What do you think you ‘know’ about your research problem?

*You can listen to this post on the podcast player.

I am currently supervising several students at PhD and MA level, and a few of them are starting out with reading, writing, constructing their gap and setting out the shape and size of their research problems. This is an exciting and also at times frustrating process for students and supervisors. It is often characterised by steps forward and then backward or perhaps sideways, and sometimes what feels a lot like going around in circles. I’m not focusing on this whole process here, but rather one dimension of this part of doing research: the things we think we “know” before we start our research, the assumptions we bring into our reading and writing that we may not always see clearly, and why we need to think reflexively about these issues to do more ethical and credible research.

We often approach research, perhaps more at doctoral than any other level, from the starting point of our own interests, passions, questions: what do we want to know more about? What do we want to use this research project to find out or change or do? This means that we may be coming into this research with existing knowledge about the topic we are researching. And, crucially, our approach to the new research may be shaped or influenced by certain assumptions about what we think the project will be about, or how it might unfold, or what we might discover or find out. This is all really normal: when I started my PhD I had been working as a lecturer and tutor for almost 10 years and I had a lot of ideas about what we should be doing better or what we might be doing poorly and what could be improved and how. Many of these were founded in what might be termed a form of experiential knowledge or practice wisdom*, and some of them were probably quite common-sense understandings of teaching, learning and higher education.

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This is knowledge we all have, whatever field we are working in, I think. This may be more pronounced in some fields than in others, especially when you come from a professional space you have been working in to the doctoral research space. Some of this knowledge may come from overt forms of learning, such as reading research or attending seminars and making deliberate notes and working to make sense or meaning of all of this input in relation to our work and research. But, much of it can also be gained more tacitly, through time, experience, being in the environment and working things out as you go. This can feel like “common-sense” knowledge: this is the way we do things, it works, it’s fine. But we cannot rely on common-sense knowledge as a basis for research because it is too partial, too biased, and perhaps not necessarily supported by peer-reviewed, theorised research in our field of study.

I’ll offer an example from my own research journey. I work in higher education, as many of you may know by now. Specifically, I am a writing and academic development specialist and practitioner. I started my PhD a year after I started managing a university writing centre, and about 6 years after I has been consistently involved in teaching academic writing to undergraduate students at three different universities in different faculties. So, I had a lot of ideas about the “problems” with student writing itself, with students’ “motivation” for writing, and with the teaching that was happening. These ideas were shaped by colleagues I had worked with, the departmental ethos and course structures and materials I worked within and with, and my own experiences with students. I had not read very much of the scholarly research because I was not asked to or required to, and thus it didn’t seem relevant. It was pretty much all I could do most weeks to keep up with the teaching and marking. When I started my PhD and wrote the first few drafts for my supervisor, I was really challenged on a lot of my assumptions – assumptions I did not realise I had – that revealed positions and ideas that were not supported by the more critical parts of the conversation the field was having about literacy development, student writing, and effective teaching and learning. I wanted – needed – to join this critical conversation and this meant that I had some difficult thinking, reading, and reflecting work ahead. Specifically, I had to unlearn some of what I had learned about curriculum design and teaching, and notions of student “deficits” and discourses that put individual development and change over and above deeper and more sustainable systemic development and change.

This was hard work: not just intellectually, but also emotionally because it challenged who I thought I was as a teacher at that time. I always thought I was helpful, kind, made tough things like writing essays easier for my students. I think I was that person for some of my students, but the reading I did and the related thinking and writing work at PhD level made me realise that I was probably not that person for all my students because I had blind spots around questions of knowledge, access, success, systemic dis/advantage and how university opens spaces for some students to succeed and closes places for others, for a range of reasons that need to be made visible, named and addressed.

My early research questions and writing reflected my early blind spots and biases – in the language I was using (“In what ways can we better allow students to succeed”; “How do we deliver the curriculum more effectively”). My verbs, perhaps more than anything else, gave me away: they revealed my assumptions and bias. These needed to be challenged and made visible for two key reasons, I think. The first is that if we cannot or do not see that we have all sorts of assumptions and ideas coming into a project, we may well end up with a significant mismatch between the work we want to do and the work we will probably end up doing. We may say, for example, we want a participatory research design but end up doing something far more directive and hierarchical if we have an assumption that we know what the answers are and all we need to do is work to find them, or that the researcher needs to be an authority in their project, for example. This may extend to disconnects between theoretical and conceptual frameworks and the language you use in writing the thesis, or between the theoretical and methodological frameworks.

The second reason is that these assumptions and biases, if they remain unseen or unchallenged, may affect the way we obtain and make sense of our data. If you think you “know” that student motivation is the issue in whether or not students are successful, even if your reading of the literatures challenges this, you may construct data gathering instruments, such as survey items or interview questions, that are leading – that try to get participants to confirm these assumptions or ideas. You may also only seek out literatures that confirm these assumptions or ideas. In all research, we need to be quite aware of and cautious around confirming our biases, rather than constructing a research design and data gathering process that reflects the literatures we have included and aligned our study with, our theoretical frameworks, and that is open to discovery and analysis, rather than seen as “The answer”. “The answer” may be too coloured by our common-sense knowledge and what we think we “know” to really push us forward in our thinking, challenge some of the more problematic aspects of our work, create new knowledge in our fields of study and practice. In my own study I used Nvivo to code my data and in one of the training videos there was a phrase that stayed with me: “We need to be open to being surprised by our data”. Scientists may tell you: “Believe what you see; Don’t see what you believe”.

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There are many different research paradigms, or worldviews, that shape what we think the world is like, what we think counts as valid or credible knowledge or “truth”, and how we can reliably come to know that knowledge or verify those “truths”. Our worldviews are not always visible to us because we may come to them quite tacitly, over long periods of time through immersion in particular fields or disciplines of research and practice, through prolonged engagement in particular social and political environments, and so on. Surfacing our assumptions about what we “know” and how we know it and why we think it is valid knowledge is a powerful step in making our research paradigm clear enough to ourselves to explain it to readers and examiners. And this is important because it lends further credibility to our choices of research design, analytical framework and methods, and our eventual findings. On what basis do you make claims to “truth” or knowledge? How must others evaluate and make sense of your claims? How do you show the different ways in which you are making your contribution to knowledge and thereby persuade the reader that they matter and are valid?

This is not always easy work and it happens over the course of the project rather than all up front in the proposal. You need to begin there, at the beginning, reading and thinking with the scholarly and additional relevant literatures in your field, keeping a reading journal to write to yourself about how the reading and your own thinking and purposes/plans are connecting and speaking to one another. Speak to others about your research, including but not limited to your supervisors. Share your thoughts as openly as you can with people you know will listen and think with you, and not shut you down. Consider having a critical friend to regularly debrief with about different stages of your research process, so that you have help in spotting and revealing blind spots and biases that may derail your study or undermine the credibility of your arguments. The key thing, I found, was to find as many different useful spaces as I could to be brave enough to talk about my work and my thinking, and be open to listening to the critique and doing the work it demanded. It was not easy, but I do think that my research itself and myself as a researcher are better for it.

*This a term I reference to Veronica Bamber and her keynote at HECU7 in 2016.