One of the things your proposal needs to demonstrate is that your project is feasible. Start by specifying the physical or digital context of your research. For example, is it in a classroom, lab, health, social care setting or in the field? Will it be conducted online, offline, or both?
Then, outline your research methodology, keeping in mind that your research questions will influence the methodology you choose. You will want to demonstrate that your methodology is systematic and – for certain studies - can be replicated by other researchers in similar contexts.
Your methodology is the approach you will take to guide your research process and explain why you use particular methods. There are several approaches to choose from and you'll need to decide based on:
(a) Your study’s aims and objectives.
(b) Your personal perspective (including your assumptions, beliefs, values, and experiences related to the topic).
(c) The theoretical or philosophical theories you hold. For example, a positivist approach holds that knowledge is real and objective, obtainable through measurements and statistics; an interpretivist approach holds that knowledge is dependent on beliefs, values, and lived experiences; and a pragmatist approach holds that knowledge is acquired through action and doing.
Methodological approaches can be quantitative (numerical), qualitative (non-numerical), or mixed methods.
Quantitative methodologies have two main strategies: experimental and non-experimental.
- The experimental strategy is used when you aim to measure the effects of a change, like comparing learning outcomes of students taught through a standard classroom book versus simulations. In this strategy, participants are randomly assigned to a control or experimental group (for example, the classroom book or the simulation group).
- The non-experimental strategy is used when you don't aim to change a situation, but still measure outcomes in different populations and situations.
- Descriptive or single-variable research: This type answers interesting and important questions involving one variable. For example, how many primary school students own mobile devices.
- Correlational research: This type looks at the relationship between two things, by measuring two continuous variables. Researchers don't control any other factors that might be affecting the relationship. For example, assessing whether there is a relationship between students’ wellbeing and academic performance.
- Quasi-experimental research: In this type, the researcher changes an independent variable they think can make a difference but does not randomly assign participants to groups. For example, a researcher might compare the academic performance of students in a school that implements a wellbeing program with the academic performance of students in a school that does not.
Qualitative methodologies have several strategies, far too many to list them all here, they may involve:
- Case study, where the focus is on a specific case like the experiences of healthcare professionals in a particular organization;
- Ethnographic studies, where the focus is on describing and interpreting the culture and social structure of a group;
- Grounded theory studies, where the aim is to develop a theory based on the study itself;
- Narrative research, where the focus is on identifying or telling stories;
- Phenomenological research, where the focus is on understanding individuals' perspectives and the world around them;
- Action research, a practitioner-based approach focused on contributing to the development of a profession.
Methodologies using mixed methods combine resources and approaches to answer different research questions or different aspects of the same question. They aim at producing more in-depth findings. For example, you can explore what the levels of online engagement are of students who scored below 50% in exams using quantitative methods. You can then understand why they had these levels of online engagement using qualitative methods. We will explore the different data collection methods further down.
These are some of the well-established methodologies, but there are many others that have been developed to address specific research topics, such as visual methodologies, impact evaluations, and secondary data research.
This OU-produced open access handbook on Research Methods can help you get more insights into the different layers of research design.
Postgraduate researcher talks about research questions and methodology
Data collection techniques
There are many methods available for you to collect your data. Robson (2011, pp. 232-233) outlines the following rule of thumb for selecting which method is more suitable for you when collecting data from participants:
- Use direct observation to find out what people do in public
- Use interview or questionnaires to find out what they do in private
- Use interviews, questionnaire or attitude scales to investigate/ explore what they think, feel and believe
- Use standardised tests to determine their abilities or personality
These are some well-known data collection techniques. However, you’ve probably heard about other techniques, such as the collection of texts, documents, images and artefacts. Further, there are also some more recent approaches to data collection, such as internet-based methods, social media research, as well as data analytic platforms.
Once you establish which data collection methods you’ll use, you need to specify how your data will be analysed. Make sure you don’t give the impression in your proposal that you’ll gather the data and think about it later!
There are different methods for analysing quantitative and qualitative data.
For quantitative data, methods include frequency distributions and graphical displays, descriptive statistics, exploring relationships between two or more variables, and analysing differences between variables.
For qualitative data, methods include thematic analysis,
discourse analysis, document analysis, and multimodal analysis.
- Thematic analysis focuses on identifying and interpreting patterns of meaning in the dataset.
- Discourse analysis focuses on the communication between individuals and their contextual meanings.
- Document analysis evaluates electronic or physical documents to understand their meaning.
- Multimodal analysis analyses data that combines multiple forms, such as a video with moving images, audio, and text.
Mixed methods can combine different data collection and analysis methods in many ways. For example, interviews can explain or triangulate findings from data analytics. Cresswell (2002) explains the different sequences with mixed method approaches. For example, the emphasis can be equal between qualitative and quantitative research, or tip in the direction of either quantitative or qualitative.
Context, timeline and limitations
As mentioned earlier, you need to have an idea about what you plan to do. You need to clarify the details of your research plan, including participants, location and settings. In your proposal, mention your current ideas about the scale of your research (e.g., sample size), access requirements (e.g., permission or gatekeepers), and the location/space of your study.
A good idea would be to produce a timeline showing what happens when. Your timeline can be textual (bullets with date intervals) or visual (an excel sheet). You can sort tasks in chronological order or in larger categories.
Finally, be transparent about any limitations that may impact the research, such as access to equipment, number of participants, time constraints, and timing issues. Acknowledging the known limitations is a strength in a proposal because it shows that you obtain a critical and overall appraisal of possible impacts on your study.
Creswell, J.W. (2002) Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (Vol. 7). Prentice Hall Upper Saddle River: NJ.
Robson. C. (2011) Real world research. Wiley: Cornwall.
Farrow, R., Iniesto, F., Weller, M. & Pitt., R. (2020) The GO-GN Research Methods Handbook. Open Education Research Hub: The Open University,
UK. CC-BY 4.0. http://go-gn.net/gogn_outputs/research-methods-handbook/
The next article in this series will help you consider ethical issues in your research and in your proposal. Before you move to the next article, the following links will give you some more information about research perspectives, which may be helpful as you shape your ideas.
- Understanding different research perspectives
- Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth
- Adolescent Participation in Research: Innovation, rationale and next steps
- Understanding research with children and young people
- Digital humanities: humanities research in the digital age
- Engaging with educational research