Detailed Handbook of Dissertation

The Research Topic

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.

The presentation of the research topic is a pivotal element that may exhibit slight variations depending on the nature of the proposed study. In an experimental study, the introductory section typically concludes with a statement articulating the specific hypothesis or hypotheses slated for testing. Conversely, for an action research study, this segment delineates the realm of classroom work under scrutiny, justifying the adoption of the action research model and outlining the diverse approaches intended for examination. In the context of a dissertation employing a case study approach, the introductory section culminates by validating the appropriateness of this method and highlighting the spectrum of questions slated for exploration. Regardless of the study type, it is crucial to convey to the reader the significance of the investigated topic and articulate the aims behind its exploration. Additionally, including a paragraph that elucidates the rationale behind choosing the research topic can provide valuable context. Some cases may warrant a dedicated chapter elucidating the policy context, wherein relevant government or company reports, along with other non-academic documents, are reviewed, offering a comprehensive backdrop to the research endeavor.

Literature Review

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.

The literature review stands as a crucial component within the introductory section of the majority of dissertations, serving to review existing evidence and position the study within the relevant field of inquiry. This comprehensive examination of literature not only aids in establishing a framework but also provides the groundwork against which the subsequent data analysis unfolds. The process involves identifying and acquainting oneself with pertinent literature, conducting a critical assessment of the emerging themes and findings, and subsequently prioritizing the most relevant material to present in a clear and organized manner. It’s important to note that an exhaustive review of every available book and article on the topic is not required. Instead, the emphasis lies in demonstrating awareness of key issues in the dissertation’s field, ensuring the information is up-to-date, and showcasing the ability to critically assess the selected material. The structure and content of the literature review should be meticulously aligned with the research questions, guiding the narrative to address the specific objectives of the study.

On-line Reference Source

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.

Accessing online reference sources is a streamlined process at the University, facilitated through the utilization of the Q-search system for electronic searches of articles and resources. Navigating Q-search involves logging onto the system via the Queens Library website, requiring a student number and password for authentication. Q-search offers the flexibility to specify a subject area for more targeted searches and encompasses an extensive array of databases to cater to diverse research needs. Particularly relevant for accessing materials are databases like the British Education Index and Swetswise. The library not only provides access to these resources but also offers various opportunities to familiarize oneself with the functionality of Q-search through informative sessions. Additionally, the library staff, known for their helpfulness, are readily available to provide valuable advice and support, ensuring students can effectively harness the potential of online reference sources for their academic endeavors.

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.

Inter-Library Loans

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, [email protected] or visit the McClay Library.

Critical Reviewing of the Literature

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.

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:

The methods section in a dissertation, typically encompassed within one chapter, serves as a pivotal component following the introductory section. While the introductory segment establishes the rationale for the study and outlines key questions, the methods chapter delineates the approach to addressing these questions. In essence, the methods section should offer comprehensive details to the extent that someone could replicate the study if desired. Central to this is the necessity for the methods chapter to provide a thorough account of how all data slated for analysis within the study were collected. Typically, a methods chapter incorporates key details such as the research design, data collection methods, instrumentation, procedures, and, when applicable, statistical analyses. This detailed exposition ensures transparency and replicability, essential elements for the rigor and validity of the study. The meticulous inclusion of these components in the methods section enhances the clarity and reliability of the research methodology, providing a robust foundation for the subsequent analysis and interpretation of data.

Design of the Study

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.

The design of the study encapsulates the overarching methodology employed in conducting the research. At the Master’s level, the design varies based on the nature of the study. In an experimental study, there is an elucidation of the experimental and control conditions, outlining the parameters through which the hypothesis is to be tested. Conversely, an action research study delves into the details of the steps within the action cycle, shedding light on the iterative process of reflective inquiry and intervention. In the case of a case study, the design entails providing a concise account of the contextual backdrop that forms the focal point of the investigation. Notably, a case study may involve multiple cases for comparative purposes, and this intention is explicitly addressed at this stage. By explicitly detailing the design of the study, this section sets the methodological framework for the entire research endeavor, establishing clarity on the procedures and conditions underpinning the subsequent data collection and analysis.

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.

Sampling constitutes an integral aspect of all research studies, with the nature of the sample varying based on the study’s design. In questionnaire-based studies, a clearly defined population is targeted, and specific sampling techniques are employed to ensure a representative subset. Alternatively, qualitative studies, utilizing in-depth interviews, may involve a smaller yet carefully selected number of participants, guided by predetermined criteria and methods. Historical studies often entail the examination of a sample of texts and documents for analysis. Within this section of the chapter, a comprehensive explanation is warranted regarding how the sample was derived. When the sample aims to represent a population, it is imperative to clearly identify the parameters defining that population. Additionally, specifying the size of the approached sample, indicating the number of individuals, places, or documents sought for the study, enhances the transparency of the research process. While some details of the achieved sample may be mentioned here, it is often judicious to reserve a more extensive discussion for the results section of the dissertation, ensuring a focused and coherent presentation of the study’s sampling methodology.

Methods of Data Collection

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.

The methods of data collection constitute a pivotal aspect of the research process, contingent upon the specific questions under examination. The choice of a particular method is not arbitrary; rather, it is driven by the necessity to collect data conducive to forming judgments on the research questions. In this section of the methods chapter, it is imperative to articulate the rationale and justification for the chosen method or methods. This involves outlining the specific types of data intended for collection and detailing the procedures employed. For instance, in a questionnaire-based study, elucidation is required on the derivation of questions and the underlying basis for their formulation. In the case of qualitative interviews, a framework for conducting interviews needs to be outlined, capturing the general approach adopted. If the study adopts a case study methodology, it becomes essential to delineate the range of data sources intended for exploration.

Commonly observed in social science research, the practice of piloting data collection instruments, such as questionnaires or interview schedules, is crucial. Even if the pilot does not result in alterations to the original instrument, the details of the piloting process should be explicitly mentioned in this section. If changes do occur due to piloting, a succinct summary of these modifications is warranted. This chapter draws extensively from the existing literature on research methods, ensuring that decisions made in selecting and implementing methods are well-grounded in academic discourse.

Additionally, considering the relevance of reliability and validity concepts, a dedicated section discussing these aspects, where applicable, would augment the methodological discussion. Addressing the reliability and validity enhances the robustness and credibility of the research findings, establishing a comprehensive methodological framework for the study.

Procedures for Data Collection

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.

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.

In the methods chapter, it is imperative to incorporate details on the planned analysis of the collected data for all studies. This section outlines the approach and techniques employed to make sense of the gathered information. Whether the analysis involves statistical methods, qualitative coding, or other procedures, a clear and comprehensive explanation is necessary. As with other components of the methods chapter and the dissertation overall, it is crucial to substantiate arguments and decisions regarding data analysis by referring to relevant literature. By anchoring the analytical approach in existing scholarly discourse, the methods chapter not only provides transparency but also ensures the methodological rigor of the study. This alignment with the literature serves as a guiding principle, underscoring the scholarly foundation and academic validity of the chosen data analysis methods.

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.

In the realm of research endeavors, it is a rarity for projects to unfold entirely as envisioned. Unforeseen challenges often emerge, such as lower-than-anticipated returns from questionnaires, uncooperative interviewees, or obstacles imposed by gatekeepers hindering access to vital data. Throughout the research process, supervisors play a crucial role in guiding researchers on navigating and mitigating such challenges. Nevertheless, transparency is key, and it is essential to candidly acknowledge any encountered problems in the methodology section. This includes a frank discussion of the issues faced in implementing the planned research project and the strategies employed, whether successfully or otherwise, to address these challenges. By acknowledging and documenting these hurdles, researchers not only contribute to the transparency of their work but also showcase a reflective and adaptive approach to the intricacies inherent in the research process.

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.

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.

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.

In crafting the conclusion of a study, it is advised against presenting extensive lists of recommendations. Instead, the emphasis should be directed towards elucidating the implications of the study for practice, policy, and theory. The conclusion serves as a platform to distill the broader significance of the research findings and their potential impact on real-world applications, policy considerations, and theoretical frameworks. Rather than offering a laundry list of specific recommendations, this approach encourages a more nuanced exploration of the study’s contributions and the avenues it opens for shaping practical approaches, informing policy decisions, and advancing theoretical perspectives. By prioritizing the broader implications, the conclusion aims to elevate the study’s relevance and significance in a way that extends beyond a mere enumeration of recommendations.

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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