Invented Research Topic

What follows below is an invented research topic that I am not planning to complete. This is an assignment for the Research Methods course for the MScDE At the University of Edinburgh. Although it is not a *real* topic for me, what comments can you make that will improve the design or ethical considerations?

Research question: Do students achieve a greater increase in their written language skills in a Face-to-face or online version of the social work course Human Behavior in the Social Environment?

Background: All students in the Master of Social Work program at my university take a course called Human Behavior in the Social Environment during the first semester. It is treated as a gateway course for developing written language skills. Most students entering the program have finished their undergraduate studies 5-10 years ago, and are not well prepared for writing at a post graduate level. The focus on writing skills takes two forms. The first is a paper assigned within the first month that is used to assess each student’s current writing level. Significant feedback is given regarding essay construction, grammar, paragraph and sentences formulation, and logical flow of ideas. All students are given information about the Graduate Writing Coach available at the University, with students who fall below a specified performance given strong encouragement to use these resources. It is expected that all students will significantly improve their performance by the final assignment, which is a child field observation and report (for which students receive additional training, including how to write up the report).

In comparison to the face-to-face (F2F) version of this course, most communication in the online version of Human Behavior in the Social Environment is in text form. There is growing interest in the notion that online-text based learning might increase written language skills (Need citations to back up this claim). There is significant interest in the social work profession regarding the differences in experience between online and F2F learning (Need citations to back up this claim).

Methodology: Because there is an established standard of correct grammar and usage in English (within certain parameters), it is possible to use a post-positivist, quantitative design for this study. I will need to do a literature review to determine if there are similar studies whose methodology I can replicate.

Sampling plan: Email from me to the students enrolled in the course the past 2 years. It will be an opt-in sample, with no threat of coercion. It will include a valid informed consent, with no compensation and no covert or deceptive design. To protect confidentiality, data will be reported in aggregate form and will be kept on a series of flash drives that will be kept in a locked desk. Data will be retained for 3 years post publication, and then destroyed.

Sample for inclusion: Students enrolled in either F2F or online versions of the course Human Behavior in the Social Environment @ CSU Stanislaus during the past 2 years.

Data to be analyzed: Biographical statement from the program application and Child Observation report and analysis from the course.

Questions to be included:

  1. Number  of grammatical errors (Need additional research to see if there is a format for doing this)
  2. Quality of how well they answered the guiding questions for the biographical statement and the assignment (need to develop rubric & Likert scale)

Additional questions to aid in analysis of the data:
English as a second/third  language?
What is first language?
Age at fluency in English (need to define fluency)?
Age at residency in English speaking country?

Ethical challenges:

  1. Students are enrolled in courses that I teach. It will be more ethical to ask permission to use their papers for content analysis after grades are filed. While this will help perceived coercion, it may influence their perceptions of me or their performance in future courses they may take from me, or the grade they received for the course might influence their decision to participate (or not).
  2. I will establish parameters of performance, and colleagues will rate individual papers. This is to further protect confidentiality and to reduce rater bias (as I may unconsciously mark a paper up or down depending on my feelings about or relationship with the student).

Additional considerations: I am not certain that there will be a significant finding regarding writing improvement over one course. I will need to engage in additional literature review to determine if this is a long enough time to see such a change. Another option is to compare the first paper written for this course with each student’s comprehensive exam, which is taken at the end of the program. Numerous other variables will have taken place over a 2-3 year period of time, which poses other challenges to validity and reliability.


One thought on “Invented Research Topic

  1. This is a really nice idea, based on an existing opportunity to look at extant (possible) differences.

    Yes, I think that the ethical dimension is important, because of your relationship with the students. One would need to ensure not only that one *behaved* ethically, but also that the participating (and nonparticipating) students *believed* you. 🙂

    But my statistical tu’pence worth would be about the significance of what you found, and the notion of “effect size”. How big would your sample of students need to be before you could confidently assert that there was *no difference* if there really *was* no difference?


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