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Pedagogical Development Office

Teaching Tip: Teaching the Research Cycle

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Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan/ freedigitalphotos.net

In many of our classes we ask our students to do some kind of research. Usually this is in the form of either a research paper or labs. In any kind of research assignment, students often struggle with the different stages of doing research. In order to help our students learn to become better researchers, we can help them understand the different stages in the research cycle.

What is the Research Cycle?

The research cycle is a series of stages that helps us work through the process of researching information and drawing conclusions. The research cycle consists of the following stages:

1. Developing a general research question
This should be a general question that you would like to investigate on the topic. Early on it is important to encourage students to choose a topic that is of deep personal interest, otherwise the long process of researching and writing will be drudgery. For example, if you were interested in the meaning of life you might ask “what is the meaning of life?”

2. Doing preliminary research on the topic
Once you have a general question to guide you on your topic, you should start to do some basic research to gain a better understanding of the background and major issues surrounding your topic and your question. For example, if you wanted to know the meaning of life you might start to look at what other scholars or thinkers have said about the meaning of life.

3. Refining the research question
After you have done some preliminary research you should consider what you have learned and narrow down your research question to something more detailed or specific. Keep in mind that research questions tend to link two factors (variables), one of which might affect the other. For example, once you have seen what some thinkers have claimed is the meaning of life, you might change your research question to “what is the role of happiness in a good life?”

At this point you might also share some of your research findings and questions with others to get some feedback from them on the direction your research has taken and other questions or issues you might want to consider.

4. Doing more detailed research to answer the refined question
Once you have narrowed down your question you will need to do a little more research to fill in information that might be missing from your initial research. With your more narrowed down question you can find more precise information and go into more detail. For example, you might look at what makes people happy and how that has made their lives feel more fulfilled.

5. Drawing conclusions/developing a thesis
You know you have completed your research when you are able to draw conclusions and answer your refined research question. At this point you will be able to develop your thesis. For example, your thesis might be “finding things that make you truly happy in life will make you feel more fulfilled.”

6. Present findings/answer to the research question
After you have drawn your conclusions and developed your thesis, you then need to organize your findings in a way that will allow you to share your research and conclusions with others. At this point you should present your research conclusions, usually as a thesis, and then support your conclusions with arguments developed through your research. Keep in mind that each discipline has its own accepted way of writing up such research reports, and that students need to know what is appropriate in your discipline.

Thesis versus Research Question

One of the biggest mistakes that students make when doing research is that they start by formulating a thesis statement. By creating a thesis right from the beginning, students are already deciding their conclusions before they have started the research. As a result, they spend most of their time trying to find the articles that say exactly what they want and they discard the articles that present opposing views. This isn’t the right way to do research and it doesn’t help our students learn how to answer questions they might have on a given issue.

In order to encourage your students to get more fully involved in the research process, try to have them start by developing a research question. Their initial research question can be somewhat broad since they will have to narrow down their topic after they’ve done a little bit of initial research.

Pedagogical Development Office
Vanier College