Formulating Research Questions

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  Formulating research questions in experimental doctoraldissertations on Applied Linguistics  Jason Miin-Hwa Lim ⇑ Centre for the Promotion of Knowledge and Language Learning, Universiti Malaysia Sabah (Malaysian University of Sabah), Locked Bag 2073,88400 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia a r t i c l e i n f o Article history:Available online 17 April 2014  JEL classification: 2700 Communication Systems2720 Linguistics & Language3550 Academic Learning Keywords: Communicative functionsGenre analysisRhetorical shiftsLinguistic mechanismsDissertation writingTeaching materials a b s t r a c t Research questions have often been regarded as an indispensable part of experimentalresearch dissertations, yet the ways in which the language varies in the formulation of these questions have thus far remained an unexplored domain. This genre-based investiga-tion analysed the language used for formulating research questions in 32 doctoral disser-tations submitted to universities in the United States between 2001 and 2009. It examineshow candidates in experimental research actually use various communicative resources toformulate research questions in the introductory chapters that determine the directions inwhich their dissertations on Applied Linguistics will be developed. The aspects coveredinclude (i) the frequency and positioning of the questions, and (ii) categories of thesequestions and their linguistic choices. The views of experienced supervisors in AppliedLinguistics were elicited to provide supportive explanations concerning the context inwhich the research questions were formulated. Recommendations are given on howteaching materials can be prepared to demonstrate the ways in which research questionscan be formulated using pertinent and authentic examples actually employed by doctoraldissertation writers.   2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. 1. Introduction The writing of research introductions has attracted the interest of numerous scholars in the field of genre studies (e.g.,Anthony, 1999; Feak & Swales, 2011; Samraj, 2005, 2008; Shehzad, 2008; Swales, 1981, 1990, 2004; Swales & Najjar,1987) in recent decades. Scholars’ increasing fascination with the analyses of research introductions appears to be relatedto both the important theoretical implications and multifarious practical applications of the findings obtained from suchgenre-based investigations. Some of these studies have focused on the overall generic structures of research introductionswithin a single language and discipline (e.g., Ahmad, 1997; Fakhri, 2004; Jogthong, 2001; Najjar, 1990; Ozturk, 2007), acrossmultipledisciplines (e.g., Crookes, 1986; Samraj,2005, 2008;Swales,1990, 2004; Swales& Najjar,1987), andacross differentlanguages (e.g., Hirano, 2009; Loi & Evans, 2010; Sheldon, 2011; Soler-Monreal, Carbonell-Olivares, & Gil-Salom, 2011;Taylor & Chen, 1991). Other studies (e.g., Lim, 2012; Shehzad, 2008, 2010, 2011), however, have opted to focus on only selected communicative move(s) or step(s).The aforementioned studies appear to have been largely grounded upon Swales’ (1990, 2004) seminal genre-basedanalysis framework in which an introduction is considered as comprising three communicative moves. It is within this   2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. ⇑ Tel.: +60 88 320000x5026 (O), mobile: +60 16 8298305; fax: +60 88 435708. E-mail addresses:, jlmhwa@netscape.netEnglish for Specific Purposes 35 (2014) 66–88 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect English for Specific Purposes journal homepage:  framework that theoretical statements have been made to predict how writers schematically organise their research intro-ductions. Swales (2004, p. 230) proposed that in research introductions, writers generally use Move 1 (i.e., ‘establishing aterritory’) to provide important background information about a topic by citing previous studies in an order of increasingspecificity (i.e., providing and/or citing general information before proceeding to more specific information). Having fur-nished essential background information in the first move, writers may proceed to Move 2 (i.e., ‘establishing a niche’) by(i) indicating a gap in past research; (ii) highlighting a need to extend the present knowledge (following a tradition orresearch trend); or (iii) presenting positive justifications that foreground a need to solve an existing real-life problem viaresearch. Based on the niche established, writers rhetorically shift to Move 3 (i.e., ‘presenting the present work’) in whichthey announce their research purpose, present research questions or hypotheses, provide definitional clarifications, or(briefly) summarise research methods. 1 Some of these rhetorical steps, namely research purpose (or objectives), researchquestions and research hypotheses, have been subsequently regarded as ‘‘directional determinants’’ (Feak & Swales, 2011,p. 112) that have a bearing on the way in which a research report or dissertation will proceed and develop. In particular, ‘researchquestions’ refer to interrogative sentences (and other closely related sentences) used by researchers to seek information about aspecific topic area which (i) ‘‘has not, in fact, been addressed’’ in past studies, and/or (ii) is ‘‘worthy of investigation’’ in thediscipline concerned (Sunderland, 2010, p. 11). According to Andrews (2003, p. 17), a dissertation needs to be ‘‘driven by research questions’’ which perform the function of tying existing research literature with the rest of the dissertation. Syntactically,these questions may appear in the form of   wh -questions, which begin with a  wh -word (e.g., ‘What’, ‘Why’, ‘Where’, ‘Who’, ‘Towhat extent’, etc.), as in ‘‘What pedagogical models do teachers use in the multimedia classroom?’’ (Harbon & Shen, 2010, p.281). Alternatively, these questions may occur in the form of polar (‘yes/no’) questions, which start with a primary or modalauxiliary verb (e.g., ‘is’, ‘does’, ‘will’, etc.), as in ‘‘Does focused written corrective feedback have an effect on intermediate ESL learners’ acquisition of English articles?’’ (Sheen, 2007, p. 260). Compared to hypotheses, research questions are at times considered to have more utility in cases where little is knownabout a phenomenon. For instance, some phenomena in real life (such as those related to the use of technology) often enterthe mainstream research community faster, and as a result, writers have too few studies on which to base their researchhypotheses (Campbell, 2008). Under such circumstances, where there were fewer past studies upon which they can develophypotheses, writers are more likely to present research questions (Keyton, 2011).It is interesting that research questions (RQs) have now been specified as one of the rhetorical steps in Move 3 (i.e., ‘pre-senting the present work’) in Swales’ (2004) new theoretical model for predicting the organisation of a research introduction(even though they were not previously viewed as part of Move 3 in his 1990 model). The latest inclusion of research ques-tions in Move 3 has some noteworthy implications. Although research questions are now perceived by genre analysts as amajor rhetorical step in the introductory section that guides the development of a research report (Feak & Swales, 2011;Swales, 2004), no previous studies, to my knowledge, have focused exclusively on how research questions are framed in rela-tion to other rhetorical moves and how they are realised linguistically in doctoral dissertations. Several studies (e.g., Ozturk,2007; Shehzad, 2011; Sheldon, 2011; Soler-Monreal et al., 2011) have provided only limited clues with respect to researchquestions. In regard to frequencies of research questions, for instance, Sheldon’s (2011) study of Applied Linguistics researcharticle introductions (RAIs) showed that 33.3% (6/18) of the English first language (L1) writers incorporated research ques-tions or hypotheses while only 5.6% (1/18) of Spanish L1 writers included them. Likewise, Soler-Monreal et al.’s (2011) studyof computing doctoral thesis introductions revealed that 50% of the English thesis introductions incorporated research ques-tions or hypotheses (while merely 10% of the Spanish thesis introductions included them). In another recent study, Loi andEvans (2010, p. 2816) pointed out that writers used research questions to ‘‘offer the readers a yardstick by which to measurethe success of the studies’’ in educational psychology. They found that research questions appeared in more than a third(35%) of the English RAs in educational psychology but only in 10% of the Chinese RAs in the same discipline, thus confirmingthe relative importance of RQs in English research reports. In contrast, Shehzad (2011) found that although 32.14% of theComputer Science RAIs contained research questions or hypotheses, merely 7% of the RAIs contained research questions(not hypotheses). Her study, however, did not provide any figure relating to research questions in quantitative experimentalinvestigations.In addition, Ozturk’s (2007) inquiry into Applied Linguistics RAIs focused on move sequences (e.g., M1–M2–M3–M1–M3)and acknowledged that research questions could be used by writers in Move 3, but did not study the linguistic realisationsand rhetorical shifts involving research questions. This means that studies have yet to analyse in greater detail how writersrhetorically shift from other moves to research questions and how these questions are realised linguistically. In this regard,our experience in teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and supervising postgraduate students has also revealedthat although supervisors are often very much involved in shaping dissertation writers’ research questions, an additionalchallenge lies in crafting the text that immediately precedes or follows the research questions. This explains the value of conducting a thorough investigation into the rhetorical and linguistic mechanisms engaged in formulating RQs and theirsurrounding context in a specific discipline.To further understand the significance and nature of research questions, we need to review some related explanationsgiven by guidebooks on research methods and research writing in different disciplines. In education, for instance, Fraenkel 1 Other short rhetorical steps (related to the principal outcomes, value and structure of the research report) are only considered as ‘‘probable in some fields’’(Swales, 2004, p. 232).  J.M.-H. Lim/English for Specific Purposes 35 (2014) 66–88  67  and Wallen (2003) and Parahoo (2006) are of the view that research projects are likely to lead to meaningful and insightful outcomes when feasible and explicit research questions are formulated. In business management, ‘‘the inclusion of researchquestions in the statement of a business problem makes it easier to understand what is perplexing managers and indicatesthe issues to be resolved’’ (Zikmund, 2003, p. 98). Likewise, in communication, research questions largely control and influ-ence subsequent parts of a research report; for instance, the method of a study needs to closely follow what the researchquestion has indicated (Hocking, Stacks, & McDermott, 2003). Overall, research questions need to be expressed preciselyto help researchers explore a topic in an appropriate manner and context so as to generate useful answers (Creswell, 2008).Given that the focus of this study is specifically on quantitative experimental research, the following section will first re-view the scientific requirements and expectations of experimental research in general and examine how they are connectedwith the formulation of research questions. Scholars (e.g., Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003; Gass, 2011) generally agree that anexperimental study has several major distinguishing features. First, an experimental study is deductive in nature in thatit adopts a ‘‘theory-then-research approach’’, which differs from some non-experimental studies that use an inductive(i.e., ‘‘research-then-theory’’) approach (Gass, 2011, p. 8). An experimental study generally involves a randomly selectedgroup of participants or subjects who are randomly assigned to various treatment conditions and/or control groups, andas such, the treatment described explicitly (in the subsequent method section/chapter) must also relate directly to the re-search questions which guide the study (Gass, 2011; Hocking et al., 2003). In the context of deductive business studies,for instance, researchers identify relevant concepts and existing theories and adjust them to the problem under scrutiny(Ghauri & Grønhaug, 2002).Although research questions play an important role in experimental research (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003; Gass, 2011;Hocking et al., 2003), we are relatively uncertain (i) how these questions are rhetorically linked with other key communi-cative moves, and (ii) the ways in which they are realised syntacticallyto achieve their communicative functions. This meansthat the examples provided by guidebooks on research methods and research writing, though relevant and correct, may beinsufficient, and a comprehensive study needs to be conducted to ascertain how doctoral dissertation writers actually userhetorical shifts and language resources in the formulation of research questions. It is important to study such rhetoricaland linguisticmechanisms for two reasons. First, studying rhetorical shifts will reveal the extent to which different segmentsare meaningfully linked with this communicative move to enhance the overall coherence of the introductory chapter. Sec-ond, owing to the importance of framing research questions in the appropriate context of experimental research, we need touse a broad range of examples to inform novice writers of the common linguistic mechanisms needed in formulating re-search questions. At this juncture, it should be pointed out that the doctoral dissertations chosen for this analysis actuallypassed and doctorates were awarded to the writers. Despite acknowledging that it is difficult to find ‘‘the perfect text’’ thatillustrates the desired linguistic exemplifications (Swales, 2009, p. 5), this paper argues that using a wide range of actual re-search questions employed in dissertations would (i) demonstrate the extent to which syntactic structures suggested byguidebooks (on research methods and research writing) are also commonly employed by dissertation writers in practice,and (ii) reveal more explicitly the rhetorical strategies recurrently used by dissertation writers in real life. This means thatthe research questions identified in this study, in addition to the limited range exemplified in guidebooks and textbooks (e.g.,Creswell, 2008; Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003; Gass, 2011), are likely to show us what needs to be emphasised in instructionalsessions aimed at helping novice writers formulate research questions.It is interesting to note that research methods guidebooks and style manuals in Education and Applied Linguistics gen-erally underscore the importance of formulating research questions appropriately in accordance with the type of study to beconducted, and provide some related explanation on language choices. For instance, some recently published textbooks onresearch methods (e.g., Ary, Jacobs, & Razavieh, 2002; Dörnyei, 2007; Gay, Mills, & Airasian, 2009; McBurney & White, 2004)have incorporated some enlightening discussion on the general differences between quantitative and qualitative researchquestions. Gass (2011, p. 9) also provided an example of an acceptable experimental research question (i.e., ‘‘Does focusedattentionon noun–adjective agreementin Italianpromotelearning to a greaterextent thanfocusedattentionon  what  -move-ment in Italian for beginning learnersof Italian?’’). In relation to this, she specifically considered certaininteresting questions(e.g., ‘‘Should language classes be introduced early in a school’s curriculum?’’) as debatable but ‘‘not researchable given thevagueness as well as the word  should  which implies some sort of right or wrong and which, as a result, cannot be empiricallyevaluated’’ (Gass, 2011, p. 9). Other guidebooks (e.g., Creswell, 2008; Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003) have provided suggestions with respect to how questions can be written, but the examples furnished are limited and unvaried. In the context of quan-titative educational research, for instance, Creswell (2008, p. 122) specified merely a polar research question (i.e., ‘yes/no’questions) beginning with the operator ‘do’ (e.g., ‘‘Do parent–teacher Internet communications affect student performancein the classroom?’’) as a quantitative research question. More specifically, in a detailed discussion on experimental research,Fraenkel and Wallen (2003, pp. 28, 291) specified exclusively polar questions beginning with the auxiliary ‘do’ or copularverb ‘be’ (e.g., ‘‘Does behaviour modification reduce aggression in autistic children?’’; ‘‘Is there a difference in the social stud-ies achievement of fourth-grade students according to the treatments of cooperative learning or traditional instruction andaccording to gender across treatment groups?’’) as typical experimental research questions.Given that textbooks(e.g., Ary et al., 2002; Dörnyei, 2007; Gay et al., 2009; McBurney & White, 2004) have generally men-tioned the language used in research questions only in passing, and others (e.g., Creswell, 2008; Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003;Keyton, 2011) have cited exclusively polar questions and evaluative  wh -questions as instances of possible questions forexperimental studies without explicitly linking them to other communicative elements, it would be interesting (i) to deter-mine, in the first place, the extent to which research questions are used specifically in experimental doctoral dissertations on 68  J.M.-H. Lim/English for Specific Purposes 35 (2014) 66–88  Applied Linguistics; (ii) to demonstrate how they are positioned and developed in the presentation of doctoral dissertations;and (iii) to ascertain the extent to which experimental research questions tend to be presented in particular syntactic formsin actual postgraduate dissertations. In view of the need to investigate the significance, frequency, positioning, range andfeatures of research questions in experimental dissertations, two research questions are formulated for this study as follows:(1) How frequently are research questions incorporated in the introductory chapters of experimental doctoral disserta-tions on Applied Linguistics and how are they positioned?(2) What rhetorical shifts and linguistic mechanisms do doctoral candidates use to formulate research questions in thesedissertations?The first research question seeks mainly quantitative data to ascertain the frequency with which the research questionsappear in the corpus of American doctoral dissertations. 2 Analysis also focused on how research questions are positioned inrelation to other key elements to achieve their overall communicative purpose. The second question seeks largely qualitativedata to probe the possible range of rhetorical strategies and salient syntactic choices used by doctoral candidates to formulateresearch questions as part of their endeavour to gain acceptance of the academic research community concerned. It also seekssome quantitative data in regard to the frequencies of different categories of research questions and those of tenses employedby doctoral candidates in formulating research questions. It should be pointed out here that research questions in experimentalstudies were chosen because ‘‘the English of an experimental research report is highly conventionalised, a fact that represents agreat advantage for non-native speakers as well as for language instructors’’ (Weissberg & Buker, 1990, p. iv). More importantly,the conventions of experimental research reports are ‘‘fairly consistent across a wide variety of scientific disciplines’’ and ‘‘if onecan master the conventions, one can replicate the genre in an acceptable form’’ (Weissberg & Buker, 1990, p. iv). 2. Methods The research procedure consisted of three phases involving (i) selection of doctoral dissertations on experimental re-search in Applied Linguistics; (ii) a thorough textual analysis of the doctoral dissertations; and (iii) face-to-face qualitativeinterviews with Americanadvisors supervisingthe writingof postgraduate dissertations. A total of 32 American doctoral dis-sertations on experimental research were selected from a pool of 270 dissertations associated with the keywords ‘languageexperimental research’ using the ProQuest search engine. The sampling procedure was purposive in that it was based on twocriteria to ensure that (i) all the dissertations were written by doctoral candidates, and (ii) each of the dissertations selectedwas genuinely based on quantitative experimental research. To obtain this sample, the abstracts and chapters characterisingthe type of study reported in each dissertation were studied before each dissertation was categorised as one that was basedon experimental research. In selecting the dissertations, the criteria used in identifying quantitative experimental researchwere grounded on the characteristics expounded by Gay et al. (2009) and Creswell (2008). As explainedabove, all the studies reported in the dissertations adopted a deductive approach, focused on objective reality to be discovered, and establishedcause–effect relationships between a dependent variable and at least one independent variable. All the doctoral dissertationswere completed in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Educa-tion (Ed.D.) and submitted to American universities during the period 2001–2009. The researcher selected only one disser-tation from each of the 32 American universities that had produced doctoral dissertations on experimental research. Thedissertations were selected from universities in 21 states in the United States, and exactly half of the institutions were listedas ‘research 1 universities’ in the country. In this study, ‘research 1 universities’ are ‘‘those state institutions that offer a fullrange of baccalaureate programs, are committed to graduate education through the doctorate, give high priority to research,award 50 or more doctoral degrees each year, and receive annually $40 million or more in federal support’’ (Weerts, 2002, p.26). An asterisk (  ) is used in the Appendix of this paper to indicate that a dissertation was submitted to a ‘research 1 uni-versity’. The selection was done to ensure that the corpus did not exhibit merely the influence of individual supervisors orthe preferred requirements of particular universities. Such an evenly distributed purposive sample effectively precluded anyoverreliance on the requirements and expectations of a small group of American universities as this large group constitutedmembers of the academic discourse community concerned.The researcher included dissertations submitted by 32 writers in different U.S. universities for several reasons. First, abroad range of research questions needed to be incorporated to form a larger and more representative sample that couldrealistically reflect the general circumstances under which research questions were presented in experimental dissertations.More specifically, rhetorical shifts used by different writers had to be considered to demonstrate how doctoral candidatesgenerally arranged information elements to meet different needs in introducing experimental studies on Applied Linguistics.Second, in terms of linguistic mechanisms, more writers were involved in demonstrating the dissertation writers’ actualusage of the language in fulfilling the pragmatic functions in presenting the questions. This was based on the notion thatwriters in the same or related disciplines would share numerous norms and expectations concerning the use of linguisticforms irrespective of their nationalities and first languages (Okamura, 2003; Shehzad, 2011). Nevertheless, it should be 2 In this study, the phrase ‘American doctoral dissertations’ is defined as ‘doctoral (Ph.D. or Ed.D.) dissertations prepared for and submitted to universities inthe United States of America regardless of the candidates’ countries of srcin’.  J.M.-H. Lim/English for Specific Purposes 35 (2014) 66–88  69
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