The Long & Winding Road To My Research Question

Winding Road
I’ve heard the dissertation process referenced as a “long and winding road.” Well, I just settled on my research question (I hope) and I already feel like the road has been quite long. Here’s how it evolved.

Admissions Essay January 2010

I’d like to spend time exploring my interest in student engagement with social media…I expect that within a few years I will produce a dissertation that is relevant to the field and inspires others to embrace technology in student affairs. Ultimately, I expect to graduate from Cardinal Stritch University ready to lead a student affairs organization that embraces technology and social media as a means of increasing student engagement.

Research Plan July 2010

First, I’d like to study how social media can be used by higher education professionals to increase the academic and personal development of college students.  Second, I’d like to find or establish a standard procedure for collecting data about social media activities for research and assessment purposes.

Research “Idea Paper” April 2011

Through meetings with my advisor and mentor I’ve brainstormed many possible research questions involving social media and college students. After almost a year of deliberation, I’ve come back to the question I originally posed at the beginning of my coursework…

The purpose of this study is to determine if the use of social media has a positive effect on student engagement. The related research questions are:

  1. Does the use of social media to communicate with peers have an effect on college student engagement?
  2. Does the use of social media to communicate with faculty have an effect on college student engagement?
  3. Does the use of social media to communicate with campus staff have an effect on college student engagement?

February 11, 2012

At this point, I figured I was good to go. I made it through another summer institute, spent the fall learning about the nature of intelligence, more research and advanced stats. I avoided any work on my dissertation or research question. This spring, in addition to my core coursework about research and learning organizations, I’m also taking Advanced Research Methods and Survey Methods. In essence, the assignment for these classes is to complete a solid draft of chapters one and three of my dissertation.

I realized I was struggling to verbalize my research question in both of these classes. It was awkward to say, not everyone understood what it meant, and as I started identifying the constructs for my survey, I realized I was missing something major. I had to send my survey framework to my mentor for feedback, but I prefaced the assignment with these words:

I’ve been struggling with wording my research question(s) correctly. There are so many things I want to study, I’m trying to narrow it down to something that’s doable in a dissertation that doesn’t take a decade.

I now had two research questions:

  • Among college students, is there a relationship between social networking site use and student engagement?
  • How do college students utilize social networking sites to communicate with faculty, administrative personnel, and other students?

What my mentor didn’t know was that four hours prior to sending that email, I sent a pretty panicked email to my committee chair. I didn’t know how to research my constructs; I wasn’t sure my question made sense; help, can all this be answered in an email?!?!? Being the super chill guy he is, he simply replied, “Let’s meet next week.”

February 17, 2012

I’d gotten feedback back from my mentor. He pointed out I already knew the answer to my first research question (duh!). I took his feedback with me to my meeting with my chair. He pointed out to me that my remaining question was pretty vague. This wasn’t a judgement on his part, it became apparent when he took me through the following drill (which I’m sure I remember much more vividly than he does).

Chair: Tell me what you want to know, in one sentence.

Me: Well, I want to know how students are communicating with three different groups of people, in three different ways, and how that might affect…

Chair: Too many words, try again. (I think this was repeated two or three times)

Me: Ok. I’d like to assess student engagement based on the NSSE and correlate it with the types of communication students have with faculty, staff, and peers.

Chair: That tells me what you want to do. Tell me what you want to know.

Me: Ummm…I want to know if there’s a difference in student engagement based on how students communicate with faculty, staff and students.

Chair: Much better! Now, how can you make that a research question?

I’ll spare you the transcript of the rest of the conversation, but when I walked out of his office I felt very confident about my question:

How does the method students use to communicate with faculty, staff and peers impact their student engagement?

How I Feel Today

I feel like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders. Many of you may not know I was an interpersonal communication major, and constructing my research question this way will give me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with communication literature. Also, I have a question that doesn’t turn people off if they happen to have a negative opinion of social media research.

Am I still a social media researcher? Absolutely. I see the “methods of communication” I’m studying fall into three categories: face to face, using social networking sites, or other electronic correspondence such as email or instant messenger. If students who frequently use social media to communication with faculty, staff and peers have high levels of student engagement, I’ll have some empirical evidence that could form the basis for any number of projects and practical applications. If that correlation doesn’t exist, I’ll still learn a lot about how college students are communicating with faculty, staff and peers. As far as I see it, this question is a win-win.

I really didn’t think it would take me almost two years to have a researchable question, but I’m happy to be in that place now. I feel like I’m at the point where my research is really going to take off — last weekend in class I was revising my draft of chapter one and realized I’m only three short sections away from turning in a draft. This is getting real. And I couldn’t be more excited.

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4 Comments on “The Long & Winding Road To My Research Question

  1. ًgood luck with your research. I think you will make a different in the way we look to the media .

  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d29t2Tshc9M

    I doubt this will help, but I was watching this today from UC Berkeley. At about 16:30, the professor reveals the logistics of the class and how they will use social media to create a “network of nodes” to discuss sociology with people throughout the world.

  3. Congratulations! This was also the most difficult part of writing the proposal for me. I had all the other sections down and with each draft my chair kept telling me to revise the research questions. When I reached the proposal hearing the committee made a suggestion but the questions I had formulated with my chair’s feedback were solid. Good luck as you move along!

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