Developing a Research Question
Author/Interviewee: Joanne Oud
Institution: Wilfrid Laurier University Library
Interviewer: Melissa Harden
Many first-year university students struggle with defining and focusing a topic and getting started with the research process. Research questions shape and focus the process of academic inquiry, but undergraduate students are usually unfamiliar with them. This interactive online tutorial teaches students how to develop a research question that will clarify their topic and guide their research and writing process.
Q: What led you to develop this tutorial?
A: The faculty instructors I work with complained that students had broad topics and unfocused papers. To deal with these issues, over time I’ve developed some in-class activities that guide students through the process of creating and focusing research questions, and guide them how the research question structures both the research and the organization of the final paper. These sessions have been quite successful, and I wanted to create an online tutorial that could reach more students and help them learn the same skills as my in-person sessions. It’s been very helpful in reaching a broader audience.
Q: How is the tutorial intended to be used (e.g., for self-guided learning, as part of formal instruction, assigned as homework)?
A: It’s designed to scaffold learning for students. First, there is a lecture-based section that explains research questions and how to create them. Then, students are given some research questions to evaluate based on what they just heard in the lecture. Finally, they are given a worksheet that helps them through a step-by-step process for creating and focusing their own research question. Because of the scaffolding the tutorial can be used either as a stand-alone module for self-guided learning or as part of more formal course, and I know it’s been used both ways.
Q: How is this tutorial being promoted?
A: Actually we don’t do much promotion, though it’s on my to-do list right now to figure out how to do more. Our tutorials are not even that prominent on our web site. Our librarians do try to point out the fact that we have them to faculty and students where we can, but we haven’t done much formal promotion. The tutorials are very popular anyway, and this one is by far our most used. Last year it was viewed more than 15,000 times. I’ve been asked by faculty and librarians at several other universities if they can direct students to it. All this use without promotion says to me that it fills a real need.
Q: The description mentions that undergraduates—particularly first-year university students—will benefit from engaging with this tutorial. Do you know if it has been used with students at other levels as well?
A: I know of faculty teaching at two community colleges who have used it as part of their courses, and I was contacted this summer by a local school board for permission to use it and the worksheet with high school students.
Q: Did you need any special training to create any part of the tutorial?
A: No, we already had a number of screencast tutorials created using Adobe Captivate so I was familiar with the software. We have a “brand” for our tutorials with the same look and feel and basic guidelines for content, so it was important for it to look and feel like the rest and to not go off and use something different.
Q: How long did the tutorial take to create?
A: Probably about fifteen hours, not including the worksheet that goes with the tutorial, which has gone through many revisions.
Q: Did you encounter any difficulties or anything unexpected while creating it?
A: The difficult part was deciding how I wanted to present the content and engage the students in any kind of meaningful learning given the major limits of the screencast format. Screencasts really are mainly used for lectures or demos so it was challenging to think of a way to use the format more creatively to include the scaffolding and more active learning components. I’m also not very graphically inclined so it was a challenge for me to try to make it look reasonably appealing.
Q: Were there any aspects of this project that required you to seek outside assistance or draw on someone else’s expertise?
A: The tutorial is mainly based on my in-person instruction experience, so before I started, I had gone through a lot of trial and error and feedback from faculty and students to see what worked, what didn’t, and what students really needed help with. We also have a small group of librarians here who review each others’ tutorials when they are in draft form and give suggestions, and their input was very helpful.
Q: Were there any accessibility guidelines and/or best practices you consulted or tried to follow while creating this tutorial?
A: Yes, the tutorial follows a set of accessibility guidelines that we developed with feedback from our campus Accessible Learning Centre and use in all our tutorials. We try to make them as accessible as we can given the constraints of the software. For example, they all have closed captions and are keyboard accessible. Each tutorial also has alternative text and mp3 versions for users who have difficulty with the Flash format of the videos. In this tutorial there are lots of sample research questions, which means lots of words on the screen, so I had to be careful in the narration to be sure people who can’t read the words still get the same information as those who can.
Q: Have you received any feedback from students, faculty, staff, or colleagues on the completed tutorial? If so, what feedback have you received?
A: I’ve had lots of positive feedback from faculty and students saying the tutorial was very helpful. Mainly I’m pleased that it keeps getting used and that faculty are assigning it to students in their classes, which means they must see value in it. I’ve definitely had a few students wish it was shorter, though.
Q: Have you done any assessment on the effectiveness of the tutorial? Are there any plans for changes or updates?
A: I’ve had lots of reference appointments with students who’ve completed the tutorial but want more help, which has given me a good sense of where it works and where its limits are. The main issue students still seem to have trouble with is figuring out how to narrow their questions effectively, so I’m thinking about doing a separate follow-up tutorial on some strategies to help them with this in more detail. Just this fall we implemented a clickable link at the end of each of our tutorials that leads to a feedback survey. This is our first effort at a more formal assessment, and we’ll be interested to see what results we get by the end of the year.
Q: What recommendations or advice could you provide for someone who might want to create a similar tutorial?
A: I’m an advocate for accessibility, so my advice is to please try to make tutorials that are accessible for people with disabilities. Unfortunately many of the technologies used for online instruction are not that accessible, so it’s important to provide an alternate format (e.g., audio or text transcript). I’m working on a project right now evaluating vendor tutorials for accessibility and almost no one provides alternate versions, which is unfortunate since it immediately excludes a segment of our users.
November 2014 PRIMO Site of the Month