Research, Step 3: The Procedure
This five-part series details individual steps in effective research—useful in answering complicated questions, pinpointing the best solution to a problem, or creating a detailed analysis of an issue. When assigning a research project, explain all the steps to your students.
The main research procedure is more step-by-step than defining the problem or formulating the prediction. You may want to use the sections below to prepare a checklist your students can use in data gathering.
Strictly speaking, defining the central question and creating the initial hypothesis (which were covered in the last two posts) are part of the full research procedure, as are analyzing the data and formulating the conclusion (which will be the respective topics of the next two posts). Here, however, we will consider only the direct research.
- Review Existing Literature
For a student, this means searching websites and book/periodical catalogs by topic, to locate published material pertaining to the research’s central question. (Most professional researchers also have access to unpublished experimental results filed at their places of employment.) The material is then examined with special attention to places where it reinforces, contradicts, or opens new perspectives on the original hypothesis. A good researcher keeps detailed records of all sources so they can be located again (by the researcher or anyone else) if necessary.
Tell your students: Be sure to collect information from a variety of sources, so you can get multiple perspectives on your question and verify basic facts (even professionals get the facts wrong sometimes). If any of your sources quote other sources not already on your list, look up those sources to verify wording and context.
Not all research projects include an “experimental” section: some, especially school projects, stop with organization and analysis of others’ published work. Still, it’s good to include hands-on learning if at all possible.
Tell your students: If a scientific experiment is described in the literature, try a similar one yourself (within bounds of economy and safety, of course!). If existing literature is based on tests or interviews of human subjects, interview a few acquaintances who have had similar experiences. And if you disagree with any source, it’s particularly important to have a practical way of testing its claims.
- Test Again
Good scientists run completed experiments over, several times. When working with human subjects, they gather data from hundreds of people with a variety of demographic backgrounds. The reason is simple: chance variations, a biased eye, or a glitch in the equipment can happen under the best conditions. By gathering extra data under repeated or varying circumstances, researchers much improve the odds of final conclusions being accurate.
Tell your students: Follow the scientists’ example and never take the first results of an experiment as conclusive—especially if they support your initial hypothesis. If your research is “from the books,” and it all seems to support the same conclusion, look for three additional sources that specifically assert contrary views.
Once the data is as thorough and objective as it can be, it’s time to organize and analyze it.