Detailed Handbook of Dissertation



Section1 Introduction

Section2 Getting Started

Section3 Outline of aDissertation

Section4 Producing the Dissertation for Examination

Section5 Supervision

Section6 Additional Information

Appendix1 Useful Readings on Qualitative ResearchMethods

Appendix2 Useful Textbooks on Qualitative and QuantitativeResearch

Appendix3 A note on Research Role(s), Insider Research and PotentialBias

Appendix4 OriginalWork

Appendix5 Differentiation Guidelines

  1. The ResearchTopic

The way in which the topic of the research is set out may vary slightly depending on the type of study you propose to carry out. The introductory section of an experimental study, for example, will end with a statement of the specific hypothesis or hypotheses to be tested. For an action research study the section will outline the area of classroom work which the study attempted to improve, suggest why the action research model is appropriate and indicate the range of approaches which it is intended to examine. The end of the introductory section for a dissertation based on a case study approach will justify the appropriateness of this method and highlight the range of questions on which information will be sought. In general, you should indicate to the reader in this section the significance of the topic you have investigated and your aims in doing so. A paragraph outlining why you have chosen the research topic might be helpful. It may be appropriate to have a chapter which outlines the policy context for your topic where you would review relevant government or company reports and other non-academic documents.

  1. LiteratureReview

In the majority of dissertations a key element of the introductory section is the review of existing evidence. The literature review locates your study in the relevant field of enquiry and helps you set out a framework against which you eventually analyse your data. In order to do this you need to identify and familiarise yourself with the appropriate literature, critically assess the emergent picture from the evidence, prioritise the most relevant material and write it up in a clear, organised manner. You do not need to demonstrate that you have read every book and article on a particular topic. You do, however, need to demonstrate that you are aware of the key issues in the area of your dissertation, that they are up to date and that you can critically assess this material. The sections of the literature review should be guided by the research questions.

  1. On-line ReferenceSources

The University uses the Q-search system for electronic searches for articles and resources. You log onto the Q-search system via the Queens Library website and will need your student number and password. Q-search gives you the option to specify a subject area for your search and covers a wide range of different databases. There are a number of these databases that are particularly relevant for materials you may wish to access, including the British Education Index and Swetswise. The library provides various opportunities to see how Q-Search works and the staff are always very helpful in providing advice and support.

Please note: many students think that Google is the only, or best, way to search the web. However, Google, including Google Scholar, is too indiscriminate and that is why it is always more efficient and effective to use the Q-Search system. In addition, the University pays subscriptions which provide all staff and students with access to a large number of academic journals and other sources, but you may not be able to access this material if you find it through Google.

  1. Inter-LibraryLoans

Please note that the School provides you with free access to the British Library ‘Inter- Library Loan’ service. If you identify journal articles, book chapters, reports etc., which are useful to your research, you may request a copy of the paper or a loan of the book. Masters students may do this through the Q-Cat by pushing the ‘Inter-Library Request’ button and following the instructions. Completed forms should be returned to Reception, 69 University Street.

A URL for a PDF version of the requested articles will be emailed to you. Please make sure that you have the latest version of Adobe Reader installed along with the, ‘Digital Editions’ plugin. Assuming that you have this, you may access the article through the link only once. It is recommended that you print it immediately and then save it to your ‘digital editions’. You will then be able to access it for 14 days, but you can only ever print it once.

If you require assistance in this matter or wish the retrieval of your first request to be demonstrated, please contact Norma Menabney, Research Librarian, or visit the McClay Library.

  1. Critical Reviewing of theLiterature

Critical reviews are more often than not, uncritical reviews. This is the view of Haywood and Wragg (1982, p2), who suggest that reviews can become little more than a:

“… furniture sale catalogue in which everything merits a one-paragraph entrynomatterhowskillfullyithasbeenconducted:Bloggs(1975)found this, Smith (1976) found that, Jones (1977) found the other, Bloggs, Smith and Jones (1978) found happiness inheaven.”

This very descriptive approach to a review, which might be termed ‘death by detail’ should be avoided. When you organise the material for your introductory section, you should have a clear plan of order and logic in your presentation of the material. You should prove this by briefly outlining the plan in the opening chapter of the introductory section, and indicating, at the beginning of each subsequent chapter in the section, where this fits into the section as a whole.

The simplest test of a good introduction and literature review is that, at the end of the section, a reader will understand clearly why the dissertation is worth doing and what specific question or questions it is going to examine. It is meant to provide the jumping- off point for the rest of the dissertation. If it does not do this, it will be incomplete.

  1. Methods

The methods section of a dissertation normally comprises one chapter. If the purpose of the introductory section is to provide a rationale for the study and to highlight the key questions to be examined, the methods chapter outlines how this is to be done. In principle, the methods section should be complete to the extent that someone could, if they wished, replicate the study. It is important, therefore, that the methods chapter provides full details of how all the data to be analysed as part of the study were collected. Typically a methods chapter will include the following details:

  1. Design of theStudy

The design of the study relates to the general way in which the study was carried out. For example, at Masters level, an experimental study will involve an account of the experimental and control conditions through which the hypothesis was to be tested. For an action research study, it will outline details of the steps in the action cycle. For a case study it would involve a brief account of the context that provides the focus of the study. Sometimes a case study approach involves more than one case

for comparative purposes; this intention should be mentioned at this stage.

  1. Sample

All research studies involve sampling of some kind. A questionnaire-based study will normally be targeted on a clearly defined population, with a specific sampling technique used in order to represent that population. A qualitative study might involve in-depth interviews with a much smaller number of people, but these will have been selected using some criteria and method. An historical study might involve the examination of a sample of texts and documents. In this part of the chapter you need to explain fully how the sample was derived. When the sample is meant to represent a population, you need to identify clearly the parameters of the population. It will help also to identify the size of the approach sample, that is, the number of people/places/documents that were sought for the study. Sometimes the details of the achieved sample are mentioned here, but this might best be left to the results section of the dissertation.

  1. Methods of DataCollection

You will have selected a method or methods for your study based on the question(s) you are examining. An important part of the reason for adopting this method is that it will allow for the collection of data that are appropriate for coming to a judgement on the research questions. You need to provide a rationale and justification for your choice. In this part of the methods chapter you need to outline what specific types of data you set out to collect and how this was to be done. For example, if your study is based on a questionnaire, you need to outline the basis upon which the questions were derived. If the study is based on qualitative interviews you need to outline the general framework you adopted for the interviews. If you are carrying out a case study you need to outline the range of data sources you intended to pursue. More commonly with social science research, it is normal practice to pilot your data collection instruments (questionnaires, interview schedules, observation schedules, etc.). The details of piloting should be mentioned in this section, even in the unlikely situation that it led to no change in the original instrument. Where a pilot does lead to changes, these should be briefly summarised. This chapter should be informed by the literature on research methods. It is vitally important that decisions made in regard to methods are supported by the academic literature.

A section discussing the reliability and validity of the research, where these concepts are relevant, would be useful.

  1. Procedures for DataCollection

For someone to replicate your study it is important not only that they know the types of data you set out to collect, but the specific procedures you adopted to collect these data. For example, did you use a postal questionnaire with return envelopes, or did you hand out the questionnaire to a class of pupils or colleagues and wait while they were completed? Did the interviews last for 15 minutes or an hour, and were they tape- recorded and transcribed? For an analysis of documents, did you use content analysis or a thematic approach? If the latter, how did you record the summary information? For most studies it will be relevant to mention the procedures you used to check the reliability and validity of the data. In addition, you should mention the specific instructions you provided to participants in the study, including any promises of confidentiality. Please see the further advice in Appendix 3 of this Handbook regarding your research role(s), issues in insider research and potential bias.

All researchers must adhere to Ethical Guidelines and these are usually drawn-up by

professional organisations to which researchers belong. An example of such a set of ethical guidelines those promoted by the British Educational Research Association (BERA). These set out how educational researchers should conduct themselves while doing educational research and also how they should relate to, and interact with, the participants within research projects. Ethical guidelines can often offer support to researchers in dealing with issues that may arise while conducting the research and they can often help in clarifying for researchers what protocols to follow when carrying out various methods of data collection

As indicated earlier, Queen’s University also has a Code of Practice for Research to which all researchers are required to adhere. Every dissertation research proposal must go through an ethics procedure before any data can be collected and each School operates their own Ethics Committee to run this process. You should consult with your supervisor on the ethical aspects of your proposed research project, as outlined above.

  1. Analysis of Data

For all studies, it would be appropriate to include some details in the methods chapter on the way in which you set out to analyse the data you have collected. As with other parts of the methods chapter and indeed the dissertation in general you must support arguments with reference to the literature.

  1. Problems

It is rare for any research project to go entirely according to plan. Returns from questionnaires are sometimes lower than anticipated; interviewees prove to be unhelpful; gatekeepers block access to key data. Your Supervisor will help you to explore ways of dealing with such problems as you go along. However, it is important to indicate in the methodology section any problems you encountered in implementing your planned research project and how you sought, whether successfully or otherwise, to address them.

  1. Results/Findings

If the introductory section makes clear to the reader why your study was worth doing and the methods section makes clear how you set about doing it, the results section lays out for the reader what you found when you did it. The way in which the results section of your dissertation is organised will vary for different types of study. Just as with the introductory section, this section might involve one or a number of chapters.

For an experimental study the results section will typically involve one chapter outlining the results found when the experimental and control conditions were carried out in accordance with the procedures outlined in the methods chapter. Summary data, and not raw data, should be presented here. Normally some descriptive statistics are used to lay out the general pattern of results, but it is the details of the inferential statistics that are most relevant in that they will provide the basis for testing the hypothesis targeted in the study. You should provide clear details on the inferential statistics used, the observed values and their associated probability levels.

For a survey-based study the general pattern outlined above is likely also to hold true. As a general rule of thumb, it is a good idea to move from a general picture of the results obtained from your survey to a more detailed examination of the specific questions in which you were interested. In addition to descriptive statistics such as means and standard deviations, or medians and inter-quartile ranges, you may find it helpful to use some graphical presentations. With the widespread availability of graphics software on computers there is a danger that graphs will be over-used; this can be self-defeating if it

gives the impression to an examiner that you are merely trying to fill pages. Graphs can provide a very striking and clear picture of a set of data, but they should be used sparingly and to make a clear point. They should also have a clear legend and key for explanation and be referred to in the text.

When your dissertation relies heavily on qualitative, rather than quantitative data, then clearly a different approach will have to be taken to the presentation of data. The general principle, however, remains the same: in the results section you will be making various claims concerning the consequences of your research, and these claims must be based on evidence. With quantitative data the evidence comes in the form of summary statistics, graphs and probability tests. With qualitative data you need to provide a clear sense of the common themes that emerged from your research, the extent to which variation was found between respondents or observations and give numerous examples to illustrate and justify your points. The key point is that the data you present must provide a convincing case that what you have inferred from your study is valid.

Exactly the same principles apply if the research is based on the analysis of documentary sources as might be the case in, for example, a dissertation looking at some historical issue. In reporting the findings of the research you need to include information on the source and status of documentary evidence, as well as information on the range of themes and the predominant themes emerging from the analysis.

When a study has been based on in-depth interviews it is likely that the results section will comprise a number of chapters. These may be organised in a variety of ways. For example, you might organise the chapters around the different categories of people you interviewed for the study, or even devote a single chapter to a detailed examination of one interview. Alternatively, it is possible to organise the chapter(s) around a series of themes that emerged from the interviews.

A similar approach can be used if your dissertation is based on a case study. Sometimes the results sections of case study reports are organised around emergent themes, but they can also be organised on the basis of the different sources of data you used, or even chronologically. A chronological approach is most likely to be adopted for an action research study, where the report will normally convey the evolving nature of the study as it proceeded through a series of connected cycles of research.

Clearly there are a variety of approaches that can be adopted to this section of the dissertation and, in many cases, there is no single ‘best’ approach. It is important, however, that, in consultation with your supervisor, you adopt an approach that makes sense in the light of the information you want to convey to the reader. When you decide how you wish to plan out the results section then make this plan explicit to the reader at the beginning of the section. When there is more than one chapter in the results section then it does no harm to remind the reader, at the beginning of each chapter, how it fits into the section as a whole. It is helpful if the results are presented in sections that match those outlined by the literature review.

For qualitative studies and for many quantitative studies the discussion and the findings are intertwined – hence the analysis/discussion is not separated out from the presentation of the findings. It is really important that results and findings are SITUATED within the theoretical and empirical literature presented in the literature review. Substantive connections between the literature and your findings are a critical component of the findings chapter[s] and you need to make clear how your work contributes to the prevailing debates in the field. For some students it makes sense to discuss the findings in a separate chapter called a discussion chapter – here the more substantive links between theory and findings will be presented.

10. Conclusion

The final section of your dissertation provides the opportunity to discuss the findings of your research and tie together all the disparate threads of the study. It is good practice to begin this section by briefly reminding the reader of the specific questions the study set out to examine and how this was approached. The point of the section is to lay out the answers you have derived on the basis of the data you have collected and analysed.

It is important to contextualise the findings of your dissertation in the literature. For this reason you should locate your conclusions in the general body of knowledge examined in your review of literature in the introductory section of the dissertation. For Masters dissertations, your study will likely have confirmed an already existing finding, or extended the applicability of a view widely held in the literature. Sometimes, albeit rarely, your study may challenge widely held views.

You must maintain a critical dimension to your own work. All research studies have limitations and it is scholarly and wise to acknowledge these in your own study. Whatever the limitations of your study, keep in mind that others can learn from your experience. It may be that your research has suggested further avenues worth exploring in future research, perhaps for future dissertations! It may be that your research has certain implications for aspects of policy or organisational practice, although any recommendations you choose to make ought to be realistic and practical. With an action research project, an important conclusion may be the enhanced insight you have gained into your own professional practice. All of these points represent possible ways in which you move towards the end of the text of your dissertation.

  1. Recommendations

It is advised that students do not rehearse long lists of recommendations; the emphasis of the conclusion should be on the study’s implications for practice, policy and theory rather than on recommendations.

  1. References

Throughout your dissertation, but most particularly in reviewing the literature, you will need to refer to published sources. The reason this is done may be to support an argument, illustrate a point, justify claims or identify summary points, the fine detail of which can be obtained by reading the cited publication. It is crucial that the reference section of your dissertation provides clear and accurate details of all the published work to which you have referred. And of course, the same section should not reference sources to which you have not directly referred. The basic rule of thumb is that you must include sufficient detail for someone to locate and read the reference if they wish.

Thus, for all references you must include the author(s), year of publication, title, (for books) place of publication, publisher or other source and pagination (for an article or book chapter). The details of the source will vary depending on whether it is an academic journal article, a book, a chapter in a book, a report, a conference paper or an Internet publication.

A number of conventions exist for reference lists within the academic community, as you

will see if you look at a number of academic journals. However, the preferred style in the School is the Harvard method of referencing illustrated below. The key points are that the approach you adopt must meet the requirement above and must be used consistently. The following examples are strongly recommended to you as illustrations of a consistent style.

(Please note that there should be one reference list for your assignment or dissertation laid out in alphabetical order according to convention.

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