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Planning and Writing a Research Proposal:
A guide for teachers doing research

Wynne Harlen, SCRE

"In working towards a final version there is much to-ing and fro-ing, changes of plan, and some tough compromises to be struck between what you would like to do and what you reasonably can do."

This paper is intended to guide teacher researchers planning small-scale studies. It first appeared in Observations, the bulletin of the Scottish Teacher-Research Support Network.

Working out a research proposal is a demanding task, one that transforms the research idea from a vague, but exciting, prospect into a set of actions that are manageable - and should be even more exciting. There are several steps to the process which have to be taken at some point: The first three of these steps have to be completed before the proposal is put on paper, other than as a collection of notes from various brainstorming sessions. There are bound to be many changes between the first outline idea and the final fleshed out version and it is important to leave plenty of flexibility to adjust the components so as to preserve consistency among them. Maintaining this consistency can be difficult if you write too soon; it is better to keep to notes until the plan is reasonably firm.

In working towards a final version there is much to-ing and fro-ing, changes of plan, and some tough compromises to be struck between what you would like to do and what you reasonably can do.

An example is perhaps the best way to convey these points.

The area of concern
Suppose that an assistant headteacher in a small primary school is concerned about the adequacy of the provision for four year olds in the mixed age infants' class. She has read reports which suggest that teachers have understandable difficulties in catering for the rather different needs of the four year olds at the same time as providing for the learning needs of five and six year olds in the same class. The AHT worries that this may apply to her school and is wanting to take some action on the matter (for example, using parents more effectively in that part of the school). However, before making decisions, she decided to find out more about what is happening in the infants' class. This is, then, the general area of the research.

Identifying research questions
Her first step is to define the area more clearly, helped by discussion within the school and by further reading. This takes her to a first draft of some research questions which, although likely to be changed later, are the basis for thinking further ahead.

Some questions may concern parents' satisfaction with the children's experiences at school, for example: "How satisfied are parents of four, five and six year olds with the experiences of their children at school?" When this is thought through to later stages it becomes clear that several practical problems arise. It would mean collecting information from parents, most effectively by interview, involving time out of school and possibly home visits. And would parents have a basis for judging the value of the school experiences? What would their expectations be? Would they be willing to give an honest response to an AHT of the school? These are not necessarily obstacles which cannot be overcome, but in some circumstances, depending on the time and human resources available for collecting the information, they may be reasons for deciding that this research question is unrealistic as it stands and needs to be reconsidered.

Another question might be "How do the experiences of children in a mixed infants class compare with those of children in separate nursery, P1 and P2 classes?" The viability of this would depend on the cooperation of teachers in other schools as well as her own and also on there being a nearby school with a separate nursery class. If there is a suitable school nearby then an ideal arrangement would involve cooperative research but this will depend on how persuasive the AHT can be in interesting the other school staff in investigating something that is, after all, not their problem.

If circumstances dictate that the research is carried out within the one school one of the questions which could be tackled is 'what are the typical experiences of the four year olds and how do these differ from the experiences of five and six year olds in the infants' class?' One of the best methods of collecting information would be to 'track' a sample of children of different ages for certain periods of time. There are various ways of doing this but all involve an extra person in the classroom to do the observation. So the feasibility will depend on whether or not this can be arranged. It is also necessary to anticipate the sort of results that will be obtained and how they will be interpreted.

If differences are found, how will judgements be made about their meaning? Again, these are not necessarily obstacles to the research, but have to be faced before risking collecting a mass of information which it is difficult to use in answering the research questions.

When a consistent plan has been developed, by what may seem far from a smooth and rational process, it is committed to paper to read as a logical argument, with continuity between the sections. The following should be included, though these headings will be adapted to suit the particular study.

Components of the proposal

It is quite common to feel that, in order to write a good proposal, the research has virtually to be carried out! Indeed for large and expensive research the planning does sometimes require that some pilot trials are carried out of instruments to be used. In general though, it is an exaggeration, but it indicates the effort that is required.

Neither is this in any way wasted effort, for research must at some point be meticulously planned if it is to have the rigour necessary to add to knowledge. This will not be the case unless we take note of what is already known, define our questions to take this into account and use appropriate methods of data collection and interpretation. It is much better to do this at the start than to be forced to change course when the research is underway because of events which should have been foreseen. 

The Scottish Teacher-Researcher Support Network offers members information and the opportunity of contact with other teachers interested in educational research and experienced researchers.

The STRSN is based at SCRE. For more information contact Meg Cowie, Network Coordinator, SCRE Information Services, 15 St John Street, Edinburgh EH8 8JR.

SCRE Spotlights may be photocopied,
for use within your own institution.

Copyright © 1994 The Scottish Council for Research in Education

The views expressed in these papers are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of SCRE.


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Last modified 29/6/98