Research Project

Types of question which research might seek to answer

This module addresses two aspects of practical research, the how and the why.

The how aspects include experimental design, hypothesis development, field and lab methods, result analysis, and report writing. Each of these will be dealt with on the Blackboard site and in VC tutorials. However, in order to develop a rationale for practical work which will enable you to use the skills listed above, it is important to consider the whys first.

What can practical work tell you that you can't get from other forms of research and investigation, such as library-based research or computer simulations?

Laboratory work and fieldwork are probably the most important sources of primary (first-hand) information. This is probably because, in spite of long periods in history when received knowledge was prized over experiential knowledge, 'seeing's believing'. Then, our investigative approach permits us to contrive situations in which we can see answers to our questions.

The exact nature of practical work varies both within and between disciplines, and encompasses activities as diverse as observing people in their own communities, collecting precipitation as it passes through a forest canopy, or plotting archaeological features in the field. One thing these activities have in common is that they are trying to answer a question, or to collect information so that suitable and useful questions may be asked.

Generally speaking, research should be useful. So perhaps the first question to ask yourself when contemplating any kind of fieldwork is, what am I doing this for?

Often there is more than one reason: for example, when you carry out your work, in addition to wishing to pass, you'll probably choose a subject that interests you. The reason why it is vital to know why you are doing practical work is that, as you go through the various stages in the process, you can check that you are doing things for the right reasons. For example, am I doing a project which will be completed on time and therefore allow me to pass?

This is not to say that the reasons might not change over time, or even during the course of the field work. What might start out as a study simply to pass a course might become a lifelong career, while, just as easily, a passion for a subject might dissolve into a simple desire to pass when faced with the realities of field-based study of the topic.

Fieldwork, then, includes a great deal more than the obvious activities of donning Wellingtons and taking samples while getting wet. Lab work is more than test tubes and slimy things. Asking the right question or questions is vital to the process: you should start thinking about this as soon as possible. Please don't panic at this stage, though. The module is designed to guide you through the whole process stage by stage, and while you will have to contribute the thought and do the work, your tutor will be there to support the development of your work.

"Many excellent projects have been carried out by students with only limited time and resources at their disposal. However, the ideas for worthwhile projects seldom come in inspirational flashes, and it is quite usual to feel totally bereft of ideas at the outset. Good projects often develop from making an initial perceptive observation in the field and then spending some time mulling over the possible significance of the observation and asking a wide variety of questions about a phenomenon." (Chalmers & Parker, 1989)

The next session will consider some examples of practical investigations to help you put your own work in perspective, give you some ideas and really start the process.

READ: Read Chapter Two of Chalmers & Parker, and start to keep a record or log of your reading, thoughts and activities relating to this module and your project in particular. Experience has shown just how important such a journal is for any kind of investigation.