Research Forms, Functions, and Skills
Graduate research projects are generally a requirement for obtaining a graduate degree. You are reading this text, so likely this is the situation in which you now find yourself. The outcomes of most graduate-level programs include some form of research. Higher education has traditionally required research in some form as part of the educational experience. Effective research skills were historically thought of as evidence of advanced learning and training in a discipline. The primary purposes of research in higher education include learning more about a topic in the discipline and expanding the professional body of knowledge.
There are primarily four variations of research projects found in American graduate programs: literature review, thesis, dissertation, and a capstone project. Each variation has a different function within the academic community, but ultimately provides contributions to the greater body of research and knowledge. Understanding the form and function of each type of research is important to complete the project successfully.
The Literature Review
The literature review is a type of research that is typically completed as a course assignment, a stand-alone project, or as part of a thesis, dissertation, or capstone. The literature review functions as a collection of previously published research on a given topic. Published research is called “literature.” In this case, a review is an analysis of the findings. This type of project is a review (discussion of findings) of literature (published research). Therefore, a literature review is a discussion of published research findings. The desired outcome of the literature review analysis is to justify the selection of the frame, purpose, design, and methodology for the research project. A thorough analysis of previous research is critical in developing an argument later in the discussion and conclusions section of the research project.
This type of research is passive in nature, meaning the research activity itself does not directly involve human subjects, such as administering a test, collecting survey data, or observing students in a classroom. Think of passive “researching” as an activity synonymous with searching for information. Research for a literature review is conducted in the form of reading published research articles, identifying and analyzing the findings, synthesizing the findings by commonalities, and summarizing the results in a way that leads to new understandings about the topic.
A literature review tells a specific “research story.” The narrative explains the details of what is known about a topic. The findings of previous research are grouped and synthesized to systematically explain what has been learned in research previously. New insights about the topic are presented through the connections made among the prior research findings. The story unfolds as, “this is what we know thus far.” The literature review functions as an informative work.
The thesis is a research project completed as part of a graduate degree program. The thesis functions to engage a student in conducting research and publishing findings in the discipline. The thesis is both an active and passive research activity. Active research conducted as part of the thesis includes collecting and analyzing empirical data. The thesis also includes a literature review as we discussed in the previous section.
The form of the thesis generally consists of five chapters: Chapter 1 outlines the research project; Chapter 2 reviews the literature; Chapter 3 discusses the methodology; Chapter 4 presents the findings; and Chapter 5 draws conclusions about the research problem. The components of the thesis incorporate citations of published findings, statistics, and other published data to support the project. Once completed, the thesis is considered a published work.
The thesis is an adventure story. This work details the exploits of the researcher in the quest to solve an educational problem. The thesis explains the setting of the issue, how the journey to answer questions is framed and conducted, and what new things are learned. The story unfolds as, “there is something we need to investigate, here’s how we did it, and what we learned.”
The dissertation is the research project completed as part of a doctoral program. In education, a doctoral program is either the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) or the Doctor of Philosophy, (Ph.D.) The dissertation functions to engage a student in conducting research and publishing findings in the discipline. Doctoral students become an expert on the topic explored in the dissertation as a result of the research process involved.
The dissertation has the same basic form as the thesis, only expanded considerably. There are the same five chapters in the dissertation as the thesis. Each chapter in the dissertation has additional headings beyond those in the thesis. The literature review in the dissertation is an almost exhaustive review of the current findings related to the components of the project and is generally the longest chapter. The dissertation is both passive and active as in the thesis. The depth of the research into the topic is greater so, the dissertation is deeper and broader than a thesis.
The dissertation is also an adventure story. The dissertation details the exploits of the researcher in the quest to solve an educational problem. As with the thesis, the dissertation explains the setting of the issue, how the journey to answer questions is framed and conducted, and what new things are learned. The primary difference from the thesis narrative is the depth and extra details in the story. The dissertation journey tends to be a more complex expedition than a thesis, as well. The story unfolds as, “there is something we need to investigate extensively, here’s how we did it, and what we learned.” The dissertation is an epic tale.
The capstone is a research project completed as part of a graduate degree program. The capstone functions to engage the students in conducting research, formulating research-based solutions, and implementing research-based strategies. The capstone incorporates a practical output, known as a product, as part of the research project.
The use of the capstone project has increased in the last decade, especially in education. The practical nature of the product is attractive to educators who are practitioners and developing scholars. Capstone projects vary based on the institution and program. Generally, capstones follow a three to five-chapter format, including a literature review, methodology, analysis, and an application of the findings in some form of a practical product.
The capstone is a different type of adventure story. While the capstone project is a quest to solve an educational problem, it focuses on detailing the product development process and solution. The capstone describes the setting of the issue, how the journey to develop the solution is framed and conducted, and a product to address the issue. The research story focuses on exploring what is needed to include in a solution or product. The story unfolds as, “there is a problem that needs addressing, we need to investigate what is needed, here’s what we created as a potential solution.” The capstone work is more of a product development report.