The research question – training wheels for new researchers?

Back in my undergrad, I and many others, were given the advice not to cram for exams. We should focus on the "knowing" the content and that would be much more effective than cramming. Unfortunately, I took that advice and as a result didn't have particularly good marks in my first two years. By the time third year came around, I realized that I actually needed to do both. I need to "know" the content, but if I wanted to do well on the exam I also needed to cram. If I did not do that concentrated revision for the 4-5 hours prior to the exam, I would not be able to easily regurgitate the various definitions that would be asked of me on the exam. Sure, from a long term memory perspective, I remember most of the content that I "knew" before the exam, but to do well on the exam itself I needed to cram.

As I write my thesis proposal, I was reminded again of the tendency for advice that is only partially true. The one piece of advice that we constantly hear as graduate students is that "the question comes first". The idea is that it is the research question that drives the methodology. The problem is, that as a researcher, I am drawn to a specific methodology or in my case a specific approach to research. As a result, I will actually form my questions to support my approach to research.

In reality what comes first is not my question or even my statement of the problem, it is actually how I view the world and what I consider to be research – my worldview. In an epistemology class I took last year, I was struct by this definition of epistemology: "epistemology is a theory of what gets to count as knowledge." (Gunzenhauser & Gerstl-Pepin, 2006, p.332).

Now that I am writing my research proposal, I again got stuck. Initially, I started by writing the "statement of the problem", however, in order for readers to understand even the problem, I had to first explain how I viewed knowledge or research. If I didn't define scholarly knowledge, then the "problem" did not make sense to those who do not share my worldview (many of my peers are constructivist researchers or critical theorists, I'm a pragmatic research who views knowledge in terms of consequences).

It is the researcher's worldview, or way in which they see knowledge, that influences the type of research they do. Then it is their preferred approach to research that affects the types of problems they see, which in-turn affects the types of questions they ask. So, the advice that the question comes first is not at all true. At least not at the PhD level. It is, perhaps, a simplified way of seeing things – it is the training wheels of research. For those who aren't ready to tackle the philosophy being research, the question coming first is not necessarily bad advice. But as a PhD candidate, writing a research proposal, it certainly leads you in the wrong direction!

So now, I am beginning my research proposal by providing my readers with the lens that I use to help see the problem, before I state the problem itself. Here is my current draft:

The design of professional development programs provides an opportunity to both solve real-world problems and engage in scholarly research. An emerging approach to research that supports this is design-based research (DBR), which has two goals: (1) to solve an educational design problem in a real-world context, and (2) to add to scholarly knowledge in the form of design principles (Collins, Joseph, & Bielaczyc, 2004). DBR takes a pragmatic approach to educational research, defining new knowledge in terms of the consequences of the research. DBR begins with the assumption that the delivery of education can be improved (Edelson, 2006). To achieve improvement, DBR scholars work with instructional designers to create or enhance design principles used in the planning, designing, and developing of educational resources. Design principles provide prescriptive guidance to instructional designers and developers on how to create effective educational interventions. In essence, a DBR project improves delivery of education by: (1) improving educational theory in the form of design principles,  (2) creating educational resources, and (3) providing professional development for the instructional designers and teachers involved in the project.

Without this, when I explore the "Statement of the problem" the reader gets lost. If the reader has a constructivist worldview, they might find themselves asking, but how is this research? My initial statement has given them the answer to that question before they are tempted to ask it. So, no, the research question doesn't come first!


Collins, A., Joseph, D., & Bielaczyc, K. (2004). Design Research: Theoretical and Methodological Issues. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 15-42. doi:10.1207/s15327809jls1301_2

Edelson, D. C. (2006). Balancing innovation and assessing design research proposals. In J. van den Akker, K. Gravenmeijer, S. McKenney, & N. Nieveen (Eds.), Educational design research (pp. 100-106). Abingdon, UK: Routledge. Retrieved from

Gunzenhauser, M., & Gerstl-Pepin, C. (2006). Engaging graduate education: A pedagogy for epistemological and theoretical diversity. The Review of Higher Education, 29(3), 319-346. doi:10.1353/rhe.2006.0008

1 Comment on The research question – training wheels for new researchers?

  1. So pleased to see someone else argue that the research question doesn't come first! I just came across your posting when I went looking for what it means to be a pragmatist researcher…. my EdD research started with a hunch, which is very much grounded in the pragmatic perspective I had of why people didn't like a particular tool we use to demonstrate our ongoing competency to practice! It's reassuring to read that someone else isn't starting their argument for their research with the statement of the problem, but rather how they came to see a 'problem' that others didn't necessarily perceive was there..

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