Preparing to Write a Research Proposal

When I was working on my Depth paper for Comps, one of my committee members asked if I had filled out questions similar to the following to guide my thinking as I prepared to engage in research.

Judy Olson’s Ten Questions

From: CEP901a Educational Psychology Prosem; Judy Olson’s Ten Questions

Use the questions to write a proposal or paper, plan a research project, think about your future, or check up on your progress.

  1. What is the problem? (in the theoretical debate, the world)
  2. Who cares? (an argument about its importance)
  3. What have others done? (the lit review, but pointed as an argument)
  4. What is your approach? (your general approach, the new idea)
  5. What are you going to do explicitly? (your operationalization, investigation)
  6. What will happen? (or did happen, if you have results)
  7. What does this mean? (in terms of answering the problem)
  8. Who cares? (in what way is this important?)
  9. Where will you publish these results?
  10. What will you be doing in 5 years?

Judy Olson was Professor in the department of Psychology and the School of Information, and Director of CREW (the Center for Research on Electronic Work) at the University of Michigan. She has since moved to UCIrvine. She used these questions in a seminar for doctoral students in the School of Information (SI) during several terms in the late nineties. I [Raven McCrory?] was a doctoral student at the time (in education, contemplating a joint degree with SI) and was privileged to be in her seminars.

Dissertation Sketch

The following summer (2014) I was working on developing my dissertation proposal. It seemed to me that people often say that the process of writing a proposal is linear (i.e., figure out the problem, come up with a research question, then find a method that will answer the research question). But that seems (to me) to be an over-simplification of my process, anyway. My process of developing my dissertation research study was a cyclic, iterative process of getting to know what it was that I really cared about, how I could make it interesting / critical for other people, and how I could find answers to my questions in a way that worked for the question and for me.

So, I would work on the research question, think about the participants I could include, think about the literature I was reading and problems I saw referenced in that literature, etc.

Therefore – I tried to start out with a very lightweight summary of my interests, so I could use that as a way to focus conversations as I talked with my advisor and committee members. So I created this simplification that I called a “dissertation sketch” (see below for an example “sketch”).

  • What is the problem?
  • What is your purpose (briefly)?
  • What is your research question(s)?
  • Research Design
    • Give an overall picture of your plan.
    • What kind of data will you collect?
    • Who are your participants?

Example Sketch (keep in mind that these are very informal)

  • Sketch 1
    • What is the problem?
      • Both MET1 & METII recommend teachers develop a framework of technology choice and use.
    • What is your purpose (briefly)?
      • Develop a framework or a set of questions teachers could ask themselves as they look for tech or turn to fitting it into lessons.
    • What is your research question(s)?
      • Roughly: How can teachers intentionally develop their tech/math/teaching muscles? That is, how to develop a framework of tech choice and use?
    • Research Design
      • Give an overall picture of your plan.
        • Work with teachers on developing their frameworks, starting with a general framework. Ralph and I have done this to some extent in CEP 805, so that could give me a first step to working with other teachers. I could use the course now and next spring as one step of my project and then working one on one with teachers in their practice as a second step? Or could I contact our former students to ask about their interest in participation in such a study?
        • What we have done in the 805 is:
          • select literature that (hopefully) focuses teachers attention on types of learning and some characteristics that are important in integrating technology use;
          • asking teachers to answer several questions about tech tools they choose from a menu we provide;
          • giving more freedom in choice (teachers search and choose tech tools)  adding more questions to answer: asking teachers to search for tech tools and answer a larger set of questions
      • What kind of data will you collect?
        • Field notes / artefacts / video of development
      • Who are your participants?
        • Practicing teachers enrolled in CEP 805 and then
        • Practicing teachers in Michigan
        • Pilot phase:
          • students’ work from Spring 2014 CEP805 (not-publishable);
          • develop plan for Phase 1
        • Phase 1:
          • get IRB for permission next spring to more formally do this;
          • develop PD module from results
        • Phase 2:
          • implement PD module in phase with MI practicing teachers
  • Sketch 5
    • What is the problem? (in the theoretical debate, the world)
      • Both MET1 & METII recommend teachers (and PSTs) develop a framework of technology choice and use?
    • What is your purpose (briefly)?
      • Build a framework based on “best practices” for searching/implementing tech in math lessons based on practicing teachers who are (or consider themselves or are considered) tech experts.
    • What is your research question(s)?
      • How do “expert” teacher tech users choose and use tech?
    • Research Design
      • Give an overall picture of your plan.
        • Ethnography type observation of teachers who self-identify as tech gurus — how they choose it: strategy for searching and planning; how they use it: classroom norms, discourse, student activity & evidence (would hope to find variety in these characteristics)
        • Compare how these teachers use technology – are there important differences in their strategies or type of use?
      • What kind of data will you collect?
        • Getting a picture: Initial survey to identify  possible participants and to get an overall view of teachers’ self-identification of themselves as tech users
        • Field notes + screen capture/camera recording of teacher searching & planning; possible debrief after choosing a tech but before implementation
        • Field notes + video of implementation
    • Who are your participants?
      • Mathematics teachers who self-identify as tech gurus

Learning how to read … In grad school

When I first arrived in grad school, I asked so many students: How should I read? What do I pay attention to? Am I spending enough time? Too much time? I’m drowning!

My advisor said to imagine floating in an ocean and then grab onto whatever pieces are floating past, close enough to grab. I felt more like I was tangled in vines – all connected somehow, all important, but all looked about the same.

Based on What is the learning goal anyway? I’m going to brainstorm potential learning goals of grad school reading:

  • Learn math ed theories
  • Learn math ed world values
  • Learn research methodologies
  • Learn the article itself for later use in research and arguments
  • Get to know the authors, aka, movers and shakers in the math ed world
  • Get to know the “cocktail party” conversation
  • Learn how to write
  • Learn about mathematics teaching and learning
  • Learn about students’ and teachers’ struggles and thinking

I’m sure there are many more. When I started reading for comps, I created a framework (based on other frameworks that had come up in different classes):

  • Abstract:
  • Stable URL:
  • Keywords: 
  • Type of article:
  • Theoretical Framing: 
  • Conceptual / Analytical Framing:
  • Research/paper purpose / research questions: 
  • Key terms / ideas / concepts:
  • Quotes from Text:
  • My Questions:
  • My Elevator Version / Summary:
  • Outline:

Another similar framing came from CEP956 (Mind, Media, and Society). It could be useful because the structure helped me look at the paper as more of an argument, which might have helped me learn better how to write.

  • Citation
  • Need
  • Purpose
  • Research Question
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Type of study and study details (i.e., sample, method)
  • Results
  • Conclusions
  • Limitations
  • Implications

All About Models

This semester, I’m taking a course (CEP 902, for those of you in PRIME) called “Psychology of Learning School Subjects.”  I don’t think the following was a goal of the course, but I have come to think of this course as “All About Models,” in an interesting way. Let’s see if I can communicate why!

On the one hand, it seems (reasonably) that we read about models constructed by researchers to explain student learning in each broad topic area: writing, reading, mathematics, physics, science, and engineering. On the other hand, it seems as though in at least some of these areas that students create their own models as part of their learning.

What is a model?

Merriam-Webster says, “a usually small copy of something.” Well, that’s kind of close. But I’m really meaning to say a “scientific model” perhaps. American Heritage Science Dictionary says, “A systematic description of an object or phenomenon that shares important characteristics with the object or phenomenon. Scientific models can be material, visual, mathematical, or computational and are often used in the construction of scientific theories. See also hypothesis, theory.

Good. The latter definition is what I was looking for:

  • systematic
  • description (or representation? or simplification?)
  • “shares important characteristics with the object or phenomenon.”

I think that my model of definition is: a representation of a complex object or phenomenon that reduces the complexity in a way that focuses users’ attention on chosen aspects or features.

We use these types of models in everyday life. For example, maps are models. Depending on your goals, the “important characteristics” may change. Map designers make decisions about what features are important. Here are a few different examples of models / maps / representations of Washington, D.C.:

Can you think of the creator’s goals for each map? Which characteristics are important in each map? How does the focus help the viewer? Are the maps above valid “as maps”? Or should a map of Washington, D.C. always look like this:MapDC-05My point is: there is no “best” or “more correct” model for all time and in every circumstance – a model is always a simplification, which means the creator must always be thoughtful about their goals and how some characteristics support their goals.

Models of Student Learning

A question that keeps coming up in this course is: “Does this model describe every person’s learning? If not, how many models would we need to describe every person’s learning?” I’m not sure I understand the question fully. In my mind, no model can completely describe a person’s learning – because then it would not be a model but would be the thing itself. My perspective on creating models of students’ learning is not accurately describe every student, but as a useful way to think about learning as support for creating better learning opportunities.

Models and Scaffolds in Student Learning

In different subject areas, we have talked about ways students can simplify their task. For example, creating a template to structure your writing or creating an algorithm to structure your problem-solving. These scaffolds can support students in arriving at the finished essay or answer, but can also proceduralize the work. That is, a scaffold can support students but can also block their learning. At what point can the student begin to remove a scaffold? Or is it okay for them to continue using it forever?

Another way of simplifying a task (or reducing complexity) that might be scaffolding but might not be – I’m not sure – is use of models. I’m going to stretch the definition of “model” a little bit, but say that in most fields students can create models to support their learning. In math or science, we talk explicitly about modeling situations. In writing, I mean “model” as an outline for notes or for writing – a small, lightweight  representation of their ideas that can help organize their thoughts around the important characteristics, whatever those may be.

In any case, talking explicitly about how to think critically about those important characteristics should be important. Supporting students in understanding that it isn’t possible to create a model that accounts for every variable or idea can help students develop into more critical consumers or citizens who will ask: “This advertisement or article makes a particular claim and backs it up with data. What choices did they make in the characteristics to keep and the characteristics to lose?”


model. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Retrieved September 22, 2015, from website:

Asking for Help – Advisory board, Advisors, and Peers

You will not survive grad school if you don’t learn to ask for help.

My advisor told me in my first year that I had to learn to start asking for help or I wouldn’t survive the program. Asking for help was a challenge for me: I don’t always notice when I need help. I’m scared to admit vulnerability. I’m not sure whether it’s a good question or not. I’m not sure if the person I ask will use it against me or actually give me good advice.

Ask for advice early and often.

For big things (e.g., research projects) and small (e.g., this conference is overwhelming), asking for help early – as soon as you notice you are struggling or even before you are struggling – makes it easier for people to help. The Preparing to Teach Algebra project began in August, 2011. We had our first advisory board meeting four months later in December, 2011. In their written response, our advisory board thanked us for meeting with them early enough in the project that we could use them effectively. They were able to help us find our way before we got too far off track.

Later in that school year, I co-presented with members of the Strengthening Tomorrow’s Education in Measurement project at the annual conference of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). I attended the research session and the regular conference, so I was there for a week. After the first day, I was overwhelmed with the sights, noises, and social interaction. I asked a colleague what I could do and she told me she had the same problem and her strategy was to sometimes put on large headphones – even if she didn’t turn on music. It indicated to the people around her that she was not to be disturbed, and she could take the time to reset. This experience of confessing my struggle, finding out it was shared, and that someone had a strategy to deal was simply amazing. It helped me learn that I can ask for help.

Team- and Community-building

Many people enjoy feeling useful and enjoy feeling smart. Asking for help isn’t only about you and showing weakness. It’s about giving other people a chance to help you, a chance to show their thinking, and a chance to see that they aren’t they one with that struggle. By asking for and receiving help, you can build bonds that create a strong team or community.

Getting smarter by sharing strategies

In K-8 mathematics methods courses, we share the value of sharing and discussing strategies in order to understand mathematics more deeply. Sharing strategies is helpful in more than mathematics, but also in life. We all have room to learn from each other and develop more sophisticated strategies of dealing with challenges.