Identifying the Research Topic and Focusing the Question

Identifying a Topic for Research

(Source: Mertler, C.A. (2009). Action research: Teachers as researchers in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.)

The research topic should address a realistic classroom problem such an academic problem or an issue of classroom management (Rousseau and Tam, 1996). Johnson (2008) provides an overview of three main in topic areas within which many action research studies fall.

  1. A teaching method. Teachers often consider trying a new teaching method or technique; action research allows for the systematic investigation of the effectiveness of new teaching methods.
  2. Identifying a problem. Frequently teachers will notice when there is a problem or when things are not going as well as they should, whether the problem occurs in an individual classroom or school; an organized and logical examination can help educators better understand the problem and its possible causes and can help them explore various solutions.
  3. Examining an area of interest. Teachers are professionals, and as such, their curiosity about particular topics in education is often aroused; action research can be used quite effectively to study such topics in an exploratory fashion.

Mertler and Charles (2008) have expanded this list by providing several categories of topics that could conceivably be considered for action research studies. They list the following categories, with only a few sample topics included here.
  • Classroom environment - Topics in this category include the various aspects of the physical and psychosocial environments in classrooms and school buildings and their impact on student learning.
  • Instructional materials – Topics might include the appropriateness of textbook and other printed materials with respect to gender and ethnicity, the extent to which teachers find the materials useful and to which they support the curriculum, or the perceptions that students have of those materials.
  • Classroom management – Possible research topics might include the level of satisfaction that both teachers and students have with the methods of managing student behavior, the degree to which the methods of managing behavior allow students to learn without unnecessary distraction, or how limiting those methods are with the respect to the ability of teachers to teach as they would like.
  • Instructional methods – Topics might include the effect of a given teaching method on student learning, the impact that different teacher personality styles can have on student learning or motivation to learn, or methods of providing effective feedback to students on their academic performance.
  • The relation of human growth patterns to education – Possible topic might include ways to incorporate individual students’ interests and learning preferences, teaching strategies that support self-regulated learning, of those that support individual rates of learning.
  • Grading and evaluation – Teachers have often have questions about the effects that grades and other forms of evaluative decisions have on student motivation, stress, achievement, and attitudes or on effective methods of incorporating authentic assessment and other nontraditional means of assessing students.
  • Conferencing – Possible topics might involve (a) the ways in which parents and teachers value individual conferences or (b) strategies for improving the effectiveness of parent-teaching conferences.

This list of categories represents merely a sampling of possible topic areas of action research investigations. There is a multitude of additional research topics that do not necessary fall into these categories. Bear in mind that in the broad field of education, you will not find a shortage of possible research topics for your action research projects.

Good Research Topics - In the section titled "Identify the Question," Nancy & Gary Padak provide a foundational overview of three major characteristics of good research topics and questions.

Starting Points - This page on the Madison Metropolitan School District website offers a process for developing good research topics and questions.

Guidelines for Developing the Question (Source - Madison Metropolitan School District)

  1. One that hasn't already been answered
  2. Higher level questions which get at explanations, reasons, relationships. "How does...?", "What happens when...?"
  3. Not "Yes-No" question
  4. Everyday language; avoid jargon
  5. Not too lengthy; concise; doesn't have to include everything you're thinking
  6. Something manageable; can complete it
  7. Something do-able (in the context of your work)
  8. "Follow your bliss"; want to feel commitment to the question; passion
  9. Keep it close to your own practice; the further away you go, the more work it is
  10. Should have tension; provides you an opportunity to stretch
  11. Meaningful to you; provides you a deeper understanding of the topic
  12. Question leads to other questions