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Disciplinary thinking, and development of problem statements and research designs


Badke, William. Teaching Research Processes: The Faculty Role in the Development of Skilled Student Researchers. Oxford: Chandos; New York: Neal-Schuman, 2012, Chapter Five.


Badke, William, Research Strategies: Finding Your way through the Information Fog, 6th ed.  Bloomington, IN:, 2017, Chapters  4-5, 6.1 and 6.2.



As educators, we need a paradigm shift in our thinking if we want to make the teaching of research processes what it needs to be. Central to such a shift would be an intention to begin inviting our students to enter into our disciplines rather than remaining frustrated spectators. Each discipline, as a combination of philosophy (epistemology), method and application, embodies one or more metanarratives, that is, explanations of why we do what we do. While disciplinary experts understand their metanarratives well, students do not. In fact, lack of understanding of metanarrative and its subsequent gap in understanding method may well be significant reasons why students stay outside our disciplines, learning about but not actually participating in them. Students require a consistent model for the research processes they are learning (see the model and description about it in Teaching Research Processes, 97-102). More than that, they require their professors to find a radically new way to invite them into the disciplines they are studying.

Essential to putting together viable research is careful development of problem statements (research questions/theses) and research designs (preliminary outlines, as well as determination of approaches and methods to be used).  Students find it difficult to plan and focus their research, but there are ways to teach them how to do this effectively.  They must first understand the intent of research in your discipline, which for most subject areas demands expression of a problem statement of some sort, data gathering, data analysis, and the use of information as a tool (rather than a goal) to address the problem at hand, taking note of competing viewpoints and providing compelling evidence to support a proposed solution.


In the sciences and social science, the pattern within which this is done is literature review, hypothesis and a procedure to test it, statement of data results, and analysis of those results, and a conclusion.  In the humanities, there is a statement of a research question or thesis, analysis of data (often including competing points of view), and sifting of evidence, followed by a conclusion.  The common feature in all such models is that research is problem based, thus demanding that information be used as a tool to respond to a problem rather than as a goal (that is, as mere information compilation).

Students need to understand research as a conversation (or even debate) between a researcher and the various voices in information resources, in which the goal is to come to a solution on a central, singular problem.  That is why interaction with multiple information resources is required and why research demands critical thinking.  Research design must provide the blueprint for the quest that leads to problem solution. 

Typically, I suggest that students, as they learn research processes, follow a linear path that includes acquiring a working knowledge of the subject area, developing a research question or thesis (hypothesis), creating a preliminary outline as a guide to information gathering, identifying books and journal articles relevant to the question or thesis (and abandoning resources that are not relevant), evaluating the information found for quality and relevance, organizing the information in such a way that it is useable, finalizing the research question/thesis  and outline, and writing the paper.  Professors usually find that their research process is much more non-linear than this, but professors do not have the content and method deficits of their students, who depend on a well-structured approach that is applicable to many subject areas.  That structured approach is what I teach students.


  1. Consider the role of disciplinary thinking in helping students to grasp the nature of your discipline.  To what extent is there a gap between student perception of how your discipline “works” and your own familiarity with your discipline?  Is this gap a significant barrier to your students finding a sense of belonging within your discipline?

  2. Create a research question or thesis statement on the methodology topic you identified in the second module. Ensure that the question or statement is problem-based and narrowly focused (see good and bad examples in the appendix of Badke, Research Strategies.) For example, you might have a question like, “Can we argue that there is a common core to method in New Testament studies?” Develop a three or four point preliminary outline.

  3. Do an initial title keyword search on your topic in your institution's book catalog. List the keyword searches that you did (the actual terms used).

If you are searching the e-book collection, on the results page, left column, limit to e-books.  Then click on a title to find its subject heading(s):

Results page of E-Book Collection

Results Page of E-Book Collection 2

Last Updated February 15, 2018.  © Catholic Distance Learning Network.
"I'd always suspected that we were just teaching our students about our disciplines without ever inviting them to take ownership over them, but I always made a subconscious kind of excuse for my own complicity in that. This course in teaching research design calls all faculty to a higher standard on engaging students in how to enter into our disciplines." - Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, OP, Coordinator of the Catholic Distance Learning Network