Beginning the Proposal Process
As with writing a regular academic paper, research proposals are generally organized the same way throughout most social science disciplines. Proposals vary between ten and twenty-five pages in length. However, before you begin, read the assignment carefully and, if anything seems unclear, ask your professor whether there are any specific requirements for organizing and writing the proposal.
A good place to begin is to ask yourself a series of questions:
- What do I want to study?
- Why is the topic important?
- How is it significant within the subject areas covered in my class?
- What problems will it help solve?
- How does it build upon [and hopefully go beyond] research already conducted on the topic?
- What exactly should I plan to do, and can I get it done in the time available?
In general, a compelling research proposal should document your knowledge of the topic and demonstrate your enthusiasm for conducting the study. Approach it with the intention of leaving your readers feeling like--"Wow, that's an exciting idea and I can’t wait to see how it turns out!"
In general your proposal should include the following sections:
In the real world of higher education, a research proposal is most often written by scholars seeking grant funding for a research project or it's the first step in getting approval to write a doctoral dissertation. Even if this is just a course assignment, treat your introduction as the initial pitch of an idea or a thorough examination of the significance of a research problem. After reading the introduction, your readers should not only have an understanding of what you want to do, but they should also be able to gain a sense of your passion for the topic and be excited about the study's possible outcomes. Note that most proposals do not include an abstract [summary] before the introduction.
Think about your introduction as a narrative written in one to three paragraphs that succinctly answers the following four questions:
- What is the central research problem?
- What is the topic of study related to that problem?
- What methods should be used to analyze the research problem?
- Why is this important research, what is its significance, and why should someone reading the proposal care about the outcomes of the proposed study?
II. Background and Significance
This section can be melded into your introduction or you can create a separate section to help with the organization and narrative flow of your proposal. This is where you explain the context of your proposal and describe in detail why it's important. Approach writing this section with the thought that you can’t assume your readers will know as much about the research problem as you do. Note that this section is not an essay going over everything you have learned about the topic; instead, you must choose what is relevant to help explain the goals for your study.
To that end, while there are no hard and fast rules, you should attempt to address some or all of the following key points:
- State the research problem and give a more detailed explanation about the purpose of the study than what you stated in the introduction. This is particularly important if the problem is complex or multifaceted.
- Present the rationale of your proposed study and clearly indicate why it is worth doing. Answer the "So What? question [i.e., why should anyone care].
- Describe the major issues or problems to be addressed by your research. Be sure to note how your proposed study builds on previous assumptions about the research problem.
- Explain how you plan to go about conducting your research. Clearly identify the key sources you intend to use and explain how they will contribute to your analysis of the topic.
- Set the boundaries of your proposed research in order to provide a clear focus. Where appropriate, state not only what you will study, but what is excluded from the study.
- If necessary, provide definitions of key concepts or terms.
III. Literature Review
Connected to the background and significance of your study is a section of your proposal devoted to a more deliberate review and synthesis of prior studies related to the research problem under investigation. The purpose here is to place your project within the larger whole of what is currently being explored, while demonstrating to your readers that your work is original and innovative. Think about what questions other researchers have asked, what methods they have used, and what is your understanding of their findings and, where stated, their recommendations. Do not be afraid to challenge the conclusions of prior research. Assess what you believe is missing and state how previous research has failed to adequately examine the issue that your study addresses. For more information on writing literature reviews, GO HERE.
Since a literature review is information dense, it is crucial that this section is intelligently structured to enable a reader to grasp the key arguments underpinning your study in relation to that of other researchers. A good strategy is to break the literature into "conceptual categories" [themes] rather than systematically describing groups of materials one at a time. Note that conceptual categories generally reveal themselves after you have read most of the pertinent literature on your topic so adding new categories is an on-going process of discovery as you read more studies. How do you know you've covered the key conceptual categories underlying the research literature? Generally, you can have confidence that all of the significant conceptual categories have been identified if you start to see repetition in the conclusions or recommendations that are being made.
To help frame your proposal's literature review, here are the "five C’s" of writing a literature review:
- Cite, so as to keep the primary focus on the literature pertinent to your research problem.
- Compare the various arguments, theories, methodologies, and findings expressed in the literature: what do the authors agree on? Who applies similar approaches to analyzing the research problem?
- Contrast the various arguments, themes, methodologies, approaches, and controversies expressed in the literature: what are the major areas of disagreement, controversy, or debate?
- Critique the literature: Which arguments are more persuasive, and why? Which approaches, findings, methodologies seem most reliable, valid, or appropriate, and why? Pay attention to the verbs you use to describe what an author says/does [e.g., asserts, demonstrates, argues, etc.].
- Connect the literature to your own area of research and investigation: how does your own work draw upon, depart from, synthesize, or add a new perspective to what has been said in the literature?
IV. Research Design and Methods
This section must be well-written and logically organized because you are not actually doing the research, yet, your reader has to have confidence that it is worth pursuing. The reader will never have a study outcome from which to evaluate whether your methodological choices were the correct ones. Thus, the objective here is to convince the reader that your overall research design and methods of analysis will correctly address the problem and that the methods will provide the means to effectively interpret the potential results. Your design and methods should be unmistakably tied to the specific aims of your study.
Describe the overall research design by building upon and drawing examples from your review of the literature. Consider not only methods that other researchers have used but methods of data gathering that have not been used but perhaps could be. Be specific about the methodological approaches you plan to undertake to obtain information, the techniques you would use to analyze the data, and the tests of external validity to which you commit yourself [i.e., the trustworthiness by which you can generalize from your study to other people, places, events, and/or periods of time].
When describing the methods you will use, be sure to cover the following:
- Specify the research operations you will undertake and the way you will interpret the results of these operations in relation to the research problem. Don't just describe what you intend to achieve from applying the methods you choose, but state how you will spend your time while applying these methods [e.g., coding text from interviews to find statements about the need to change school curriculum; running a regression to determine if there is a relationship between campaign advertising on social media sites and election outcomes in Europe].
- Keep in mind that a methodology is not just a list of tasks; it is an argument as to why these tasks add up to the best way to investigate the research problem. This is an important point because the mere listing of tasks to be performed does not demonstrate that, collectively, they effectively address the research problem. Be sure you explain this.
- Anticipate and acknowledge any potential barriers and pitfalls in carrying out your research design and explain how you plan to address them. No method is perfect so you need to describe where you believe challenges may exist in obtaining data or accessing information. It's always better to acknowledge this than to have it brought up by your reader.
V. Preliminary Suppositions and Implications
Just because you don't have to actually conduct the study and analyze the results, it doesn't mean you can skip talking about the analytical process and potential implications. The purpose of this section is to argue how and in what ways you believe your research will refine, revise, or extend existing knowledge in the subject area under investigation. Depending on the aims and objectives of your study, describe how the anticipated results will impact future scholarly research, theory, practice, forms of interventions, or policymaking. Note that such discussions may have either substantive [a potential new policy], theoretical [a potential new understanding], or methodological [a potential new way of analyzing] significance.
When thinking about the potential implications of your study, ask the following questions:
- What might the results mean in regards to the theoretical framework that underpins the study?
- What suggestions for subsequent research could arise from the potential outcomes of the study?
- What will the results mean to practitioners in the natural settings of their workplace?
- Will the results influence programs, methods, and/or forms of intervention?
- How might the results contribute to the solution of social, economic, or other types of problems?
- Will the results influence policy decisions?
- In what way do individuals or groups benefit should your study be pursued?
- What will be improved or changed as a result of the proposed research?
- How will the results of the study be implemented, and what innovations will come about?
NOTE: This section should not delve into idle speculation, opinion, or be formulated on the basis of unclear evidence. The purpose is to reflect upon gaps or understudied areas of the current literature and describe how your proposed research contributes to a new understanding of the research problem should the study be implemented as designed.
The conclusion reiterates the importance or significance of your proposal and provides a brief summary of the entire study. This section should be only one or two paragraphs long, emphasizing why the research problem is worth investigating, why your research study is unique, and how it should advance existing knowledge.
Someone reading this section should come away with an understanding of:
- Why the study should be done,
- The specific purpose of the study and the research questions it attempts to answer,
- The decision to why the research design and methods used where chosen over other options,
- The potential implications emerging from your proposed study of the research problem, and
- A sense of how your study fits within the broader scholarship about the research problem.
As with any scholarly research paper, you must cite the sources you used in composing your proposal. In a standard research proposal, this section can take two forms, so consult with your professor about which one is preferred.
- References -- lists only the literature that you actually used or cited in your proposal.
- Bibliography -- lists everything you used or cited in your proposal, with additional citations to any key sources relevant to understanding the research problem.
In either case, this section should testify to the fact that you did enough preparatory work to make sure the project will complement and not duplicate the efforts of other researchers. Start a new page and use the heading "References" or "Bibliography" centered at the top of the page. Cited works should always use a standard format that follows the writing style advised by the discipline of your course [i.e., education=APA; history=Chicago, etc] or that is preferred by your professor. This section normally does not count towards the total page length of your research proposal.
Develop a Research Proposal: Writing the Proposal. Office of Library Information Services. Baltimore County Public Schools; Heath, M. Teresa Pereira and Caroline Tynan. “Crafting a Research Proposal.” The Marketing Review 10 (Summer 2010): 147-168; Jones, Mark. “Writing a Research Proposal.” In MasterClass in Geography Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning. Graham Butt, editor. (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), pp. 113-127; Krathwohl, David R. How to Prepare a Dissertation Proposal: Suggestions for Students in Education and the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005; Procter, Margaret. The Academic Proposal. The Lab Report. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Punch, Keith and Wayne McGowan. "Developing and Writing a Research Proposal." In From Postgraduate to Social Scientist: A Guide to Key Skills. Nigel Gilbert, ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006), 59-81; Sanford, Keith. Information for Students: Writing a Research Proposal. Baylor University; Wong, Paul T. P. How to Write a Research Proposal. International Network on Personal Meaning. Trinity Western University; Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing a Research Proposal. University Library. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In 1912, Pablo Picasso, an avid painter of nature and still life, tore part of a makeshift tablecloth and glued it to his painting, Still Life with Chair Caning, and thus, by adding different items to aid his painting, he began the art of collage making. (Pablo Picasso – Still Life with Chair Canning). A collage is simply a group of objects arranged together to create a complete image of an idea, theme, or memory. For example, David Modler created a collage called “Big Bug” to represent the irony that is the importance of insects to our natural world in comparison to their size. The bug in the image is the smallest feature of the collage yet it is to be viewed as the most important aspect (Modler, David). All these parts of a collage collaborate together to create a unifying theme or message and can be used as a helpful tool in education.
Statement of Purpose
I propose that each student make an artistic collage to be presented to the class that will symbolize the context, audience, setting, structure or any key ideas found in one of the readings this semester. Students who make a collage will be able to drop the lowest quiz grade.
Plan of Action
The students will have one week from the announcement of the project to complete the collage and prepare a presentation for it. Each student must choose one reading that we have done so far or will read in the future, and no two students may choose the same work. Conflict with students wanting to present the same work will be resolved by a first come first serve basis. The students will be given a rubric with the exact requirements of the project and what the purpose of the project is.
I will make the rubric myself and submit it for approval, or we can use the rubric that I have attached.
Benefits of Collage Proposal
- Making a collage would allow the students to think and inspect the readings and ideas visually (Rodrigo, “Collage”), thus giving them another perspective, or possibly clearing up any misconceptions and confusions they had about a work when we were just discussing it in class verbally.
- A collage provides the opportunity for revision of a certain work and would certainly help to clear up any topics in the readings that might come up on the final exam or a future test, via a visual and more creative method.
- If a student received a bad grade on a quiz because they did not understand the reading, the collage would give the student an opportunity to go back to the reading and understand it, or to read ahead and grasp concepts that might be useful to present to the class before the class does the reading. A collage would allow the student to become familiar with the work in a visual way and give them an opportunity to understand the main themes, topics, and ideas of a work, even one we might not have read yet.
Viability of Collage Proposal
Since a collage would be like giving the student an opportunity to go back and review a subject and at the same time would resemble preparation for a presentation, the time and effort required to go back and re-read a work as well as prepare the collage creatively would be sufficient to justify replacing the lowest quiz grade.
Our course mentor said that this project would be a nice addition to the class because, just like any play is better seen than read, the collage will allow students to get the visual aspect behind a work and help them to grasp the ideas better.
Past visuals that we have used in class to describe scenes from our readings such as The Tempest and The Odyssey have greatly helped me to understand some of the ideas of the stories. For example, I always pictured the cyclops as a nasty, vile creature, but after some of the “fuzzy” drawings on the board done by some of my peers, I imagined and understood that he could in fact be a gentle creature that was just angered by Ulysses trespassing and blinding him. I could not have seen that perspective of the story had it not been for some of the more innocent visuals on the board.
Finally, I have discussed with the students in our class about the idea of a collage replacing the lowest quiz grade and the overwhelming majority approved of the idea. Since a collage will substitute for a quiz grade, the assignment will be optional. Just as a quiz is almost always optional based on class initiation of discussion, the collage will also be optional based on similar student effort parameters. The students who do not want to do a collage can choose “door number 2” and take a quiz that would be created by the teachers and/or myself. This quiz can be used to make the total number of assignments for each student in the class even, and may or may not be graded based on the professor's discretion.
The first goal of my collage proposal is to give students a chance to be creative and step outside the boundaries of classroom discussion. They can use their imaginations to find a way to creatively put together a collage that will help the class as well as themselves to better understand the course reading.
A second goal of my proposal is that the time and effort put into making the collage and presenting it in front of the class will equal the worth of dropping the lowest quiz grade. Because this collage requires the creator to examine the context, audience, setting, structure of any one of the readings, it is essentially like a quiz itself, which includes questions on similar topics.
The literary work that a student chooses to create a collage on will determine how much time is necessary to fully complete the project. One week to create a collage should give each student—no matter what reading they choose to do—ample time to create a presentable and educational collage for the class.
In terms of tangible resources, this project is not very demanding. A simple poster or a series of photographs or drawings assembled neatly together by the student will be about as resourcefully demanding as this project gets.
In addition, a few hours of class time will need to be allocated in order to present the collages. If each student takes at least five minutes to present the total time needed for the presentations will be 1 hour and 15 minutes. The presentation day(s) and time(s) can be decided by the class as a whole.
The rest of the resources needed are already available:
- The readings are all published online if a student needs to refer back to them
- Craft supplies are readily available
Skills for Successful Completion
- As a good planner and organizer I made a rubric that is specific enough to give the students a good idea of what they should be doing for the collage. The rubric can be made available upon your request.
- In addition I can also come up with a quiz if there are students who want to opt out of the collage project.
- I can talk to the class and come up with a good presentation time and date for everybody.
- I would volunteer myself to hold an early presentation session a few days before the due date so the others can get an idea of what their collage could look like and why they can benefit from the project.
- I will make myself available to the class if they have any questions about the proposed project.
A collage will allow students to understand visually a reading or topic in a reading that they may have been confused about. The project is a fun and creative way to get students to think about a reading more in depth as well as review for future exams. As a result of the effort and time put into the collages, the students should be allowed to drop their lowest quiz grade in the semester.
Modler, David. Big Bug. Photograph.Kronos Art Gallery. Web. 12 Oct. 2011
"Pablo Picasso - Still Life with Chair Caning (1912)." Lenin Imports. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.
Rodrigo. "Collages." Web 2.0 Toolkit. 11 Mar. 2009. Web. 2 Oct. 2011.