Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Research Proposal: The Jigsaw Metaphor

Starting out on a dissertation or individual business project may feel like being presented with a 1,000 piece jigsaw with no reference image to work from.  

The training, mentoring and other forms of support offered to students during this form of "sustained, independent research project" hopefully helps scholars identify a range of techniques and critically a process so that they are able to complete the picture themselves.  Ok, let's be honest, sometimes with a good dose of painful iterative learning-by-making-mistakes in the mix too.  

Key here is not to be overwhelmed by initial (typical) feelings of confusion and anxiety.  Parents, older siblings and university graduates in your family social network can often be very useful and cost effective resources. Don't be proud, some will be delighted that you asked for their help. Overcome your fear of talking to members of the wrinkly generation, their experience of having climbed this mountain before can be very, very useful.  

Dissertation Proposal 'Jigsaw' Metaphor

Image source:  scrapbookcampus.com

Playing jigsaws children often learn short cuts from experienced adult puzzlers, like 'find the corners', 'separate out all the edges', 'put pieces in groups of similar colours and patterns' that might suggest colocation.  Whilst making sub-piles from a big pile is not really making progress in building the jigsaw picture, it can give powerful feelings of achievement and provide a sense of direction.  Sometimes momentum and generating positive feelings can be instrumentally powerful.  Small steps and all that ?

Through experience we learn that dividing the tasks into sub-sections and focussing on sub-elements can help focus and motivation on a difficult roller coaster ride.  Bite size challenges that measure progress one piece at a time can usefully distract the researcher from the overwhelming disorder that surrounds the project and potential feelings of hopeless disorientation.  Here a plan of actions can be very useful, keeping a tick box record of achievements helpful in rewarding hard work that might not seem to be progress.  

So why the weird structure ?

At Royal Holloway we usually invite students to submit a research proposal that contains;  (1) summary introduction, (2) the beginning of a literature review and (3) an outline of the methodology.  It is assumed that this will also include an extensive bibliography, although often a big problem is that the initial 'deep research' that indicated 'reading around' is severely limited to a handful of sources (far too narrow !!).  Gasp - four double spaced pages of bibliography is a good start here.

As markers we look to see if the title, theory and research methods line up - can this question be addressed using this primary research and academic theory ?  Often topics are too broad, the question too big to answer given the researchers available time and skillset.  I recommend using a lego style title structure that clearly communicates all key elements of the research project.  

Is the research method proposed thorough and feasible, neither too trivial or huge ?  I use two metaphors here to communicate key content, the upside down tree root decision tree that justifies the choice of research method (using the often dry research methods texts) and writing up the steps to making a pancake  recipe as a science lab test (so others can exactly follow your steps and re-create your findings).  

In addition to showing the theoretical areas covered in the inverted cone,  the partial literature review enables the supervisor identify if basic Harvard referencing conventions are understood, appreciate the depth of research thus far undertaken and assess the authors ability to write critically, that elusive objective academic tone that is best honed by extensive engagement with academic journal reading (or at least wide skimming) many students seem often reluctant to undertake.  

The big jigsaw metaphor reveal

For me the image below as a metaphor is what a research proposal seeks to achieve, not a complete picture, but an indication of the shape and size of things to come.  With corners marked and most of the edges in place, some of the central connected and unconnected linkages have already been put in place, whilst others sit in less clear groupings awaiting more attention later.  

The idea of the picture is beginning to come across (literally in this case an elephant like animal surrounded by green bushes and some blue sky).  It has some clear form and there is evidence of a systematic approach.  It is far from complete, but you can see that success is likely with a bit more effort.  

Image source:  scrapbookcampus.com

Where else to go for help ?

I like Stella Cottrell's writing style, her academic skills books benefit from student friendly pricing too !  Too few students invest in Stella's books.  My own, modest, free and concise blog based dissertation guide may also be useful ?

The inspiration for this jigsaw metaphor post came, perhaps not unsurprisingly, whilst in discussion with a dissertation student.  I would like to recognise my undergraduate BSc (Hons) Management mentee Natasha, whose enthusiasm for this jigsaw metaphor has inspired me to author this post.  Thank you Natasha.