Developing a Research Question
It's absolutely essential to develop a research question that you're interested in or care about in order to focus your research and your paper (unless, of course, your instructor gives you a very specific assignment). For example, researching a broad topic such as "business management" is difficult since there may be hundreds of sources on all aspects of business management. On the other hand, a focused question such as "What are the pros and cons of Japanese management style?" is easier to research and can be covered more fully and in more depth.
How do you develop a usable research question? Choose an appropriate topic or issue for your research, one that actually can be researched (Exercise 1). Then list all of the questions that you'd like answered yourself. Choose the best question, one that is neither too broad nor too narrow. Sometimes the number of sources you find will help you discover whether your research question is too broad, too narrow, or okay?
If you know a lot about the topic, you can develop a research question based on your own knowledge. If you feel you don't know much about the topic, think again. For example, if you're assigned a research topic on an issue confronting the ancient Babylonian family, remember, by virtue of your own family life, you already know a great deal about family issues. Once you determine what you do know, then you're ready to do some general reading in a textbook or encyclopedia in order to develop a usable research question.
It's a good idea to evaluate your research question before completing the research exercise (Exercise 3) and to ask the writing tutor for feedback on your research question. And you also should check your research question with your course tutor.
A topic is what the essay or research paper is about. It provides a focus for the writing. Of course, the major topic can be broken down into its components or smaller pieces (e.g., the major topic of nuclear waste disposal may be broken down into medical, economic, and environmental concerns). But the important thing to remember is that you should stick with just one major topic per essay or research paper in order to have a coherent piece of writing.
An issue is a concept upon which you can take a stand. While "nuclear waste" is a topic, "safe and economic disposal of nuclear waste" is an issue, or a "point of discussion, debate, or dispute" (American Heritage Dictionary).
Choose a Question that is Neither Too Broad or Too Narrow
For example, if you choose juvenile delinquency (a topic that can be researched), you might ask the following questions:
- What is the 1994 rate of juvenile delinquency in the U.S.?
- What can we do to reduce juvenile delinquency in the U.S.?
- Does education play a role in reducing juvenile delinquents' return to crime?
Once you complete your list, review your questions in order to choose a usable one that is neither too broad nor too narrow. In this case, the best research question is "c." Question "a" is too narrow, since it can be answered with a simple statistic. Question "b" is too broad; it implies that the researcher will cover many tactics for reducing juvenile delinquency that could be used throughout the country. Question "c," on the other hand, is focused enough to research in some depth. (Exercise 2)
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Constructing Essay Exams
What happens: Learner
- Hears and reads instructions
- Interprets the question
- Recalls relevant information
- Prepares a response according to the verbal directive,
either mentally or written, either outlined or "mapped",
- Writes response
- Reviews and edits if time permits
Essay tests can evaluate more complex cognitive or thinking skills
assuming that rote memory and recall tasks are assessed more appropriately through objectives tests as true-false and multiple choice questions. These cognitive challenges are reflected in the verbs of the questions themselves, from simple to complex (c.f. lists of verbs in objects...)
- Knowledge: recall, define, arrange, list, label, identify, match, reproduce
- Comprehension: describe, explain, recognize, restate, review, translate, classify; give examples; (re)state in own words
- Application: apply, illustrate, interpret, operate, solve, predict, utilize
- Analysis: analyze, compare, contrast, distinguish, examine, experiment, diagram; outline
- Synthesis: design, develop, formulate, propose, construct, create, reorganize, integrate, model, incorporate, plan
- Evaluation: evaluate, argue, assess, compare, contrast, conclude, defend, judge, support, interpret, justify
(for a complete listing of verbs in these categories, see Essay terms and directives)
- Require students to demonstrate critical thinking
in organizing and producing an answer beyond rote recall and memory
- Empower students to demonstrate their knowledge
within broad limits beyond the restraint of objective tests (true false, multiple choice)
- Allows learners to demonstrate originality and creativity
- Reduces preparation time in developing,
as well as distributing, a test, especially for small number of students
- Presents more possibilities for diagnosis
- Grading is often subjective and not consistent, colored by
preconceptions of student, prior performance, time of day, neatness and handwriting, spelling and grammar, and where the actual test falls in
- Can be a limited sampling of content
- Good writing requires time to think,
organize, write and revise
- Time consuming to correct
- Advantageous for students with good writing and verbal skills
as opposed to those who have alternative learning styles (visual and kinesthetic)
- Essay questions are not always properly developed
to assess higher thinking skills (often only test for recall and style)
- Advantageous for students who are quick,
as opposed to those who take time to develop an argument or may suffer from writers block
- Clearly state questions
not only to make essay tests easier for students to answer,
but also to make the responses easier to evaluate
- Include a relatively larger number of questions
requiring shorter answers in order to cover more content
- Guard against having too many test items
for the time allowed
- Indicate an appropriate response length
for each question
- Set time limits if necessary
- Note graded weights to questions
Ideal test items:
- Integrate course objectives into the essay items
- Specify and define what mental process you want the students to perform
(e.g., analyze, synthesize, compare, contrast, etc.).
Does not assume learner is practiced with the process
- Start questions with an active verb
such as "compare", "contrast", "explain why";
Offer definitions of the active verb, and even practice beforehand.
- Avoid writing essay questions that require factual knowledge,
as those beginning questions with interrogative pronouns
(who, when, why, where)
- Avoid vague, ambiguous, or non-specific verbs
(consider, examine, discuss, explain)
unless you include specific instructions in developing responses
- Have each student answer all the questions
Do not offer options for questions
- Structure the question to minimize subjective interpretations
- Present the assignment both verbally and in writing.
The initial oral plus written presentation to promote and inspire thought;
written for reference within the test
- Provide evaluation criteria
- Focus on the mental activity to avoid rote answers,
and/or repeating examples from the text
- Teach students how to write an essay (test)
explaining definitions of cognitive verbs
- Teach the difference
between presenting a position as opposed to presenting an opinion
- Define requirements clearly
State the number of points each question is worth
- Warn students of possible pitfalls
especially if you have strong ideas of what you do and do not want
- Inform the students about how you evaluate
misspelled words, neatness, handwriting, grammar, irrelevant material (bluffing)
- Develop a model answer
that contains all necessary points
- Note additional content for extra points
- Conceal or ignore students' names in the correcting process
- Read through the answers to one test item at a time
- Sequence best through worst responses
for verification if time permits
- Write comments on the students’ answers,
both affirming and correcting
- Do not give credit for irrelevant material
- Mix or shuffle papers to vary subject's location
before assessing the next test item