Episode 61: What Makes a High Quality Research Question
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So, your teen’s picked a topic for their latest research assignment, investigation or inquiry task, now they have to come up with a Research Question.
So, today we’re going to talk about what makes a great Research Question.
How should they word it?
And how should they craft it so that their response ticks as many of the top criteria as possible?
You’re listening to the Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode 61 - So, your teen’s chosen their topic for their latest research assignment, investigation or inquiry task, now they have to come up with a Research Question. So, today we’re going to talk about what makes a great Research question. How should they word it? And how can they craft it so that it gives them access to the top criteria in the mark scheme?
Hey VIPs. How are you? For all of you in the southern hemisphere I hope Semester 2 is getting off to a solid start. And for anyone in the northern hemisphere, or in international schools, especially my friends in sunny England - where it actually is sunny right now - I hope that you are enjoying the start of the summer holidays.
Things are good here, although as you can maybe tell from my voice, I’m just getting over a cold right now, but I’m feeling fine and it’s actually kind of good timing that I got it out of the way over the weekend because I’ve got a busy couple of weeks coming up. I’m running a professional development workshop for teachers this Friday as I record this, it will have just been and gone when this episode is released, which is big because it’s a full day event, but I love doing this sort of thing because it’s so good to be sharing more of this work and these strategies with keen teachers so that more and more of this makes it into your teens’ classrooms and everyday teaching. And then on the Sunday another week after that, so this coming Sunday as you listen to this, we have the Next Level Semester 2 event happening - called Maximising Your Exam Technique which I’m doing LOTS of planning and prep for right now. This is for our Next Level Coaching members only as it builds and expands upon the exam technique concepts in the 10WGT. Next Level is my small group coaching for students who’ve completed the 10WGT and want to stay on track and keep applying, actioning and honing their skills.
Although none of the concepts are brand new - everything students need to be successful in their study is in the 10 Week Grade Transformation Program - I always plan and create these events from scratch. So the examples, the focus areas, the practise, the way I teach, the way we work is always fresh and different and kinda lands in a different way so that it really solidifies and extends those skills. And I’ll share a bit more about what we’ll be getting up to in that with you next week, because You KNOW I love all things exam technique, and I can tell you, for those of you with teens who are coming to it, it’s going to be epic.
Now for something I don’t love! Just joking. Kinda. I’m talking about blank canvases, coming up with ideas out of thin air, having freedom to choose your own path. I know that it should be awesome, it sounds like it should be fun and exciting, and I know for some people it is. In fact, I think that a ‘blank canvas’ is actually a bit of a marzipan thing. Or coriander. It’s one of those love it or hate it things. Personally I love marzipan, and coriander - to my husband’s disgust on both of those - but that’s to my advantage really - it means I always get the marzipan one in a box of chocolates which is my absolute favourite. But what isn’t my favourite thing is having to come up with something from nothing. Turning a blank canvas into a finished work of art. In fact it’s getting started that for me is the hardest part. Once I’m going with an idea I’m okay. But, personally I need a starting point, something to base things on, something to get things going in the right direction.
Whether your teen loves total freedom and is great at coming up with high quality ideas, or is more like me and prefers something to work from, either way, I hope this episode will be helpful. Because it’ll help refine all their ideas when your teen has plenty of them, and help generate some ideas if they struggle to come up with them. Either way, it will give them a structure, a framework, to start off the process or to hone what they have.
Now, on the last episode, episode 60, I shared my recommendations on helping your teen come up with a great topic in open tasks or assignments where they get some sort of free choice on what they want to investigate. And TODAY, I’m going to deliver the next step to that - how to come up with a high quality research question. The question that guides their inquiry, the question they actually have to answer. And just for clarity, I’ll interchange the words inquiry question, research question and you can sub in the particular wording your teen might use. They are all the same. It’s the one big question that guides your teen’s assignment, project, or assessment task.
There is a major misconception I see happening with research projects and inquiry tasks, and that is: thinking it’s all about collecting and delivering information about the topic. A bit like being a student version of wikipedia. But the key here is to not mistake the inquiry question for being about the information they’ll find as a result of asking it.
Let me say that again: Don’t mistake the inquiry question for being about the information they’ll find as a result of asking it.
Inquiry tasks and investigations are not about asking a question that will mean we then go and find out lots of information to answer it with facts and stats. That type of research may well be required as part of answering it. But, successful and high quality inquiry tasks and research investigations are about collecting the most relevant information and then, most significantly, focusing on what is then DONE with that information. Is it linked together and synthesised, is it analysed, is it evaluated?
I’ve seen and marked and moderated so many assignments and essays where this critical mistake has been made - where they are all about collecting and recounting information. And it’s totally understandable why this happens. Because back in Y7 or Y8 and even back in primary years projects, it WAS all about collecting and recounting information. It was about FINDING OUT about a topic. But as we move up through the years, particularly this really takes hold in Y9 and above, and it’s critical in the senior years, things subtly but significantly change. But… no-one announces it. No-one says, okay, so you’re used to doing research projects about a topic, but now, just so you know - we’ve slightly changed the name to being a research inquiry or an investigation and - Big alert buzzer - that requires more than just telling us all about a topic. I really want to emphasise this, because it’s one of the main ways I see students putting in lots of effort, and loads of TIME, on research and googling for hours, collecting tons of totally valid and correct and detailed information, and then presenting all the information beautifully, but getting a mediocre result and then being left confused and disheartened.
It’s because they’ve not been told (and not just magically realised) that even though that used to be what got them top marks and gold stars, the rules of the game have changed. In fact, it’s more like playing a whole different game - even though it looks the same. It’s like going from the squares on the game board being snakes and ladders before, to now we’ve still got squares on a board, but we’re playing chess. It’s much more strategic and the moves need to be more thought out. So, your teen needs to come up with a chess-quality research question. Not a snakes and ladders level research question.
That means, we need to get away from asking questions at the lower command levels of just describe or explain, and we need to be asking them at the analyse and evaluate level. If you haven’t heard me talk about command words or the levels of them before, then you definitely need to come to one of my future webinars, because these are so integral to so much of your teen’s study. Their assignments, their essays, their exams and their everyday text book questions. But for now, just be aware that there are different levels of cognition - different levels of demand and difficulty when it comes to working with topics and information.
For example, it’s much easier to DEFINE global warming - state what it is, than it is to EXPLAIN global warming - explain how it happens. Two different commands, exact same topic.And like I said, it used to be fine for your teen to do a lot of describing and explaining in their research projects. Not once they’re in Y9 and above. Now they’re going to need to be analysing and evaluating that information if they want to achieve.. really a C grade or above. And I say Y9 with some flexibility there. It’s just a guide. They may well be required to do some of this in Y8 or maybe even Y7. Maybe they’d still get away with it a little bit in Y9. But definitely not in the senior years. So, that’s just a guide. It’s my observations and experience. It’s not a hard and fast line or a specific change that happens at that exact point in the curriculum. But that’s why it’s subtle. That’s why many students don’t realise the game has changed and they need to start making chess level moves.
So, here’s the strategy I advise students to use:
Once they’ve decided on their topic - go back to episode 60 for that- they then need to come up with an analysis or evaluation level question about a specific element within that topic. And then - bonus tip - they use the lower level commands to structure and ladder up their sub-questions.
It’s all about going narrow and deep. So we laser in on one aspect and then go deep with the research and discussion on that particular area. We’re not trying to tell the marker everything about the topic. That would be wide and shallow. We want to stick to narrow, so we spend more of the word count on delving into the detail and analysing and evaluating it all.
I’ll give you a couple of examples:
Let’s say they’re doing a Science research inquiry on genetic engineering.
They don’t want the research question to be ‘what is genetic engineering?’ That would technically just require description of what it is. A statement or definition. Maybe also some explanation of how it works. But that’s not going to be good enough. Way too basic. Let’s go next level up. Maybe - ‘ what is genetic engineering used for?’.
This would be application level. They investigating how it is applied in the real world.
That would require describing the real life examples and explaining how they work. Lots more scope here - but still fairly wide and shallow. We could give loads of examples but not go into much depth on them.
What we want is something very specific - so its narrow - and investigated at an analysis or evaluation level - so deep. Like ‘how has the use of genetically modified crops helped reduce malnutrition in less economically developed countries?’
This is a real life application, but instead of investigating lots of different examples at a superficial level, we are now analysing HOW one aspect has had a real life impact.
This still gives us the opportunity to discuss the different types of crops that have been genetically modified. And explain the science of how it is done. And in what places it’s been trialled. And to get lots of information and data and research. But it’s focused and allows a high level of inquiry because it also covers the impacts of that science and that means we’re also analysing and making links.
Or another way to word it could be ‘ to what extent has genetically modified rice reduced malnutrition or - improved health - in less economically developed countries?’
This would be an evaluation level question because it requires a judgement. To what extent has it worked or been effective? The student will still need to describe and explain the topic, to get started, and they’ll do that in their introduction or rationale. So it’s not that there isn’t any describe or explain level information. It’s just not the ONLY information or as far as the investigation goes. It’s not a fact-finding mission, it’s an analysis or evaluation mission. It’s making links, and connections and getting into the effects and impacts and what that means for the world. That’s where the top criteria and higher marks and grade descriptors are.
It’s never just about: write all you can about the topic. It’s about taking that blank canvas and giving it some structure and depth. We’re looking to create a detailed and intricate work of art here, not paint a whole big wall in lots of interesting but superficial brush strokes. And although this does require higher level skills and IS more challenging cognitively, it’s also good news, I think, for you and your teen, because it does mean that it is more restricted in terms of the research required. It reduces the likelihood of it ballooning into this huge overwhelming mammoth task that eats up your teen’s time finding never ending information and research.
So, I hope you find this useful. And if you’ve found anything on the podcast helpful, please give it a rating wherever you listen, leave a review sharing one thing that’s helped, or take a screenshot and share it with a friend who you think might also find it useful. I’ll be so grateful if you do just one of those things. And you’ll put some positive karma out into the world too.
Have a brilliant day and I’ll meet you back here next week.