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The “test” for a dissertation research methods chapter is whether another researcher could take the information in this chapter and replicate your study. If so, your methods can be defended. If not, revisions will have to take place. Obviously, the best option is to get it right the first time.
This chapter contains several critical elements and is the most important one of your entire work. That is because you have to explain and justify everything you have done, and each part of what you have done must contribute to the “whole” in a coherent and scholarly way. The following sections of this chapter are all mandatory, but not necessarily in the order presented here. Each department may have its own required sequence.
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The Research Design
The first explanation you must provide is the type of study design you have selected – qualitative or quantitative. You addressed this in your introduction, of course, but you must repeat it here. If your study is qualitative, you will not have much else to say other than to repeat your research question. If you study is quantitative, however, you must describe the independent and the dependent variables. If, for example, your study and research question related to the reduction in incidences of criminal activity on the part of juveniles after a specific treatment (completion of an intervention program, for example), the dependent variable is the juvenile population that will receive the treatment. The independent variable is the treatment.
The Subjects/Participants and the Setting
If your study is quantitative, you must describe the setting of the study and the subjects or participants involved in the study. If the subjects are mice, for example, describe the laboratory setting in which the treatment will be administered; if the participants are human, describe the geographical location as succinctly as possible. Remember, another researcher should have enough information to replicate your study in a similar setting elsewhere.
If your study is qualitative, you will have made a decision about the number of participants to be involved, and you will need to justify why you selected that specific number. There are a couple of ways to do this that can be defended. One is mathematical by using the alpha level power analysis, in which you reach a level of at least 80% certainty that the effect will be demonstrated in the chosen sample size. The other way is to look at sample sizes that have been used by other researchers in similar studies and to use those to determine your own. In many instances, the setting for the qualitative study will be critical. If, for example, you are engaged in a study of the impact of neighborhood violence on the lifestyles of young children in those neighborhoods, then the setting is of critical importance, and you will have to describe that setting in great detail.
Research methods for dissertation studies involve instruments, of course, and these instruments must be described in great detail.
For Qualitative Studies: There are two types of instruments – those devised by the researcher or those that already exist and that have been validated by prior research. If you are using your own instruments, be prepared, in this section, to describe the process by which you determined the items/questions that were included in a survey or questionnaire. If the process involves interviews, what steps have you taken to ensure that the interviews are consistently given to all participants? The instruments should not be included in the chapter, but, rather, provided in an appendix.
In a quantitative study, the “treatment” is described in detail and the instrument(s) used to collect the data should be placed in an appendix.
Research methods dissertation-style, must explain in detail exactly how the data was gathered. Qualitative studies will require a great deal more work in this section than quantitative ones.
Qualitative Studies: Participants must give their permission, in writing, to participate. There are release forms to be signed. There must also be a statement on the part of the participant that the study and participation in the study constitutes minimal physical, emotional or psychological risk. These are forms and statements that are required by law. If the participants are minors, then parental/guardian permission forms must be signed. All of these forms should be included in appendices.
Quantitative Studies: Generally, the only requirement here is a full explanation of when, where, and how the data was gathered. The exception to this rule, of course, is if a treatment that is to result in a quantitative analysis, involves minors. If so, parental/guardian permission must be obtained. In the case of a study of middle school at-risk students, for example, parental permission must be given for the student to receive the differentiated programming, and access to student records also requires a release form.
Processing the Data
Fortunately, several Internet tools are now available which crunch the numbers of a qualitative study accurately and with great ease. One needs only to upload the responses to surveys and questionnaires and results will be churned out quickly. Interviews, however, in which responses are in the form of statements that are recorded, will require “by hand” gathering, synthesizing, and analysis. For quantitative studies, a description of the process by which the data was gathered and organized for reporting purposes is required.
It goes without saying, of course, that dissertation methods of study will at all times protect the privacy of participants.
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