be answered as formulated. This is because it represents a research area, but not a specific research question. One way to begin to reduce the general question would be to consider the learning of a language that has a linguistic category not present in the native language. Again, this is somewhat broad, so the researcher might want to further reduce this to a specific question: “How do learners of a nontonal language learn to make lexical distinctions using tone?” This is a reasonable starting point for the investigation of this question. The researcher could then examine the interlanguages of native speakers of English learning Chinese.”

So focus on a small area. Kumar suggests starting with a process of elimination. Not this, not that. Finally, you should find something that is manageable considering the time available to you, your level of expertise and other resources needed to undertake the study. Once you’ve got your subarea, ask yourself, ‘What is it that I want to find out about in this subarea?’ Then, formulate the research questions. They are most likely to be questions about description or correlation.

I, unlike many (including Mackey and Gass), am a big fan of replication studies. I strongly recommend MA students doing a study to find a previous study in an area which interests them, and replicate it. Mackey and Gass wax on for pages about how difficult it is to do a replication study, and in many ways, I suppose they’re right. Have a look at what they say in Chapter 2 of their book. But, in my opinion, replication studies, even if they’re not anywhere near “real” replication studies give you a ready-made framework, suggest the research questions (which you can adapt) and the research methods (which you can also adapt). Whatever happens, if your results support the original study or they completely contradict them, or somewhere in between, you’ve learned something, and so has the audience.

If you’re still stuck for a good research question, then look at previous MA dissertations and see what what they did.

You might want to add hypotheses to your research questions. The hypotheses express what the researcher expects the results of the investigation to be, often based on observations or on what the literature suggests the answers might be. So if one of your research questions are:

RQ1: Does extensive reading of popular business journals like the Economist improve vocabulary acquisition among adult students of Business English Courses in China?

Then the hypothesis would be yes and the null hypothesis would be no.

Here are a few examples of research questions, taken from MA dissertations of students at Leicester University:

First, a student interested in “The Native Speaker Fallacy: An investigation into the experiences and perceptions of native-speaker and non-native-speaker teachers in Vancouver, Canada”.

1) What is a native speaker in today’s world?
2) What are the strengths of NS and NNS teachers?
3) To what extent does the NS Fallacy still exist?
4) How does the linguistic background of the teacher affect his/her teaching experience?

Second, a student interested in “Recasts in the EFL Classroom: A Survey on the Perceptions and Uses of Recasts by Teachers and Learners at XXX English Schools in Taiwan”

1. What knowledge of recasts do XXX teachers have, and what types of recasts do they use and witness being used by learners in their classrooms?
2. What are the views of XXX teachers and teacher trainers regarding the role recasts play in SLA, and do they think recasts help?
3. What do XXX students think about recasts, and do they find them helpful?

Third, a student whose thesis was on Teachers: metalanguage and metalinguistic knowledge

1. How does teacher ‘enthusiasm for metalanguage’ correlate with metalinguistic knowledge?
2. What is the relationship between teachers’ experience, status as NSTs or NNSTs, ‘enthusiasm for metalanguage’ and metalinguistic knowledge?

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Next: Research tools.

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