Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls
Research Questions - What are they?
When writing your Ph.D., it is often necessary to find "Research Questions", which will help you focus on what is necessary, help you write your thesis and help you to stay on track, instead of wandering all over the place and possibly getting lost. Finding your research questions is not always easy and this lens shows you the best way to work them out. The Goldilocks test will show you how to do it "just right" and the Russian Dolls principle will show you how to dig down to find the central kernel of information that you need.
There are other methods for developing or determining your research questions and these are also included.
I have to declare a very deep interest in this module. I am currently working out my hypothesis for my own studies, although I have already found some research questions on which I am working. So, I am researching this lens for my benefit, as much as for yours. And I am writing it with my research journal open by my side to note down any useful points that come to me as I am writing this. You may also find it useful to have your research journal open while you read this lens too. :), whether that's a real writing book or a computerised word processing document, even a Notepad page. If you want to know more about research journals, there is a separate module further down the page.
Note: It is believed that the "Goldilocks" picture is in the Public Domain. It came from an old book that someone had uploaded, although the page has since been taken down. The "Russian Dolls" are mine and I took the picture of them and amalgamated the two together.
WARNING - don't make your research questions or hypothesis public!
Do NOT post your research questions or hypothesis in a public place. Somebody else might think "Why didn't I think of that?" If they publish a paper on "your" hypothesis, bang goes your claim to unique and original content. That means BANG goes your Ph.D.! Only discuss with your supervisor.
Goldilocks? Russian Dolls?
How Can They Help Me Write My Ph. D.?
The Russian Dolls' principle and the Goldilocks test have a great deal to do with writing a Ph.D. They help you find your research question(s) which is a CRUCIAL part of writing a Ph.D. The Goldilocks test looks at whether your subject is too "hot" (e.g. of a sensitive nature), too big (would take several Ph.Ds to do) or just right. The Russian Dolls' principle helps you dig down under the surface of the research question you THINK you might write on, to find the correct question to start with. Both these ideas were showcased in a Harvard business book too, several years ago, so the ideas are good for any kind of thinking, not just for academic writing.
Note: It is important to understand that RESEARCH Questions are NOT survey or questionnaire questions. Those are the questions you might ask someone if you were carrying out a survey of some kind. Not all researchers use questionnaires but all researchers NEED Research Questions.
Research Questions - Tell Me More? - Do I need to know about Research Questions?
Helps people see if others also need to find out about Research Questions
Do You Need to Know about Research Questions?
But What do I write about?
Finding the topics you want to write on
OK, it's all very well saying that you can refine your questions and make sure they are just right, but first, what is the actual topic you want to write about? How do you work that out? (You can skip this module if you already know the answer to this. On the other hand, you might just find out something useful. :))
You need to know what your topic is, so you can then work out the research questions on which you will focus your research work and for which you will do your literature review.
A really useful site to use is at: Education Plymouth University this is a web page on research in Education and it has some very useful points on it. It also covers Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls in a slightly different way from Clough and Nutbrown, although the ideas are taken from (and credited to) the Clough and Nutbrown book.
Section 1. of the Plymouth web page (about halfway down a very long page) helps you to generate ideas and questions for your research. Without these questions you won't get anywhere. They also help guide your work and give you a means of evaluating it (evaluating = "am I answering the question?").
You may also be able to get your research questions from the thesis title you signed up to when you started your Ph.D., or the thesis title you have now modified it to, in discussion with your supervisor. To give you an example of how this can be done, I did a search on "Ph.D. University" in Google and found a site called Find a Ph.D. Project. I have never seen that site before but it lists many Ph.D. opportunities in UK universities. Some of them are basically "click here to see all opportunities at our university", others give the full title of a Ph.D. you could apply for, for instance, Understanding neighbourhood effects - An analysis of Aberdeen Housing Sub-Markets. This kind of title will help you find research questions for your project. I know absolutely NOTHING about this subject but if I were doing research on this, my initial work would be around "neighbourhood projects" and "Housing sub-Markets in Aberdeen". These are very simplistic topics but the Goldilocks Test and the Russian Dolls principle, discussed in the next module, would help me refine these to something that could be used as part of my research. You will also find some information on developing topics like this into more complex questions further down this page.
Finding the Nuggets in the Deep Pond - You're looking for the small important things in a huge pool
A boy enjoys looking for critters in the water by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
This is a Public Domain picture from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mind Map for Research Questions - This could go in your Research Journal
While you're reading this lens, make notes, draw diagrams, draw a mind map. They will all help you make connections and help you sort out the relationships between the various parts of your thesis.
Using the BOOK: A Student's Guide to Methodology
Get the basics from the book
Clough and Nutbrown wrote the book "The Student's Guide to Methodology", which includes the Goldilocks Test and the Russian Dolls Principle. The book has the basics of using these and I will cover these in this module. Clough and Nutbrown use the Russian Doll metaphor to illustrate how you need to dig deep into your original ideas for research to define the central kernel of what you will be looking at, that is, the tiny doll in the middle of all the layers. They then run these questions through the "Goldilocks Test", (too big, too small, too sensitive) to check out whether those questions are suitable for the current circumstances. For instance, research that focuses on an area of discrimination, using individual interviews might not be appropriate in the middle of a legal, political or media battle focusing on that area in that particular place at that particular time.
The Clough and Nutbrown book gives a detailed case study, starting on page 38, of how to set about devising research questions, starting from the initial decision to cover an area, details of the problems seen and key people involved. It then provides some draft research questions and shows how the Goldilocks Test and the Russian Dolls principle can be used to find the "Right" research questions for this study. It also provides a draft framework (table) that you can plug your own initial research questions into, to develop them into your final, refined research questions.
This method of refining research questions is further discussed and illustrated with different examples and a PowerPoint slideshow in the Plymouth Education site, which is covered in more detail in the next module.
Others have also provided additional information on using these to develop your Research Questions and this is also covered further down the lens.
Get the Book: A Student's Guide to Methodology
Plymouth Education Site
Internet site with detailed help on refining research questions
Plymouth University Education page is a very long page with a wealth of detailed, useful information. It bears close examination because it is extremely helpful for ANY area of research not just education. It also gives access to a very useful PowerPoint presentation which further explains the Goldilocks test and Russian Doll principle. I went through it with my Research Journal open by my side and just plugged MY areas into what they were saying and came up with useful credible research questions that have been accepted by the viva panel that my University requires all students to complete at the end of their first year of study. Watching the PowerPoint presentation will require having PowerPoint on your computer, as the link given will download the presentation to your computer. Once you open it and start it going, it runs automatically after that. The presentation can be accessed from this link, which downloads the presentation to your computer.
Sources for Research Question Development on the Internet
other places to find help
There are some useful sites on the Internet where you can find help on developing Research Questions.
One web site is at Gradshare.com This site gives a full explanation on developing research questions and gives some in-depth examples of how to pose a research question and 6 criteria to use.
These criteria are:
1. identify your theoretical construct
2. make it concrete and specific
3. in general, do not include your data source (some exceptions)
4. identify YOUR contribution to theory
5. make sure the answer is not already known
6. should have the capacity to generate complex results.
This web site gives specific examples and clarifies exactly how each of these criteria should be used. It also provides a VERY useful list of the types of question beginnings that typify research questions that are likely to produce robust findings. It also suggests that you develop only one research question but gives an example of where more than one would be necessary, such as where basic information about a theoretical construct does not exist.
This website suggests that you find a partner with whom you can have some long conversations for developing your dissertation topic. This may not necessarily be at Ph.D. level, however, the site gives some VERY useful questions that you can use to choose a topic and develop your proposal. The site appears to be primarily aimed at those just starting out on the research process and uses what it calls "conceptual conversations". If your supervisor is not available and you can't find a willing partner to listen and keep you talking, these questions could also be used as prompts for writing in your research journal. You do HAVE a Research Journal?
Research Journal - Do you have a Research Journal?
A research journal is vital for anyone doing research of any kind. It isn't for showing to anyone else (unless you choose). It is ONLY for you. It can be hardcopy or electronic, it can have lined paper or plain, it can include doodles, newspaper clippings, cartoons, odd notes, observations, references to books and articles you think might be useful, films you have seen or notes on a program you heard on the radio, or an overheard conversation on the bus. It is useful for students, writers of all kinds, artists, cooks experimenting with new recipes, artisans or craft workers wanting to keep records of new techniques and materials tried, in short, anyone who needs to remember something! It does NOT require perfection, it's NOT for sharing (unless you choose), so it can be as messy as you like, with notes, different colors of ink, stuck in bits, elastic bands and sticky bits holding things in, provided you can interpret it when you need it! If you find it difficult to break the tyranny of a blank sheet of paper, waiting for a da Vinci or Einsteinian comment, then write in bold letters at the top: "NOT SURE MODE". That can help break the thought patterns that your writing or inclusions will not be good enough. They will be good enough for the purpose that you need. :)
Have you got a Research Journal?
I Can't Get Started to Write!
Someone (even before the advent of typewriters and word processors) once found that it was difficult to overcome "the tyranny of the blank page". That's why it's called writers' block - writer's are "blocked" from writing and not necessarily from the visit to the pub or evening BBQ session the night before! There is more on how to break the block in my previous lens in this series, on Best Books and Posts for Your PH.D.
Have You Got Writer's Block? - Do you want help to overcome writer's block?
There are a great many books available on getting stuck into writing of any kind, not just your Ph.D. Your writing might be a lens, a poem, a cookery recipe, a letter, a novel, an instruction manual, a screenplay, anything at all. Would you be interested in a lens about getting writing, and about overcoming Writer's Block?
Would you like to know how to overcome Writer's Block?
More Useful Sites for helping develop your Research Questions
Research Questions (continued)
Developing research questions - PDF download
This site provides a downloadable 3-page PDF document which gives you information and examples of research questions in a number of different areas, mainly education and social sciences. It also provides a useful checklist that you can use to test your research questions against.
Develop your dissertation topic
This site provides help on understanding the requirements for a dissertation and how to manage this large piece of work
If you enjoyed this hub and would now like to write one yourself, why not join Hub Pages? Joining any writing site and doing some writing will help you with your thesis or dissertation. Even join a blogging site - by writing a little every day, you can improve your motivation and ability to write your dissertation.
This lens has covered how to produce a research question when writing and researching for your Ph.D. (doctorate). Please share your thoughts on this.