Friday, 19 June 2020

Making decisions about the research problem

How to make a decision (Designorate, 2015)
When we bring experience to bear in making decisions about the 'right' choice, we humans are very good at filtering out information that is not relevant. Simon (1957) has a great example of this, when he compares purely analytical decision making against that of an experienced engineer on where to build a dam, saying firstly about the analytical process:
"...to secure a specified volume of water storage at a minimum cost [...]. The cost can be estimated, for each point along the river, of building a dam with the required storage capacity. However, to make an accurate estimate, detailed studies would need to be made of the foundation conditions at each point. Then, this huge array of cost estimates could be compiled and the dam site with least cost selected" (pp. 99-100).
And secondly about the use of expertise:
"By inspection of a topographic map, [the engineer] immediately picks out a half-dozen 'plausible' dam sites, and forgets the rest. [They are] sufficiently familiar with dam construction costs to know—with a fair degree of certainty—that any other site [they] might choose would have a higher construction cost. Next, [they make] an approximate estimate of dam costs for each of the plausible sites, assuming "normal" foundation conditions. Finally, [they select] the most promising sites and makes careful foundation studies as a basis for final estimates" (p. 100).
The use of expertise in the decision-making process shortens the decision-making process immensely. Not all sites need to actually be considered: we can quickly discard those that are impractical.

It is this expertise that students are missing when it comes to making a choice about which  research project idea to develop for their project. They appear unable to filter out any options so remain surrounded by an infinity of choices of which none appear to have more utility over any other.

So the problem is: how do we give students who are stuck assistance to help them to filter their choices to a manageable level? Stuck students will have already been advised to find a research project that interests them; that they already know something about; that the project is small enough while being complex enough for the requirements to complete within the time allocated; that they can collect that data within the time constraints; that there is a logical participant group they can collect their data from; that they have access to the participant group (Jankowicz, 1991)... yet they remain stuck.

A simple decision flowchart, such as the image accompanying this post may help, but it is very hard to know what will work. Web resources may help stuck student see some new alternatives: Boudah's chapter (here, 2019); McCombes's page on defining the research problem (here, 2019); Sacred Heart's University Library's page outlining the research question (here, 2020); and a similar page from the University of Phoenix (here, 2017); but again, it is hard to know what will actually work.

I would love to hear strategies which have consistently worked.


Sam

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