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Beginning Research | Action Research | Case Study | Interviews | Observation Techniques | Education Research in the Postmodern

Evaluation Research in Education | NarrativePresentations | Qualitative Research | Quantitative Methods | Questionnaires | Writing up Research



Beginning Research

Prepared by Dr. Nick Pratt
(based on an original version written by Professor Andy Hannan)

Last modified 08.03.2011


Getting started with RESINED … begin here!

This component is the starting point for your work on the Research in Education (RESINED – MERS501) module. Its aim is to help you to develop both a focus for your dissertation research and a methodological plan for achieving this. At the end of the component therefore you should:

You should have received an email from us when you first enrolled on the module explaining how it works, but it is worth reiterating at this stage that to complete the module you study from at least three components, including this one, and complete tasks associated with them. Note that you are welcome to study any parts of the site in addition to this requirement if it helps you – indeed, we recommend that you do. There is just one task (Task A) for this component which is compulsory, and which must be completed satisfactorily before moving on. It might therefore be worth viewing this task before reading on so that you can bear it mind as you go.

After this one compulsory task you can choose one ‘task B’ and one ‘task C’ from any of the other components and send them to us for feedback using the resined email ( ). Note that feedback from these two tasks is formative, and not graded in any way, and aims to support your  learning experience before you finally submit your proposal (MAEd2). This final submission forms the summative assessment for the module and you must pass to gain the 10 credits for the module and to move on to the dissertation proper.

One further point to note is that it is tempting, perhaps, to see this module as a hurdle to be overcome before starting the ‘proper’ work of the dissertation. We strongly advise you against this way of thinking, noting that there is a clear correlation between those who spend time studying methods carefully and success in the final dissertation itself. Of course this works the other way too; those who try to rush through this module often come unstuck when they get some way into their dissertation and have to waste considerable time backtracking. We advise you therefore to give as much time to it as you can and to seek out the help and support of your supervisor in making sense of the ideas involved. Remember, it is not enough for you to have simply done ‘something’ in your dissertation; you must demonstrate that you have chosen appropriate methods, used them well and understood at a very fundamental level how they work and what their implications are. Many people use the RESINED tasks to begin to construction sections of the dissertation itself, particularly the methodology, and if you approach it this way you are likely to find it more useful, and certainly more satisfying.




Introducing education research

Paradigms and approaches

Planning your research project

Ethical implications

The Dissertation Proposal and Component Task




Introducing Education Research

Before addressing some more specific issues about undertaking research, it is worth addressing the question of what, exactly, constitutes research, and research in education more specifically. Though these may appear to be easy questions, in practice they are not entirely clear cut.
Before reading on, look at the following list of activities and decide for yourself which of them you consider constitute ‘research’, and then use this decision to define for yourself what research is.

My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines research as

research n. & v.i.
careful search or enquiry after or for;
endeavour to discover facts by scientific study of a subject, course of critical investigation

Whilst we might seek out other definitions and argue over them, I would rather take this as a starting point and consider some of the dimensions that research might involve and their implications.

Firstly then, the definition above points to the need for a ‘careful search’. Note that the word ‘search’ is built in to ‘research’, and this seems fundamental to me. Research therefore always involves searching out new information, ideas or perspectives. This needs to be done ‘carefully’, implying that the search needs to be deliberate, systematic and with a purpose. Note that this perhaps eliminates the item above about reflecting on the day during your drive home.

The sense of discovery alluded to in the definition is also important. All research, being a search of some sort, is a journey of discovery. In this sense it is an educative process itself for those undertaking it; they should know more at the end of the process than at the start. Some approaches to research – such as action research – are deliberately and explicitly educative, the researcher making a deliberate attempt to change practice for the better through the research process. Koshy (2005, p.1) believes that, for teaching practitioners,

ultimately the quality of educational experiences provided for children will depend on the ability of the teacher to stand back, question and reflect on his or her practice, and continually strive to make the necessary changes.

Other forms of research, such as scientific, experimental research may take a more objective, detached stance, but are still educative in the sense that the researcher makes new discoveries – albeit seen as external to, and detached from, them.

So far all well and good then. However, it is in the idea that research involves the discovery of ‘facts by scientific study’ that things get more murky. This leads to a discussion of epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge) and of ontology (the study of the nature of being) and I will turn to this in the next section, but before I do let me simply list some other issues which beg questions in the planning of effective research

Finally then, in thinking about the nature of research, we have dealt briefly with the ‘search’, but what of the ‘re’? That research must be ‘critical’ (according to the definition above) points to the notion that the act of researching should not only involve you in ‘searching out’ but also in a process of reappraisal of the situation, and your/others’ place within it. Research involves a process of ‘re-describing’ the world, seeing it with fresh eyes, and hence of ‘re-positioning’ yourself and others within it.
If we therefore consider research emphasized in these two different ways, re-SEARCH implies asking questions focused on process, such as:

On the other hand, RE-search implies questions about the self and one’s understanding of, and stance towards, the world, such as:

In carrying out your dissertation we would encourage you to think about both these aspects of the word research and, as you study these materials, to keep each of them in mind.

Paradigms and perspectives

In the sections above I mentioned that ‘facts’ and ‘scientific study’ cause difficulties for some researchers, not just on a procedural level but because they raise issues of epistemology and ontology. What we are raising here is the idea that researchers need to adopt particular paradigms within which to carry out research. [Note that in addition to the points I make below, there is also a very good introduction to these issues on the BERA website - see]
Bassey (1988, p.8) defines a research paradigm as

a network of coherent ideas about the nature of the world and of the functions of researchers which, adhered to by a group of researchers, conditions the patterns of their thinking and underpins their research actions.

Similarly, Maykut and Morehouse (1994, p.4) suggest that

a paradigm has come to mean a set of overarching and interconnected assumptions about the nature of reality. The word assumptions is key. One must make assumptions, for example, about the nature of reality, because anything that a researcher might do to test what reality is must be based on some understanding of that reality. A philosophical assumption cannot be proved but may be stipulated.

This implies that any approach taken in research is based on a model where certain assumptions (often called postulates when they are stated) are made, and that the research asks the sorts of questions which arise from particular judgements about the nature of education and the nature of research. I'll follow Michael Crotty's (1998) model here which suggests that...

METHODS (what I actually do in the research e.g. interviews, observations, content analysis etc.)

... stem from ...

METHODOLOGY (the overarching research design e.g. survey research, action research, grounded theory etc.)

... which stems from ...

THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES (the philosophical stance one is adopting which provides the grounding rationale for the methodology e.g. positivism, interpetivism etc.)

... which stem from ...

EPISTEMOLOGIES (the view one takes of the theory of knowledge and therefore of 'reality', most often either objectivism or constructivism).

For a really clear and helpful explanation of this, read the Introduction to Crotty's book 'The Foundations of Social Science' most of which you can get online here.

Another good reference to make sense of paradigms is the British Educational Research Association guidance here.

To begin to explore this idea let us consider an example. One might wish to explore whether or not standards have risen in schools (or in hospitals, prisons etc. – take  your pick) and, if so, why. If we look at test scores over the period of say 5 years, we can establish factually whether they have gone up or down. This is ‘a fact’ in the sense that it is numerically demonstrable; five years ago the same measure – say, the number of 11 year-olds gaining level 4 in their Mathematics SAT, or the number of infections picked up hospital wards – was at a  lower level than it is now. However, there are still problems here.

Firstly, using the example of school test scores, these might be methodological – are we sure that the way we are measuring this is reliable and are we measuring like with like (has the test changed for example and hence is it the ‘same’ measure)? Secondly, there are issues to do with the way we construct ideas such as ‘standards’, in this case in terms of test scores. Standards mean nothing on their own, since the word always begs the question ‘standards of what?’. This is therefore a question of values. In the case of standards, resolving it might be straightforward, but many other conceptual issues in education are far from so. Take, for example, ‘ability’, ‘working/middle class’, ‘gifted and talented’, ‘assessment’, ‘engagement’, ‘interaction’, ‘care’, ‘learning’ etc. Increasingly, these days such ideas are seen as constructions  (e.g. Burr, 2003; Gergen, 1999) whose meaning is not fixed, but constantly (re)negotiated between people. From this point of view, when we then measure their frequency, or correlate one against the other, we must remember that even if the numbers tell an incontrovertible story, the meaning of that story is still open to interpretation. These are issues of epistemology since they refer to ways in which we construct, or acquire, meaning for, or knowledge about, things.

This now brings us to the phrase ‘scientific study’ in our definition above. The  phrase holds resonances of scientific experimentation and the testing of hypotheses – use of the scientific method, with control of variables, control groups etc. Whilst such approaches serve a useful purpose in education (or, more widely, social) research there are a number of problems with them. Much of the rest of the RESINED site explores these issues and so I don’t attempt to deal with this in great detail here, however I briefly look now at the underpinning assumptions of the two major positions: positivistic and interpretive research.

It is worth noting that the terminology around research approaches is diverse and often confusing when one first comes across it. Terms are often used interchangeably in places, then as distinct ideas elsewhere. Here I refer to positivistic research to mean the classic scientific approach which

has explanation as a central aim. But explanation is thought of in a particular, very restricted, manner; namely, if you can relate on event, observation or other phenomenon to a general law … then you have explained it. (Robson, 2002, p.20).

I contrast this approach with what I call ‘interpretive’ research in which the focus is not on demonstrating causal relationships through experimentation, but on offering explanations through careful examination and interpretation of events.

[Note that I draw my distinction here between these two different theoretical positions. However, Cohen et al (2007) point out that both positivistic and interpretive positions are built on neutrality regarding the wider ideological and political picture and that both should be contrasted with a third paradigm - critical theory, mentioned in the previous section - which deliberately adopts ideological and political positions in an attempt to be emancipatory. Whilst I stick here with the binary of positivism and interpretivism, you will find reference elsewhere on this site to critical approaches and you might look at Cohen et al (2007, pp.26-32) for a simple introduction to critical theory.]

One key assumption that differs between positivism and an interpretive positions is the notion of reality. From the positivist position, reality is seen as ‘out there’ to be uncovered and described; in the interpretive approach reality is seen as a social construction and is therefore constituted in the inter-subjective agreement between people as to the meaning of different phenomena. These represent two different approaches to the notion of 'reality', of what 'knowledge' is - epistemology - namely 'objectivism' and 'constructivism' respectively. Note that the latter doesn’t mean that there is no physical reality but refers to reality of meaning. Thus, an able and talented child is ‘really’ a child (they are physically present), but may not ‘really’ be able and talented since this is a social construction negotiated between those involved in its meaning.

To explore this in a little more depth, Maykut and Morehouse (1994, p.12) offer the following table which describes the postulates (assumptions) against six key questions in relation to each of these two theoretical perspectives.


Postulates of the positivist perspective (dominant paradigm)

Postulates of the interpretive perspective (alternative paradigm)

  • How does the world work?

Reality is one. By carefully dividing and studying its parts, the whole can be understood.

There are multiple realities. These realities are socio-psychological constructions forming an interconnected whole. These realities can only be understood as such.

  • What is the relationship between the knower and the known?

The knower can stand outside of what is to be known. True objectivity is possible.

The knower and the known are interdependent.

  • What role do values play in understanding the world?

Values can be suspended in order to understand.

Values mediate and shape what is understood.

  • Are causal linkages possible?

One event comes before another event and can be said to cause that event.

Events shape each other. Multidirectional relationships can be discovered.

  • What is the possibility of generalisation?

Explanations from one time and place can be generalized to other times and places.

Only tentative explanations for one time and place are possible.

  • What does research contribute to knowledge?

Generally, the positivist seeks verification or proof of propositions.

Generally, the phenomenologist seeks to discover or uncover propositions.


I suspect that whilst it is easy to read all the words in this table it may be less clear what each section means in practice so let me illustrate it using an example of an interview designed to gauge a teacher’s understanding of, say, the school maths curriculum.

From the positivistic perspective I can ‘test’ the teacher’s understanding through a series of questions. The teacher ‘has’ an understanding (because positivism is based on an objectivist epistemology) and my job is to uncover this through my questions. As long as the questions are well designed (and this may not be easy) a level of understanding will be identifiable – just as it is in an IQ test, say. As the researcher, I see myself as separate from the interviewee and can suspend my values so that it wouldn’t matter if it were me or you asking the questions because we can set up conditions so that we have no effect on the situation. I can also ask about separate parts of their understanding individually to build up a picture of the whole. My questions might be seen to ‘cause’ the teacher to answer and to provide a picture of ‘what they think’. A single interview would not be generalisable, but a test (perhaps using a questionnaire with Likert scale responses) carried out on the right sample of teachers would allow us to generalise the outcomes in terms of what teachers think about the curriculum area, and to satisfy us that certain forms of training lead to particular levels of understanding perhaps.

From the interpretive position things are different. Now the teacher isn’t seen to ‘hold’ understanding for me to ‘reveal’. From this position my questions play a part in what the teacher says, as does the whole social, cultural and historical context of the situation. This doesn’t just mean that s/he might say something different to someone else or if I ask a different question; it means that my interaction with the interviewee is fundamental to what gets said. We are interdependent in this respect. This interaction is not neutral on my part either because I can’t suspend my values - however much I try I cannot be objective (in the sense of neutral and independent of the respondee). Even the questions I choose to ask (and those I don’t choose therefore) and how I ask them reflect what I value and although at one level I can see that questions ‘cause’ answers it is not just the questions themselves which do this. My body language, the context and a host of other things affect what can and can’t be said. Not least here are the questions themselves. The teacher may not ever have thought about the issue I ask about and so I’m not revealing something already in his/her head; we are constructing an account as we go. Earlier questions affect later ones; having said earlier that I was interested in his/her understanding of symmetry, when I later ask what she remembers doing last term s/he recalls the work with mirrors … but not other things s/he might have done. And as s/he recounts this work s/he contradicts what was said earlier so that it no longer means the same to me as it did. Whilst I might seem to be ‘uncovering’ ideas, the ideas were not necessarily there before I asked about them and so not only is this one interview not generalisable to other teachers, it may not be generalisable even in the sense that the same teacher would say the same thing again … not because they are saying things which are ‘untrue’ but because ‘truth’ itself is being constructed as meaning in the context of the interview between us.

A note on 'Quantitative' and 'Qualitative' research

The words quantitative and qualitative in relation to research are also worthy of some thought here. In a recent RESINED submission an IMP student wrote that
Quantitative researchers collect facts and study the relationship of one set of facts to another, while the Qualitative perspective is more concerned to understand individuals’ perceptions of the world.  They seek insight rather than statistical perspective of the world.

Whilst it might be true that positivistic research is more likely to collect numerical, quantified data than interpretive researchers you should note that it is the philosophical idea that facts and relationships ‘exist’ and that they reveal truth about reality that defines ‘positivism’, not simply the collection of numerical data itself. This can be confusing because the phrase ‘quantitative research’ can often be used to refer to the scientific method that is associated with positivism, but where this is the case it is being used as a (rather confusing) shorthand. Even the most interpretive of researchers might still collect quantitative data, such as how often a teacher asks questions during a lesson or the number of boys’ involved in after-school clubs. The point though is not the kind of data itself, but what they then do with it – using it to make ‘interpretations’ about question-asking and boys' participation in clubs, not looking for ‘truths’ in causal relationships between variables. Note then, that it is the theoretical position that distinguishes the approaches, not the use of numbers per se and, in my view, the terms positivistic (or scientific) research and interpretive research are more useful. It’s also worth noting that one critique of positivism is that the claim of objectivity is always a false one because there is always an element of interpretation in any experimental activity – see the components on Research in the Postmodern  and Narrative for more on this.

Mixing methods

It is likely that most people undertaking the IMP dissertation will be involved in some form of interpretive research rather than a more positivistic, scientific study looking for causal relationships in data. Howver, it is quite possible that you might undertake some numerical, quantitative work and do some statistical analysis. This is sometimes a good way of finding general patterns which raise questions to investigate further by gathering qualitative data from interviews etc. – or, vice versa, having used an interpretive approach to identify key issues for participants it is sometimes then appropriate to explore one or more of these in a more statistical manner. What is important though is that in mixing methods like this you don’t mix up the epistemological stances and the theoretical positions involved, and that you bear in mind the implications of the assumptions you are starting from, especially the nature of reality. If you find a statistical correlation between teachers who have masters degrees and pupil attainment then the nature of the causation might still need to be interpreted through other means. It could be that getting a masters degree helps to raise attainment; but it could equally be that teachers who get high attainment from pupils tend to be those who enjoy and prompt intellectual challenge and hence become interested in masters work themselves! Moreover, each approach implies a different understanding of terms such as ‘attainment’, and so the different theoretical positions may actually be talking about different things here. The key point to hold on to is that each theoretical position (positivism and interpretivism) is underpinned by a different and incommensurable theoretical view about the nature of 'reality' (objectivism and constructionism respectively) and you simply can't bring these together.


Planning your research project

Having considered approaches to research I now turn to the more practical business of getting started on a project. The idea is to offer you some steps to take in order to set yourself up in the right direction and then to know how to continue studying for the next two components of RESINED. There are many ways in which you might do this, and most of the general textbooks listed in the references below will offer you lists of things to think about. You might well want to consult these, but I am going to suggest the following steps as practical – and I hope useful – approaches to take:

Note that the (compulsory) task for this component requires you to work through these steps so that you are in a good position to think about the methods you will then use and how you will do so, in more detail.

1.         Generating ideas and questions for your research

It is likely that you already have a number of ideas for your research project, however many of the textbooks on research have good ideas for generating research foci. To pick just a few as examples, Maykut and Morehouse (1994, chapter 5) examine ‘Generating ideas’; Silverman (2000, chapter 5) discusses ‘Selecting a topic’; and Mason (2002, chapter 1) begins by ‘Finding a focus’.

Whilst all these references will help you choose a topic (if you don’t already have one), it is really important that before you begin any research itself you turn these ideas into clearly focused questions that will guide your work. The focus of the project should then be to answer these so that the questions serve not only to get you started but as ways to evaluate progress as you go along.

Having said this, defining clear questions does not mean that they need to be tightly focused conceptually at the start. Much research, particularly grounded, exploratory research may begin with very open questions. An example here might be something like: ‘What seem to be important issues for teachers in managing behaviour for effective science teaching?’ Here, the question focuses the researcher on what they will be exploring, but says nothing yet about what the ‘issues’ might be. In contrast, the question ‘How does the use of mixed ability grouping improve outcomes for science learning?’ is also focused but has already begun to make the assumptions that mixed ability grouping will be significant in some way and that there are outcomes that we can measure to gauge this in some way (both of which are actually probably reasonable assumptions to make).

One thing to emphasise at this point is that, regardless of your initial ideas, you should begin a literature search at this stage, trying to explore what is already known about the issue you are examining. There is a very important idea here that is missed by many students, namely that your research needs to be of significance and to achieve this you need to identify a gap of some sort in what is already known in the field. Put another way, your research should focus on something that needs to be examined and about which there are not ready answers out there in the literature (though of course, from an interpretive perspective, all research is contingent and dependent on context).
If you have undertaken the PGDip with the University you should be familiar with the electronic searching facilities through the library, but if not contact them for support in how to do this and begin looking for material about your topic. We cannot emphasise enough that the MA stage is all about the quantity and quality of the reading you do and, though it will continue throughout your study, you do need to get reading at this stage to contextualise your study and inform your research questions.

Finally, although, as you will have noticed, I’m strongly advocating that you need clear and well defined research questions before you begin any empirical work, I would add two provisos. Firstly, it is very likely that your research questions will change, or at least develop, as you go along. This is particularly true of more exploratory research where the initial questions (such as the first one above) are there to identify issues of significance in the first instance and often then lead on to further, less open, sub-questions as the research progresses. An example here might be where an initial set of interviews or questionnaires has identified particular patterns of interest or particular problems experienced by the respondents and these lead to new questions. This is all a natural part of the research process; not a failing in terms of the original questions.

The second proviso is a pragmatic one. Although the research questions should lead the action of undertaking the research, none of us work in a limitless situation and we are always bounded by pragmatic issues of time and resources. Often there are questions that we would like to ask but which are impossible in terms of participants, time, cost etc. Whilst methods should serve research questions, not vice versa, it is inevitable that in practice there will be a circular relationship here with questions leading to implications for methods, leading  back to refinement of questions in order to be practical and manageable – see below.

To think about:

Before going on, try to write down a Research Question for the topic you are thinking about … then go on to the next section and make use of it.

2.         Refining your focus

Although it is important to generate research questions, many students find it surprisingly difficult to do so, particularly to construct them actually as questions. The most important thing is to get some sort of question down on paper as a starting point and not to worry about its veracity at first. Once you have something to work on you can then begin the process of refining it into the right question for the research you want to do. Clough & Nutbrown (2002, p33-34) have a novel approach to this business:

In our own work we have developed two simple tools that can be employed in the generation of research questions: the 'Russian doll' principle and the 'Goldilocks test'.  Applying the Russian doll principle means breaking down the research question from the original statement to something which strips away the complication of layers and obscurities until the very essence - the heart - of the question can be  expressed.  This may well mean phrasing and rephrasing the question so that each time its focus becomes sharpened and more defined - just as a Russian doll is taken apart to reveal a tiny doll at the centre.

The generated questions can then be subjected to the 'Goldilocks test' - a metaphor for thinking through the suitability of the research questions for a particular researcher in a particular setting at a particular time.  So, we can ask: is this question 'too big', such that it cannot be tackled in this particular study at this time - perhaps it is a study which needs significant research funding or assistance which is not usually available to students doing research for an academic award?  We can ask 'Is this too small?' - perhaps there is not enough substance to the question to warrant investigation.  We can ask if the question is 'too hot' - perhaps an issue which is so sensitive that the timing is not right for investigation - or such that researching it at this point would be not only difficult but damaging in the particular social context.  These questions will enable us finally to identify those questions which might be 'just right' for investigation at this time, by this researcher in this setting.

Clough & Brown give a well-worked example of how to apply these techniques by writing the suggested research questions in order (see pages 35-7).

Once you have a clear question, a second step is to identify the assumptions and assertions that the question is making since these often then serve as the points of interest for the project itself, getting under the skin of the obvious. Becoming aware of assumptions/assertions then allows you to refine your question into one that tackles the issues that are likely to be of most significance to you.

To illustrate this process click here to access a PowerPoint presentation which will show you how to work through it. The example focuses on someone working in HE who became aware of being dissatisfied with the engagement of some students in his classes.


3.         Choosing appropriate methods for the research

Clearly, having decided on the research questions that you want to pursue you will need to plan how to address these using appropriate methods. I will not say too much about this here since the rest of the RESINED materials and the tasks associated with these are there to help you with these decisions. However, it is worth mentioning a couple of points to bear in mind at this early stage.

First and foremost you might consider the sense in which methods are appropriate or inappropriate. There is a multiple meaning here. The methodology you choose must be appropriate in the sense that they are likely to allow you to answer the questions you have posed. This may seem obvious, but it is amazing how many people come to the research process saying ‘I want to do some action research …’ without any thought to what the research questions are or whether AR will allow them to be answered. Methodology, and the associated methods, should serve to answer questions therefore, not vice versa. However, as I mentioned above, there is always some compromise here because we always work in context-specific situations and so in practice questions and methods are likely to iterate back and forth somewhat before they are settled on. This, then, is the second sense in which methodology/methods are appropriate or not; i.e. they must be appropriate to the context in which you are working, both in practical terms and ethically/morally too. Whilst it may be fascinating to discover whether your colleagues are implementing your policy initiative by covertly videoing them in practice, this would neither be ethically appropriate nor appropriate in terms of generating trustworthy data when you also interviewed them later on!

In practice then, the following checklist might be of use in developing your research. Note though that, as yet, you won’t be able to answer all these questions and further study of the other components on the site will be needed so that you can eventually answer them in order to write your proposal.

Ethical implications

The University of Plymouth takes very seriously the whole business of the ethics of research involving human participants. All staff and students of the University undertaking such research have to conform to a set of 'ethical principles', make these clear to those they are working with and ensure that they remain within them throughout the research. The IMP (Education) has obtained 'programmatic clearance' to apply the procedures set out below to ensure that the University guidelines are followed:

1) Where appropriate, students will be asked by their supervising tutor to prepare an ‘ethics protocol’ as part of their preparation for assignments (those involving field work/data collection).  That protocol will set out how the student intends to meet the requirements set out in the University guidelines.

2) Guidance on how to construct such a statement will be provided by the supervising tutor.

3) The supervising tutor will be responsible for obtaining a copy of the protocol, for ensuring that it is satisfactory and for monitoring its implementation.

4) Assessment of the final project will take into account the manner in which the protocol was put into effect.

For instructions on what these principles are, guidance on creating an ethics protocol and lots of examples go to

[Note: if you are not a member of the University of Plymouth you can access read-only versions these pages at this link, but will not be able to contribute to discussion.]

(See also the British Educational Research Association Ethical Guidelines.)

Other Examples
In additon to the website above, have a look at the ethics protocols for the project 'Innovations in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education' .  These were sent to all those interviewed in advance and were discussed with institutional 'gatekeepers' in order to help obtain access.  An ethics protocol ought to be used for such purposes, rather than be seen as a 'dead' document written merely in response to bureaucratic requirements.  In essence it is a contract that you enter into with your informants that contains protections for you both!

You can find four more examples of ethics protocols for a range of research projects produced by Sue Waite, a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education of the University of Plymouth, by clicking here .

For a discussion of the ethical issues involved in undertaking ethnographic research generally, see the chapter on 'Ethics' (click the title to follow a link to a downloadable pdf file) from the book by Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (1995) Ethnography: Principles in Practice,Second Edition, London, Routledge.

For a bibliography on medical ethics, much of which is relevant to education, visit Ethical Issues in Research Involving Human Participants

In essence, then, students need to consult the materials suggested and the University guidelines and produce a statement which sets out how they intend to ensure compliance with each of the principles therein (viz, 'informed consent', 'openness and honesty', 'right to withdraw', 'protection from harm', 'debriefing' and 'confidentiality').  Your 'ethics protocol' should set out how your study will meet these requirements WHERE RELEVANT.  Some of these principles will be of greater importance than others for you and this should be reflected in your statement.

I STRONGLY RECOMMEND that the 'ethics protocol' for which you seek approval should take the form of the document you intend to issue to potential participants in order to obtain informed consent, which would cover issues such as confidentiality, right to withdraw, feedback, etc as appropriate.  The examples referred to below are statements of this kind. Note though that it is often necessary to have multiple versions of this document written appropriately for different participants; especially where you are working with children and/or adults from different institutional roles.

NB For a QUESTIONNAIRE survey it is often preferable to incorporate the ethical provisions in the introduction to the questionnaire form itself, i.e. telling informants what the project is about (informed consent), giving them the choice not to respond to individual items or the form as a whole (right to withdraw), setting out how feedback may be obtained (debriefing), describing the provisions for confidentiality (particularly if the form is not anonymous), etc.  This section of the questionnaire is in effect the 'ethics protocol' and can be submitted for approval.


Formal proposals

Guidance on completing the Dissertation Proposal for the University of Plymouth MA (Education), and the cover sheet for submission, may be obtained by clicking here. The Research in Education module is finally assessed by means of the Dissertation Proposal. You should discuss the completion of this form with your Dissertation Supervisor and then submit it to the Faculty Reception following the guidelines and procedure used for all IMP assignments.

University College Plymouth, St Mark & St John MEd (Education and Professional Development) students should contact their UCT or CPD office for a copy of the form they should use.

It's also a good idea to see what's expected of you when you eventually write up your study. See the component on Writing Up Research for details.

Task A - Beginning Education Research

(NB: Only for those University of Plymouth students undertaking the ‘Research in Education’ module as part of the preparation for the submission of a MA dissertation proposal)
Most of the other components of RESINED will have two tasks associated with them, Task B and Task C. These relate to ‘collecting data’ and ‘analysing data’ respectively. The task in this component is the only compulsory one – you must complete it before moving on to choose a task B and then a task C from anywhere else on the site. All tasks, including this one, once completed, should be sent to, making clear:

It will then be passed on to the component leader (and copied to your supervisor). The component leader will get back to you with comments and advice which we hope will be educative and which will help you in preparing your dissertation proposal once you are ready. (Remember that these tasks are formative and that it is the proposal which forms the summative assessment for the MERS501 (resined) module.) This email address is checked daily so please use it for all correspondence about RESINED other than that directed to particular individuals for specific reasons.

The task:

This task encourages you to develop a clear starting point for your research project so that you can then tackle the other components knowing which will be most appropriate for you. Any work you do here will also be useful in the final dissertation proposal that you must complete to be assessed for this module.

Please note that this task is not asking you to pin these issues down in full but to begin to consider them. It is very likely that, as you progress, you will change your plans. However, the aim here is to ensure that you put yourself in a position where you can choose further components of study from an informed position (and remember that whilst you have to do a further task B and C from one or more of these components you are free to study widely from all of them).

Further reading


The books picked out in bold below are those I'd most strongly recommend as general readers. 

Bassey, M (1995) Creating Education Through Research, Newark, Kirklington Moor Press/Edinburgh, BERA

Bassey, M. (1999) Case study research in educational settings, Buckingham, Open University Press

Bell, J. (2005) Doing your research project : A guide for first- time researchers in education, health and social science,  (4th edn) Maidenhead, Open University Press

Burgess, R (ed) (1993) The Research Process in Educational Settings, Lewes, Falmer

Burr, V. (2003) Social constructionism, London, Routledge.

Clough, P. & Nutbrown, C. (2007) A student's guide to methodology : Justifying enquiry,  (2nd edn) London, SAGE Publications

Cohen, L ; Manion, L & Morrison, K (2007) Research Methods in Education (6th edition), London, Routledge

Crotty, M. 1998. The foundations of social research : meaning and perspective in the research process, London, SAGE.

Delamont, S (1991) Fieldwork in Educational Settings, Lewes, Falmer

Denscombe, M (2003) The Good Research Guide, Buckingham, OUP

Garner, P; Hinchcliffe, V & Sandow, S (1995) What Teachers Do: Developments in Special Education, London, Paul Chapman

Gergen, K. (1999) An invitation to social construction, London, Sage Publications

Hammersley, M & Atkinson, P (1995) Ethnography: Principles in Practice (2nd ed), London, Routledge

Hammersley, M (ed) (1993) Educational Research: Current Issues (vol 1), London, Paul Chapman

Hopkins, D (1993) A Teacher's Guide to Classroom Research (2nd ed), Buckingham, OUP

Koshy, V. (2005) Action research for improving practice. A practical guide. London: Paul Chapman Publishing

Mason, J. (2002) Qualitative researching,  (2nd edn) London, Sage Publications

May, T (1993) Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process, Buckingham, OUP

Maykut, P. & Morehouse, R. (1994) Beginning qualitative research. A philosophic and practical guide,  London, Falmer Press

Miles, M & Huberman, A (1994) Qualitative Data Analysis (2nd ed), London, Sage

Robson, C. (2002) Real world research : A resource for social scientists and practitioner-researchers,  Oxford, Blackwell

Scheurich, J. J. (1997) Research method in the postmodern,  London, Falmer

Silverman, D. (2000) Doing Qualitative Research. A Practical Handbook, London, Sage Publications

Smeaton, R F (1999) Researching Education: Reference Tools and Networks, Hull, LISE

Thomas, G. & Pring, R. (2004) Evidence-based practice in education, Maidenhead, Open University Press

Woods, P. (1996) Researching the art of teaching: Ethnography for educational use, London, Routledge

Trochim, William M. The Research Methods Knowledge Base, 2nd Edition. Internet WWW page, at URL: (version current as of September 9, 2003). (This is the excellent site referred [and linked] to several times in the sections presented above.)


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Beginning Research | Action Research | Case Study | Interviews | Observation Techniques | Education Research in the Postmodern

Evaluation Research in Education | NarrativePresentations | Qualitative Research | Quantitative Methods | Questionnaires | Writing up Research



© N Pratt, Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth, 2010