The research report: The research process and literature review

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WHEN we assign our students to do research as a capstone of their degree program, we expect them to have informed understanding of what research is and what the research process entails. We hope that earlier, the curriculum provided them a hands-on course on how to conduct a literature review to come up with a research problem.

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Let’s suppose we come across a student’s research paper having an enumeration of 25 articles in the literature review. We would expect that among these articles cited, there would be those which discuss the same or similar topics. These list of articles/studies could have been clustered together using connectives such as furthermore, in addition to, similarly, etc. to organize the review. Those with differing ideas could be organized using appropriate connectives such as however, but, or on the other hand, etc. Literature review is evaluating and organizing the materials; it calls for paragraph development skills.

But let’s review what research means. Research is, in a sense, a “journey,” following several steps, which begins with “framing a research question, searching relevant bodies of literature, managing literature search results, synthesizing the research literature and writing an assessment of the literature.” The web offers a number and a variety of definitions and explanations including blogs. We advise students to discriminate among authoritative and scientific material, check the credibility of sources. I quote an example from my May 8, 2015 column–“ISI Highly Cited” is a database of “highly cited researchers;” “ISI publications are most often cited in academic journals over the past decade.”

A down-to-earth definition of research especially addressed to undergraduates is that research is a “systematic investigation” of something we want to know. Using Bloom’s taxonomy of cognition, we define research as wanting to know something better. So, we read more about it to understand it. This is where a theory comes in. A theory “tells us a story about how data are generated in the systems,” (through data collection); “we are looking at how bits of it are related to and interact with other bits. Our methods (methodology) tell us how to look at and systematically interpret these data and observations—how to test whether they make sense (or not) with our story or theory (analysis and interpretation of data). <https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/david.harvey/AEF801/What.html>

The current literature and studies (review of literature) are the places we go and look to find what the current understandings and stories and evidence (the paradigm) are telling us. These associated studies (a product of evaluations of observations of other researchers) reveal the gaps and inconsistencies in the present paradigm or ideas map. The objective of new research is then “to fill these gaps and resolve these inconsistencies.”<https://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/david.harvey/AEF801/What.html>

A simple example is—we come across a study on the anxiety reduction theory, which states that staff are likely to feel anxious about the relationship with the new boss—a significant other to them. We read the research questionnaire and find that the items are about actions staff likely do to establish relationships with the new dean. Our interest in such a research heightens. Adopting the same questionnaire (after a validity test), would we have similar results, given the context of our own organization? What are other theories about anxiety reduction? Would we find the same “story?” What is the “story” or “stories” about anxiety reduction? We read other studies on the said theory. Study One reports how the theory applies in three local universities. Study Two, using the same questionnaire, has different results. A mediating variable in Study One was not a mediating variable in Study Two, etc. Why this gap? We become interested in the story, in the theory; we decide to conduct a study to fill such gaps. So we read further.

In doing so, we are conducting a review of literature–a “systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions” to improve our “understanding of situations, processes and mechanisms.” Our review is not merely collecting quotes or enumerating the studies involving the theory we wish to understand better and about which we wish to do research. Our purpose is “to convey to the reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.” The literature review must be defined by a guiding concept (such as our research objective, the problem or issue we are discussing, or our argumentative thesis). It is not just a descriptive list of the materials available, or a set of summaries. <http://ww.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review>

In sum, a review of literature is an assessment of a body of research that addresses a research question. Its purpose is to “identify what is already known about an area of study.” It may also “identify questions a body of research does not answer,” or “make a case for why further study of research questions is important to a field.” It’s no shortcut or a one-way street. “The process is iterative—as we gain understanding, we’ll return to earlier steps to re-think, refine, and rework our literature review.” <https://explorable.com/what-is-a-literature-review>

Finally, we synthesize the literature on how to explain a phenomenon, a theory. The literature helps us map out the actions required in the course of the study given our previous knowledge of other researchers’ point of view and our own observations on the subject of research. We arrive at our rough draft of the conceptual framework for our research study.
(To be continued)

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Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, PhD, is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished educators and experts on institutional management in colleges and universities. Her studies included not only education and pedagogy but also literature, general science, history and math.

She studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Great Britain and Japan, headed chartered institutions, was vice-president for academics and for external relations and internationalization. She is copy editor of the Liceo journals, on-call internationalization consultant and professorial lecturer and at the Graduate Studies of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro City). She holds a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the central office of the Commission on Higher Education.

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