Key Elements of the Research Proposal

Do you know that the key element of your research proposal will be its methodology section?  

Imagine this: You are competing with several other organizations for grant money to conduct an investigation into a new treatment for cancer.  You will need to convince the grant foundation that their money will be well spent, and that you will manage this investigation well. How can they believe that you will produce results if you do not tell them about the methods you intend to use in order to assess and study your research and data?  Will you conduct experiments, or will you study existing groups of individuals? Will you collect numerical data or anecdotes?  How will you know that you have tested the correct populations of people or that your reasoning was sound?  Based on your research proposal's methodology, the grant foundation will either approve or disapprove your investigation, and will determine the amount of your grant. 

It is time to examine and study research proposal methodology.    A research proposal's methodology outlines the strategy for conducting an investigation in order to answer a research question.  As a part of an overall research project proposal, the researcher will need to plan out and share the procedures that will be used  in the investigation. 

In this section you will review different approaches, designs, procedures, and methods for investigating your area of research.  Specific tools will be described and evaluated so that you can determine which ones will help you to meet your research goals. 

Design Approach

The overall design of a research project consists of its methods and procedures.  Research design can be described as Qualitative or Quantitative in approach.  It is also possible to have a mixture of the two approaches, both in overall design and in the specific methods used in the investigation.

All researchers, including you, need to understand the full nature of both quantitative and qualitative approaches to research and evaluation methodologies in order to appropriately select the overall design that best fits your investigation. While described as distinct terms, qualitative and quantitative approaches to research methods and design are complementary and can overlap often. 

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Type of Design Used

What are the main types of qualitative approaches to research?

While there are many different investigations that can be done, a study with a qualitative approach generally can be described with the characteristics of one of the following three types:

Historical researchdescribes past events, problems, issues and facts.  Data are gathered from written or oral descriptions of past events, artifacts, etc.  It describes “what was” in an attempt to recreate the past.  It is different from a report in that it involves interpretation of events and its influence on the present.  It answers the question: “What was the situation?” 

Examples of Historical Research

  • A study of the factors leading to the historical development and growth of cooperative learning
  • A study of the effects of the historical decisions of the United States Supreme Court on American prisons
  • A study of the evolution of print journalism in the United States through a study of collections of newspapers
  • A study of the historical trends in public laws by looking recorded at a local courthouse

Ethnographic researchdevelops in-depth analytical descriptions of current systems, processes, and phenomena and/or understandings of the shared beliefs and practices of a particular group or culture.  This type of design collects extensive narrative data (non-numerical data) based on many variables over an extended period of time in a natural setting within a specific context. The background, development, current conditions, and environmental interaction of one or more individuals, groups, communities, businesses or institutions is observed, recorded, and analyzed for patterns in relation to internal and external influences.  It is a complete description of present phenomena.

One specific form of ethnographic research is called acase study. It is a detailed examination of a single group, individual, situation, or site. 

Ameta-analysisis another specific form.  It is a statistical method which accumulates experimental and correlational results across independent studies.  It is an analysis of analyses.

Examples of Ethnographic Research:

  • A case study of parental involvement at a specific magnet school
  • A multi-case study of children of drug addicts who excel despite early childhoods in poor environments
  • The study of the nature of problems teachers encounter when they begin to use a constructivist approach to instruction after having taught using a very traditional approach for ten years
  • A psychological case study with extensive notes based on observations of and interviews with immigrant workers
  • A study of primate behavior in the wild measuring the amount of time an animal engaged in a specific behavior

Narrative researchfocuses on studying a single person and gathering data through the collection of stories that are used to construct a narrative about the individual’s experience and the meanings he/she attributes to them.

Examples of Narrative Research:

  • A study of the experiences of an autistic student who has moved from a self-contained program to an inclusion setting
  • A study of the experiences of a high school track star who has been moved on to a championship-winning university track team

REFLECTION:  In your Reflective Journal freewrite for one minute, listing as many terms and concepts associated with qualitative methodology that you can recall.  Use those terms to jog your memory as you write a one paragraph summary of what you understand the qualitative approach to research design to be.  Do NOT look back at the information on this website, and do NOT try to write a dictionary definition.  Just your own words and ideas.

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Role of the Researcher

Determine what your role will be in the collection of the research material.  In this section describe your major tasks in your research procedure. Explain whether you will be an unobtrusive observer, a participant observer, or a collaborator.  Evaluate how your own bias may affect the methodology, outcomes, and analysis of findings.

Many times this element of the research Proposal will be affected by Ethics.  In addition, this section is often interwoven in a narrative design explanation with other elements of the proposal.

Review the excerpt below from a research proposal.  See if you can identify how the researcher has defined his or her role in the investigation from the narrative explanation that is provided.

Research Design and Procedures

Following these lines of thinking, a qualitative study of the social world of full-time adult undergraduates is proposed, using semi-structured interviews as the primary research approach. It is proposed to begin the interviewing process in the fall of 1996. They will begin with unstructured questions such as the following: "What has it been like to be a full-time student at Central College?" Often, with only an occasional question from me for clarification, it is anticipated that the adults will talk about a wide variety of topics throughout an extended interview.

It is anticipated that up to 30 interviews and any necessary follow-up interviews will be conducted during that academic year. In addition, follow-up clarifying interviews will be conducted with at least a dozen of these students during the second academic year after I have completed some data analysis and obtained a beginning understanding of the findings.

All interviews will be tape-recorded and, based on four pilot interviews already conducted, are expected to vary in length from 45 minutes to one hour and 45 minutes. The interviews will be informal and open-ended, and carried out in a conversational style.

I will write field notes in conjunction with the interviews, follow-up interviews, observations, and casual encounters with subjects. Memoranda also will be written while listening to taped interviews, typing transcripts, and reflecting upon a particular interview. In addition to the interviews and follow-up interviews, I expect to obtain other data throughout the study, such as comments from administrative and teaching colleagues, papers or other materials subjects care to give to me, and ongoing literature review.

REFLECTION:  In your Reflection Journal answer the following in a 2-3 paragraph response. How does the researcher characterize his or her role in the research process, both directly and indirectly, in the proposal? 

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Data Collection and Analysis Procedures: Sampling and Instrumentation 

Design and describe a specific methodology consistent with your academic discipline, your purpose, your mode of investigation, and your type.  This section of your proposal should explain the details of the proposed plan.  You should discuss how you will go about exploring your problem or issue and what specific tools and methods that you would use.  If you are not the only person working on the project, you need to explain who else is involved.

There are many devices that you can use to collect your data.  Click to see a larger version of the chart.
Research Tools

Each section links to a separate page which would includes:  Pros/Cons, Guide, Resources, Examples and Tools.

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Ethics

Ethics must be considered in all phases of a research project, from brainstorming ideas, to fundraising grants, to designing studies, to conducting interviews, and right through to final publication of final results.

The National Institute of Environmental Heath Science and the National Institutes of Health have a thorough consideration of all aspects of research ethics for all types of research designs in the article, “What is Ethics in Research & Why is It Important?” by David B. Resnik, J.D., Ph.D. 

As you read the article, generate a list of all of the various ways in which ethics impacts the research process.

Read "What is Ethics in Research & Why is It Important?"

REFLECTION:  Which one of all of the concerns related to research ethics is the most important to remember?  Why?  Defend your choice in an informal essay of at least five paragraphs in your Reflection Journal.  Although you are only defending one concern, you should also refer others in your essay as well.

Now use tutorials, case studies, and other resources to allow you to clarify your understanding of ethical concerns in research.

REFLECTION:  Go through one of the tutorials linked above.  Which one did you select?  Why?  What did you learn that might prepare you to consider ethics for your own research investigation?  Describe your thoughts in 2-3 paragraphs in your Reflection Journal. 

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Reliability and Validity of Methods and Results

You need to convince your reader that your methods and results are both reliable and valid.  The more  resultsprove consistent over time and reflect accurate representations of the total populations under study, the more scientifically  reliablethey are. If the results of a study can be reproduced under a similar methodology, then the research  methodsare considered to be reliable. 

Validity   determines whether the research truly measures what it was intended to measure, or how truthful the research results are. In other words, does the research instrument allow you to hit "the bull’s eye" of your research objectives? Researchers generally determine validity by asking a series of questions, and will often look for the answers in the research of others.  Each type of research design has its own standards for reliability and validity.

Researchers argue that maintaining the trustworthiness of qualitative research depends on the same issues of quantitative studies known as validity and reliability. While it is difficult in qualitative research to prove validity and reliability through reproducing the same results over and over, like a researcher can do in quantitative research, some qualitative researchers believe that the concept of dependability and consistency in results can develop a sense of validity for qualitative research.

Consistency of data is achieved when the steps of the research are verified through examination of such items as raw data, data reduction products, and process notes. Because it is more difficult to define reliability and validity in qualitative terms, many researchers have developed their own concepts of validity and have often generated or adopted what they consider to be more appropriate terms, such as, quality, rigor and trustworthiness. The idea of discovering truth through measures of reliability and validity is replaced by the idea of trustworthiness, which is “defensible”and establishing confidence in the findings.  

Triangulation is one test for improving the validity and reliability of research or evaluation of findings. As the name implies, triangulation is a strategy that controls bias and helps to establish valid conclusions because it uses at least three (thus, the "tri-" prefix) different types of methods or tools to collect data from which conclusions are made.  Many researchers argue that triangulation strengthens a study by combining methods. This can mean using several kinds of methods or data, including using both quantitative and qualitative approaches.  By using at least three different methods, the researcher is about to obtain multiple, diverse perceptions of a single concept.

Many research tools and models have their own tests for reliability and validity built in to their basic procedures and methodologies.  As you explore and apply these methods to your own research investigation, always question if you are implementing them in a way that makes the process and the results reliable and fair.

More resources on this topic:

REFLECTION:  In your Reflection Journal, sketch a visual representation of what triangulation means in a general sense.  You may use a drawing program or import a clip art.  By creating or selecting a visual definition of a term, you will have provided yourself another way to remember the meaning of the term. 

Quantitative

Quantitative methodology frames its concerns about validity and reliability using the terms  internalandexternal

1. Internalvalidity concerns the soundness of an investigation. In particular, studies of cause and effect need to be internally valid. Causal studies include clinical trials, experiments or quasi-experiments. To demonstrate causality, three conditions should be met:

a. The cause must precede the effect b. The size of the effect varies with the size of the causal factor

c. Other causes for the effect can be ruled out.

Example:

a. Food poisoning may be the cause of stomach pain if eating the food preceded the pain. If the pain was present before eating the suspected food then the food could not be the viewed as a possible cause.

b. The second condition for establishing causality would be fulfilled if the degree of pain experienced varies with the amount of the food consumed, i.e. the greater the amount of food consumed, the worse the pain experienced.

c. Finally, other alternative explanations must be ruled out, such as distention or other non-bacterial diseases.

Thus a causal study is internally valid or hasgood internal validityif the effects observed can be correctly attributed to the treatments administered or to the independent variable. This implies that variables have been controlled, and any possible error or bias due to those variables have been removed or reduced.

2.Externalvalidity refers to the extent to which the results of an investigation can be generalized to other samples or situations. There are two types of external validity:

a. Population validity
b. Ecological validity

a.Population validityconcerns generalizing from the sample, a part of an identified group from which you want to make a conclusion, to the population, the group about whom you want to make the conclusion. Limits to population validity may arise when the population one wishes to generalize to is not the same population from which the sample was taken.

Example:

A study on controlling hypertension draws a random sample of 50 male patients from a population attending the general practice X. Its findings can be really only be generalized to the population of male patients attending that surgery and NOT to ALL male patients with hypertension attending different surgeries or in different parts of a country.

b. Ecological validityrefers to generalizing findings to other situations, settings or conditions.

Examples:

Drug A may relieve acute pain due to injury but not the type

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of pain induced by laboratory means. Patients may be able to make a cup of tea in a rehabilitation unit but not in their own homes.

Programs to break addiction to alcohol may not be successful in cases of addiction to heroin.

External validitydepends on the use of appropriate basic concepts of samplingand sample size. Probability sampling methods are more likely to result in selecting a sample that is representative of the population that the researcher wishes to study. Non-probability methods usually do not ensure a representative sample but may be appropriate for some studies depending on the study aims.

An adequate sample size reduces the likelihood of sampling error. The following tool is helpful in generating appropriate sample sizes.

This abstract from the National Institutes of Health details the degree to which sample size and population sample characteristics can demonstrate the reliability of conclusions drawn from data.

For more information about Reliability and Validity in Quantitative studies, visit the resources below. 

REFLECTION:  In your Reflection Journal create a T-chart, either using a table or drawing tool.  On one side list as many details about validity that you can recall.  On the other side, list details about sampling.  After you have done this from memory, re-skim some of the material above and the preceding web page.  Add more details to your chart.  These are complex, complicated ideas.  Creating this T-chart will begin to help you to digest this advanced material. 

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Timetable

You want to be sure that your investigation is feasible for the timeframe that you have.  Inexperienced researchers tend to underestimate the amount of time that the various stages of research will take. Be generous when working out time frames and check them with a more experienced researcher.  In order to do this, you need to map out what you will do and when you will do it.  You also have to keep your goals and objectives for the proposal in mind when setting deadlines for progress and consider what benchmarks you will use to determine your progress.  This may take the form of a chart, timeline or flowchart (or any other organizer you choose).

Give an overview of when you are going to do each specific step of your project.  This does not need to be a day-to-day list, but it should give an overview biweekly or monthly.  Be sure to include time to review and synthesize your data or reflect on the overall study.  You should include time to prepare the final research product as well.

Consider the following questions when setting up your schedule:

  • When will your research start and finish?
  • Are there particular stages to the research - e.g. piloting, then main research?  screening interviews, then a main study?  If there are stages, what are they?
  • What objectives have I set for this investigation?  Are they addressed in the timeline? 
  • Is the timetable realistic?
  • Is it influenced by external constraints or deadlines?
  • How will you provide regular updates and progress reports and to whom will you provide them?  How will you demonstrate progress?

One way to organize yourself is to create a basic table in a Word document or do look at other templates.

There are also online calculators that will assist you in setting deadlines for phases of the research process.

Reviewing samples of other research investigation timelines can give ideas for what you would like to include in your own schedule and how you will budget your time.  Study the following example to see how this researcher organized his timeline.

Management Plan

This section presents my schedule, costs, and qualifications for completing the proposed research. This research culminates in a formal report, which will be completed by December 5, 1997. To reach this goal, I will follow the schedule presented in Figure 1. Since I already possess literature on the subject of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site, most of my time will be spent sorting through the literature to find key results, and presenting those results to the audience.

research timetable

Now review a few more.  Consider how each was organized and what components were included

REFLECTION:  Based on your exploration of the timetables above, what are the key requirements for a research proposal's timetable?  What are some of the differences that you observed?  Why do you think that these differences exist?  Answer these questions in several paragraphs in your Reflection Journal. 

The following web applications could also assist you in the creation of your timeline and help you to remind yourself of when deadlines are approaching.

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Resources and Materials

List the equipment and resources that are already available that you expect to use in your study.  Itemize what other equipment and resources you will need to complete the investigation.  You must identify the resources you will need to complete the project with a clear understanding of each stage of your project. Be sure to consider people, materials, and equipment/tools in your explanation. While exhaustive details are not required for a general proposal, an assessment of the potential resource requirements is essential for good research planning. A proposal that neglects resource use or underestimates the resources required suggests a poorly thought out project.

The materials and equipment that you need for your research investigation will vary based on your methodology.  The following questions should help guide you in determining what you should include in this section of your proposal.

*What apparatus are you going to use?

*What materials are you going to use?

*Are you going to administer any tests? If so, which ones?

*Are there any special supplies you require?

*Do you need an apparatus or device to observe or record behavior?

*Will you need access to any special supervision, staff, or advisors?

*Do you need any special training, knowledge, or certifications?

Will you need any special literature or guides? 

What access to facilities will you need that are outside of your school?  Inside of your school?

Examples from Actual Proposals 

A. Apparatus

Data on answer speed and call handling time was attained utilizing the Northern Telecom Meridian Max call reporting system. A daily prayer log sheet was used as a self report by prayer intercessors.

B.  Materials

Electromyography equipment (stimulator, pre-amplifier, amplifier, display screen, recording device), electrode leads, surface disposable electrodes, conductant gel, skin preparation solution, alcohol swabs, tape measure, recording paper, plotter pens, thermometer.

c.  FACILITIES 

Supervision is available from the School of Theatre, and while there is no special equipment needed, there are special requirements for access to documents unique to the project. The principal documents required for this project are published libretti of the musicals of Peter Stone, personal papers of Peter Stone, and interviews and archival footage. Materials that cannot be acquired (such as out-of-print libretti) or accessed via the Internet (such as archival video footage) will be sourced by visiting institutions that hold the material. Central to this will be the personal papers of Stone (at the University of California, Los Angeles), correspondence held in the archives of the Dramatists Guild of America (New York), and oral histories, video-recordings of interviews and archival footage of performances (New York). These unique documents are not available on interlibrary loan and must be consulted in-person.

This website lists the many resources that some universities offer to students who are completing research investigations.  The files may provide ideas for the types of resources and materials that you may need in your own investigation.

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Budget

Your list of budget items and the calculations you have done to arrive at a dollar figure for each item should be summarized.  A narrative portion of the budget is used to explain the line items in the budget.  Projects that include travel or need large amounts of funding should be specific about benefits and reasons for the cost.

You will be expected to detail the costs of the project, including the cost of all resources such as travel, accommodation and equipment.

Budgetary considerations are important for all students, especially if you have limited access to funds. You need to ensure your project is feasible and establish where the funds will be coming from to finance it.

Narrative Example:
Given that all my sources are available through the University of Wisconsin library system, there is no appreciable cost associated with performing this review, unless one takes into consideration the amount of tuition spent on maintaining the university libraries. The only other minor costs are photocopying articles, creating transparencies for my presentation, printing my report, and binding my report. I estimate these expenses will not exceed $20.

Sample Budget (Narrative Form)

Cost Information

(Note: The evaluation panel reviews cost information after considering the technical aspects of the proposals. The responsibility for evaluation of costs often rests primarily with the contracting officer, who relies on input from other members of the evaluation panel.)

  • Is the overall cost within the rate of your (the contracting agency's) budget?
  • What is the relationship between the cost figures and equivalent items in the technical proposal?
  • Are the personnel costs reasonable according to the tasks to be performed?
  • Are the appropriate personnel assigned to perform the appropriate tasks?
  • Have expenditures been set aside for subcontracting requirements such as data processing?
  • If a large-scale questionnaire must be mailed, has an adequate sum been set aside for postage?
  • Have costs for development of instruments, purchase of materials, such as scoring sheets, etc., been included?
  • Does the travel seem reasonable when compared to the tasks to be accomplished?
  • If consultants or experts are included, is their daily rate reasonable and within the proper financial range for your agency? Is the proposed time reasonable?
  • If appropriate, have costs for local personnel been included?

Data-based examples:

Example entry

Item Unit cost Total
Equipment rental and purchase
Digital voice recorder $150 $150
Transcription machine (hire) $130 $130
Materials and supplies
Lithium batteries (4) $7 $28
1 GB memory stick $95 $95
Stationery $100 $100
Communications
Telephone and Internet charges $200 $200
Postage $50 $50
Personnel
Indirect costs
N/A    
TOTAL   $753

REFLECTION:  Beside calculating costs, what other benefits does planning a budget provide a researcher?  Explain your ideas in a one-paragraph response in your Reflection Journal.

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Limitations

Limitationsare influences that the researcher cannotcontrol

Limitations are shortcomings, conditions or influences that cannot be controlled by the researcher that place restrictions on your methodology and conclusions. Any limitations that might influence the results should be mentioned.

Things to think about:

  • - your analysis
  • - the nature of self-reporting
  • - the instruments you utilized
  • - the sample 
  • - time constraints 

In qualitative research these limitations will often be that the findings cannot be generalized to the larger population.  This is especially true when the definition of the population is broad (ex:  elderly women)

Example

Implementing Communication Strategies in Listening/Speaking Classes at the Foreign Language Center- Cantho University (Dang Thi Kim Mai)

Although this research was carefully prepared, I am still aware of its limitations and shortcomings.

First of all, the research was conducted in the two intermediate classes which have lasted for eight weeks. Eight weeks is not enough for the researcher to observe all of the students’ speaking performance in their classes. It would be better if it was done in a longer time.

Second, the population of the experimental group is small, only thirty-five students and might not represent the majority of the students of the intermediate level.

Third, since the questionnaire designed to measure the students’ attitude towards the use of communication strategies might give useful information about the impacts of communicative strategies; it seems not to provide enough evidence of the students’ actual behaving to communication skills in their speaking performance.

In addition, since the assessment of the pretest and post test was conducted by the author herself, it is unavoidable that in this study, certain degree of subjectivity can be found. In fact, it would have been sort of objective if it had been decided by two or three examiners.

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Delimitations

Delimitations are choices made by the researcher which should be mentioned.

Delimitations describe the boundaries that you have set for the study. This is the place to explain:

  • the things that you are not doing (and why you have chosen not to do them)
  • the literature you will not review (and why not)
  • the population you are not studying (and why not)
  • the methodological procedures you will not use (and why you will not use them)

Limit your delimitations to the things that a reader might reasonably expect you to do but that you, for clearly explained reasons, have decided not to do.

Delimitations define the parameters of the investigation. In educational research the delimitations will frequently deal with such items as population/sample, treatment(s), setting, and instrumentation. For example, the study may focus on children in only one grade level or measure aptitude using only a group intelligence test. (Suggestions for Preparing a Dissertation/Thesis Proposal)

Examples:

  • A researcher chooses to look only at senior college swimmers or adolescents between 18 to 19 years of age.
  • The researcher picks a particular instrument to collect data with or limits the number of questions asked

REFLECTION:  Answer in a two or three paragraph response in your Reflection Journal.  Why is important that a researcher consider both limitations and delimitations when planning his or her methods?  Be sure to include the definitions of the terms and specific details in your writing. 

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Final Product

In the section, the researcher discusses the possible outcomes of the study, its relation to theory and literature, and its potential impact or application.  A description of the possible forms of the final product, e.g., publishable manuscript, conference paper, invention, model, computer software, exhibit, performance, etc., should be outlined.  Be specific about how you intend to share your results or project with others.  Although all of these ideas may change in light of the research process or the final results, it is always good to plan with the end product in mind.

This section may also include an interpretation and explanation of results as related to your question; a discussion on or suggestions for further work that may help address the problem you are trying to solve; an analysis of the expected impact of the findings and product on the audience; or a discussion on any problems that could hinder your creative work.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what form will your findings be presented?
  • How will you be disseminating your findings?
  • To whom will you be disseminating your findings?
  • How will you ensure anonymity in any publications?
  • Will you need to create an abstract of your overall investigation?

Consider how this group presented their findings. 

 

REFLECTION:  Think back to the purposes for research conclusions and findings (basic, practical, and applied).  Explain in a one or two paragraph entry in your Reflection Journal what the connection is between these purposes for research and the final product of the research investigation.  Use specific terms and details in your answer. 

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Category: Research proposal

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