What are aims and objectives?

This excellent post by Pat Thomson, Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham is essential reading. Professor Thomson, blogs about academic writing and research, and her posts are well worth following.

In this post Professor Thomson deals with the knotty and often ignored question of the difference between aims and objectives.  She begins by noting that the problem of identifying a clear definition of aims and objectives is something for which dictionaries, and it might be added, research methods text books, are not particularly helpful.

She goes on to explain that aims relate to the overall intention of the research, what you hope to find out, show or illustrate. While objectives are the means by which you get there. Aims should be broad and there shouldn’t be too many of them, our research shouldn’t try to do too many things at once. Objectives should be a series of clearly defined steps which will enable us to achieve our aim.

It is important that research has both aims and objectives. Defining them is closely bound up with justifying our research in two important respects i) explaining why the research is worthwhile and needs to be carried out and ii) making it clear that we have some idea about how to go about it. It is no good identifying an aim if we have no idea how we are going to achieve it. Similarly, we shouldn’t carry out research without knowing what it is we want to know. That’s not the same as anticipating our results but does mean having some idea about what we want to find out about and why. Which brings us back to having a clear research question.

Confusion about this is not as uncommon as you might think. I have heard very experienced academics, who should know better, explain that the aim of their research is to collect or provide information about something. You might be very good at doing this, academics are often very good at collecting and indeed analysing data. But the important point is that all of that data and analysis should tell you something. The aim of your research should never simply be to collect information! We can easily forget this when we are in the midst of designing clever data collection instruments and frantically collecting data.

Imagine a group of researchers trying to secure funding for a large scientific research project. The objectives of their research involve crashing sub-atomic particles into each other at high speed. Nobody has done this before and they think they have come up with a sure-fire way of achieving it, which involves building a circular structure about 17 miles long, around which particles will be accelerated and then crashed into each other at high speed causing them to break up. Building such a structure and then operating it effectively will be a remarkable achievement. The methodology alone for such a project would fill several volumes. However, no matter how clever and novel the process might be, nobody would fund such research unless the researchers were able to explain the point of such activity. Those clever researchers at CERN are not firing particles at each other just for fun, nobody pays researchers just to have fun. The Large Hadron Collider is a very large and complex data collection instrument, which amongst other things aims to prove the existence of particles, the existence of which has hitherto solely been a theoretical proposition. It aims to do a whole lot of other things as well, but I’m no Brian Cox (something with which I’m confronted on an almost daily basis).

The LHC is a useful example of the relationship between aims and objectives in another respect, in that it illustrates that the aims of our research may not be defined by us. The theoretical proposition being tested at the LHC was first expounded by a group of physicists, including Peter Higgs, in 1964. Which is a timely reminder to read widely, not to dismiss work which was written before we were born, or before the internet, and that the most important part of research papers may the section at the end which identifies the questions the author was unable to answer. In the social sciences as well as the natural sciences, it is important to remember that there are many more questions out there than there are answers.  Answering those questions should be our aim, how we go about it will define our objectives.

I digress, but in case you’ve forgotten where we came in, read Pat Thomson’s excellent practical guide to identifying your aims and objectives.

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How to do a discourse analysis

Students embarking on their undergraduate research project often claim that they want to carry out some form of discourse analysis without any clear idea what this means. This useful article from the PoliticsEastAsia blog provides a comprehensive introduction to discourse analysis with some useful links.

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Let’s hear it for librarians, the pitbulls of democracy

libraryI don’t like the phrase, ‘library-based research’. It implies that research either takes place in the library or somewhere else. That students can choose between undertaking their own fieldwork or spending time in the library reading the findings of others in books and journal articles. In reality all research is library-based. A research project involving three months studying the mating habits of a little-known dung beetle in the Amazon rain-forest is likely to be preceded by a similar, although probably longer, period in the library seeking to amass what is already known about dung beetles and their mating habits. The phrase also implies that carrying out research in the library simply involves reading the work of others, and cannot therefore lead to the development of something new. This underestimates the way in which new findings, theoretical models and conceptual clarification, can emerge from challenging existing thinking, but also ignores the extent to which libraries are no longer just repositories of already published work (if they ever were), but now provide access to a wide range of  information through advanced search engines, online databases, electronic archives as well as other archival and documentary collections.

All of which is largely a pretext designed to allow me to shoehorn into the blog a further extract from Kristin Luker’s Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences. When conducting research in what she, rather inelegantly, refers to as ‘the age of info-glut’, Luker argues somewhat more eloquently, that librarians are essential guides whom researchers ignore at their peril:

Librarians, along with pediatricians, are among the greatest human beings in the universe. One of my colleagues at Berkeley calls them the “pit bulls of democracy” – as our government increasingly tries to hide things from us, librarians are among the few souls fighting back. They love the thrill of the chase as much or more than you do… If it was stupid thirty years ago to avoid reference librarians, it is downright suicidal now. Information has become a commodity – it is being bartered, sold, and arranged in more ways than anyone except a professional librarian can keep up with. Your job is to analyze information; a librarian’s job is to help you find it in the first place.

Information these days is like Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s entirely in disarray: every little principality mints its own money, passes its own laws, speaks its own language, and has its own rituals. Imagine trying to be a trader selling your wares as you go from town to town, each one under the sway of another prince (or princess) and his/her personally tailored ways of doing business… Only a reference librarian can teach you the tricks of the various systems and direct you to the ones you most need.

I often say, and I am not entirely joking, that you should court your reference librarian as you would court your future (or present) spouse. They are as overloaded as anyone else these days, all the more so being the pitbulls of democracy. So say “thank you” often. Write thank-you notes. Bring them coffee and cookies and chocolates. When they help you a lot, write a letter to the head of the library about how inventive, creative and helpful this person was. Always thank them in the “acknowledgements” section of your book or articles. Behind every good research project written by a salsa-dancing social scientist stands a great librarian, and maybe even a phalanx of them.

Kristin Luker (2008), Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences: research in an age of info-glut, Harvard University Press, pp.85-6

Our very own pitbulls of democracy have just been awarded a customer service award as ‘a beacon of innovation and best practice, and an exemplar of excellent customer service.’ While we should perhaps gloss over the notion that library users are customers, and the guff about ‘the wider corporate University ethos’ this is nevertheless testament to a hard working and innovative library. I am constantly impressed by the extent to which the University library seeks to meet student needs with things like 24 hour opening, workshops and 1 to 1 training, the excellent (and oh so necessary) Harvard referencing guide and app, and the More Books scheme, which allows students at all levels to request new additions to stock. When students contact their Academic Subject Librarian, as they most certainly should, remember to thank them, but perhaps don’t refer to them as a pitbull, or indeed court them like a future spouse. That would be weird.

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British cycling, the aggregation of marginal gains and improving our learning

DSCF1705I do a bit of cycling, I mainly do it because I enjoy it, (most of the time), and because I also think it helps me to work. In this I’m in agreement with the sociologist, Kristin Luker, who, rather mischeviously observed that, ‘any enterprise that makes you hot and sweaty and takes your mind off your work, is absolutely essential to successful research in the social sciences these days.’ For Luker its salsa dancing that does it. What did you think she meant? For me its cycling.

I don’t cycle competitively but I do like to watch competitive cycling, and as a keen follower of professional cycling I’ve also come to the conclusion that it might help my work in other ways. Like many British cycling fans I have watched, with growing admiration, the achievements of British Cycling, and of Team Sky. In many respects the mastermind behind these achievements has been the coach Dave Brailsford. Brailsford is the performance director of British Cycling and also the team principal of Team Sky. In 2010, Brailsford took on the role of manager of Team Sky, a new British professional cycling team, with the expressed aim of winning the Tour de France, with a British rider, in five years. Team Sky achieved this in two years, with Bradley Wiggins in 2012, and then did it again in 2013, with Chris Froome.

Under Brailsford’s leadership Sky’s approach was highly professional with extensive use of sports scientists, psychologists, and hi-tech developments in bike design. The whole enterprise was underpinned by careful, somewhat obsessive, attention to detail. A much-discussed element of this approach was the principle of marginal gains. This was the notion that in order to improve, the team would look at every individual element which contributed to a successful ride and try to make small improvements, perhaps only 1%, in all of them. This might involve small changes in the design of particular bike components to make them more aerodynamic or lighter, or to clothing such as gloves, skinsuits and overshoes to generate less wind resistance. It also meant looking at factors such as what riders ate, and how to ensure they got a good night’s sleep. In stage races such as the Tour de France this involves carrying individual mattresses and pillows for each rider so that while they sleep in different hotels each night, they effectively sleep in the same bed. While none of these developments in isolation were likely to make a significant difference, Brailsford asserted that the cumulative effect of improvements in a large number of areas might add up to real gains in a sport where the margins of victory can be very narrow. As Brailsford is quick to point out, focusing on the potential improvements in peripheral areas is not a substitute for the central concerns with fitness, training and conditioning, where there would continue to be a need for considerable effort and some significant gains. If you put me on Bradley Wiggins’ bike and let me sleep in his bed I still wouldn’t win the Tour de France, but when coupled with excellence in key areas, the cumulative effect of marginal gains may be enough to give riders a competitive edge, or as Brailsford puts it, ‘enable them to be the best they can be’.

The question is whether the principle of marginal gains can be applied to learning. It is important to remember that scholarship is not a competitive activity and and the object is not to gain an advantage over our colleagues. In contrast to the Tour de France, it is notionally possible for everybody to stand on top of the podium, there are no limits on the number of first class degrees on offer. However, like cycling, the margins of victory can be very narrow. I have sat on enough exam boards to know that a fraction of one per cent can be the difference between one degree classification and another.

As with cycling there is no way to avoid the central principles, seeking marginal gains in your learning is unlikely to make much difference if you have not focused on the quality of your research and writing. There is no way around the need for rigorous research, detailed analysis and effective communication. However, there are perhaps marginal gains to be made by focusing on improvements in a range of other areas as well:

  • The obvious place to start is with accurate referencing. Students are given detailed instructions regarding when and how to reference but many get it wrong, and this is a constant source of frustration to those marking their work. It is relatively easy to avoid mistakes by taking some time to check references and by looking back at style guides and referencing handbooks in order to ensure that references are in the correct format and correspond precisely with what is expected.
  • There are a range of other presentational issues which are often overlooked but when followed to the letter can set one’s work apart. Close attention should be paid to requirements such as line-spacing, font-size, page-numbering, and the inclusion or not of: abstracts, title pages, word counts, and identifying details such as names, course codes, etc. These things may not be specified but when they are, then guidance should be followed.
  • Related to this, while students who have come up through the British education system are often so accustomed to testing that simple mantras such as read the question carefully are second nature, they may be less familiar with reading the much lengthier but perhaps less prominent marking criteria which accompany most assessments at University level. These often contain much more detailed explanations of what is expected, and useful clues as to how to pick up extra marks. Re-reading a draft alongside the marking criteria can be a useful exercise.
  • Careful proof-reading is another source of potential gains. This can help to iron out many minor mistakes in areas such as spelling and punctuation. Nobody ever failed an assessment because of the incorrect use of apostrophes but repeated spelling and grammatical errors can distract attention from the substance of even the most considered argument. Proof reading can also help to make sure that sentences make sense. If you don’t understand what you mean then it is unlikely that your lecturer will understand, no matter how many letters they have after their name.
  • As with Team Sky it is not sufficient simply to focus on the vehicle of our success, the bike, or in your case, the essay, report or presentation. There are perhaps gains to be made by focusing on our overall well-being. Cyclists often obsess about their fluid intake, as do many students, although I’m not sure the effect is quite the same. I am sure that many students would work more effectively with more and better sleep. Many of us find ourselves working late at night, or through the night, in order to meet deadlines, and we may even convince ourselves that we work better that way, but this is probably not the case.
  • Finally, we may all benefit from time away from our studies. As Luker reminds us rest and relaxation, or at least an alternative focus for our energies, may be as important as long hours of study. As in many things, not least riding a bike, some sense of balance is key.
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Drawing Circles and Flowers: identifying the literature

DSCF2800One problem students often encounter when embarking on their own research project is identifying the literature on their chosen topic. For many undergraduate students this is a new skill because for most courses they are provided with often quite lengthy prescriptive reading lists. Doing a piece of independent research involves writing your own reading list. The question is, when faced with a library full of books and journals, how does one know what to read?

When carrying out a piece of research often one is working on a fairly narrow topic and the literature on that topic may be very small. This is what prompts students to turn up for supervision sessions claiming there is no literature on the subject. Leaving aside the cynical thought that this is merely a means of avoiding having to read a large amount of possibly dull books and journal articles, the problem is that whilst there may not be a large literature on your particular topic (indeed that might be a good thing in terms of justifying your work), that does not mean that your topic is not part of a wider literature in a number of different fields. One way of identifying the relevant literature is to draw a simple diagram showing the literature which might help with your research. Your topic is located at the point where the shapes intersect. The point is not to read and master all of the literature in each of the related fields but to look for those parts of them which inform or intersect with your study.

A number of years ago one of our undergraduate students, let’s call him Tom, wanted to examine the impact of the parliamentary expenses scandal on the 2010 general election. It was a very good study which I would strongly recommend you read. The literature on this precise topic is still rather limited, and was even smaller back then, just after the election, but that does not mean that there was not a significant body of literature out there to inform Tom’s study. A simple approach to identifying the literature might involve drawing on two broader bodies of work, literature on parliamentary expenses and on the 2010 general election. As can be seen in the diagram below the study takes place where the two literatures overlap:


In reality any topic, no matter how narrow, is likely to overlap with a much wider body of literature on a range of different topics. In Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences, Kristin Luker, suggests drawing a daisy with a number of overlapping petals. This enables you to identify a diverse range of literatures which may relate to your study. It is of course daunting to identify such a wide and diverse range of relevant literature, but once again, you are really only interested in those points in which the petals overlap with your study, and also perhaps where petals overlap with each other. Using this approach the diagram for Tom’s study might look something like this:




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