Student-Led Research Planning Guide

Students and adults can work together as partners or students can work on their own to examine the things that matter most to them in schools today. However, everybody needs to know where to start. The following guide was adapted with permission from CIRCLE.

Student-Led Research Planning Guide Contents:

  • Form a core research team.
  • Think about your community.
  • Formulate a key research question.
  • Choose a research methodology.
  • Plan project details.
  • Outline your project budget.

Form a core research team.

  • You don’t need to have a complete research team to begin brainstorming project ideas.
  • But, you should have a core team with at least a few members – enough that you can discuss a variety of ideas and come to agreement on the main topic area that seems most important to you and your community.
  • It will be harder to recruit members if all of the key decisions about the project have already been made. 
  • Your team may also include adults.

Think about your school.

  • Together the core of your research team should think about the following questions:
    • What concerns you about your community?
    • What would you like to change?
    • What have you noticed that you would like to learn more about?
    • What have you noticed that you think others should learn more about?
  • Decide what your research project should be about. You may want to consult other students in your school to receive feedback on your ideas.
  • Your topic should be important to you and to others in the school. As you consider different topics, think about who might be interested in your findings. Who could you share your findings with to help bring about change?

Formulate a key research question.

  • Once your core team agrees on a topic to research think about some of the specifics.
    • Which aspect of the topic are you most interested in?
    • Is your topic focused enough or does it need to be narrowed down?
  • For example, a student research team was interested in how health related to learning. They decided their question was too broad, and narrowed their focus to how school cafeteria food, especially from one school to another, might affect how students learn.
  • Once you’ve determined your key research question, you may develop sub-questions. In the example above sub-questions were:
    • Did eating habits change after students went to school?
    • Do students think their diets affect their learning?
    • Do their parents agree with them?
  • Whether or not your team develops sub-questions, your key research question should guide your project.

Choose a Research Methodology.

  • Now that you have a clear research question, how will you answer it?
  • There are many ways you can begin investigating a research question. It is up to your team to agree on the method that is the best match for your question. Do you want to know how many people in your school have lived in another country? Or, do you want to know how someone’s learning changes when they get suspended from school? The methodology you choose should depend on the question you ask.
  • Methodologies can be quantitative, qualitative, or may use a combination of these approaches.
    • Quantitative methods deal with numbers; they are good for answering research questions that begin with how many or how much. If you did wonder how many people in your neighborhood lived in another country, you might want to do a survey. This would be a quantitative approach. Usually, if you use a quantitative approach, you will try to ask a few short questions to as many people as possible.
    • Example of quantitative methods:
      • Surveys (can be done by phone, in-person, or as a written questionnaire)
      • Analyzing large data sets (for example Census Bureau data, or data collected by local government)
  • If your team develops survey questions or a questionnaire to distribute to a large number of people, you should frame your questions so that answers can be easily counted. In general, close-ended questions will be easier to tally up than open-ended questions. For instance, if you want to find out whether people think your neighborhood is safe you can ask this in an open ended way:
    • What are the things you think are safe and unsafe in your school? Describe both.
  • However, if you ask this question to 50 people, you might get 50 different answers. It would be easier to count up responses if you were to ask the question in a close-ended way. Here are two examples of the above question rewritten in a close-ended way:
    • Do you think your school is safe? ___ Yes ___ No
    • Do you think your school is:
      ___Safe at all times
      ___Generally safe during the morning
      ___Safe during the morning, but not safe in the afternoon
      ___Not safe at any time of the day
  • Qualitative methods can help you understand why or how something happens. If you were interested in how someone’s life changes while moving, you might want to interview someone who is in the process of moving or has just moved. If you had the opportunity, you might even want to observe someone as they move. Usually, if you use a qualitative method, you will focus on collecting as much information as possible from a small number of people.
    • Examples of qualitative methods:
      • Interviews
      • Focus Groups (Focus groups are small group interviews; the researcher asks open questions and participants answer in a discussion format.)
      • Observation
      • Journals
  • Some methods can not be easily categorized as quantitative or qualitative. For example, a youth research team working with Youth Force in the Bronx did a study of The New York Times. They analyzed how young people were portrayed in news stories over a period of time. They counted the number of times that youth were mentioned in different kinds of stories and analyzed the language used to describe students. In this example, their approach mixed aspects of quantitative and qualitative research.
  • You may decide that the best way to answer your research question is to combine more than one method. This is fine. Just make sure you have enough time and people to do all of the work.
  • Questions to consider when choosing a research methodology:
    • What is my research question?
    • In order to answer my research question, what do I need to know?
    • How can I best collect this type of information?

Plan Project Details.

  • Project details will probably change as your project progresses. But, your team should be able to answer the following basic questions before you get started:
  • If you plan on collecting data from people:
    • Who are your research participants? (ie Who are you going to survey, interview, observe etc.)
    • Do you need their permission in order to do the research?
    • Some topic areas are sensitive. Will you keep the respondents’ answers confidential?
    • Will you inform all respondents of how you plan on reporting your findings up front?
    • Where will the research take place?
    • When will the research take place?
    • Which members of your research team will be involved and who will do what
  • You may also have to create a data collection instrument. For example, if you are giving people a written survey, your team will have to write the questions, or find a survey that already exists. If you are planning on interviewing people, your team should come to agreement on what to ask.
  • Additional questions to consider when planning:
    • How do you plan on analyzing the data once you collect it?
    • How will you share your findings once the research is done?
  • Note: If you do ask any sensitive questions make sure your team agrees on a plan for protecting the anonymity of respondents, and that respondents are comfortable with both the research project and the way you will report your findings. For more information on the ethics of research see the following Guide to Human Subjects Protection on the Web site of the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Outline your project budget.

Think carefully about your project. What aspects of your project require funding in order to succeed? What aspects of your project can you do without funding? There may be parts of your project that your team can accomplish without spending any money. Other aspects may require financial support, or will be strengthened if you have support. For example, you might be able to recruit youth researchers to volunteer their time for the project. But, if you suspect that homework, jobs, and other demands on their time will likely interfere, it might be worth paying researchers a stipend.

Will you need transportation at any point in your project?

  • Can all researchers make it to your meeting place?
  • Will you need transportation for any other participants in the project – including anyone you may interview, survey etc?

Will you need funding for any special events?

  • Will your project have any large meetings, focus groups, kick-off events, community meetings etc?
  • If so, consider the items you will need for these events including: food, beverages, room rentals, presentation materials, photocopies etc.

Do you need funding for photocopies, materials, and supplies?

  • Will you need materials for research team meetings?
  • What materials will you need in the field when you are conducting your research? Will you need to photocopy surveys or guidelines for researchers?
  • Will you need tape recorders and cassettes?
  • Will you need materials for video recording at any point?

Will you need funding for any products/events to disseminate your findings?

  • How do you plan on packaging your findings? (Once you complete your project, does your team want to produce a c.d., a video, a report, a presentation, or something else?
  • Do you plan on having any events to share your findings?
  • Do you plan on producing and copying a final report?
  • Will you need postage for mailing out findings?

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