Beginners Guide to the Research Proposal

Don’t know how to write or where to start when writing a research proposal? Here is a simple guide to get you thinking in the right direction: I heartily recommend that you cut/paste the sections into your document and use this post a reference in crafting each section.

Success Keys: Overall Quality of the Study

  • Good research question (Read the in-depth article on writing qualitative research questions here)
  • Appropriate research design
  • Rigorous and feasible methods
  • Qualified research team

Success Keys: Quality of the Proposal

  • Informative title
  • Self-sufficient and convincing abstract
  • Clear research questions
  • Scholarly and pertinent background and rationale
  • Relevant previous work
  • Appropriate population and sample
  • Appropriate methods of measurement and manipulation
  • Quality control
  • Adequate sample size
  • Sound analysis plan
  • Ethical issues well addressed
  • Tight budget
  • Realistic timetable

Quality of the Presentation

  • Clear, concise, well-organized
  • Helpful table of contents and subheadings
  • Good schematic diagrams and tables
  • Neat and free of errors

Research Proposal Elements

  1. Title
  2. Abstract
  3. Study Problem
  4. Relevance of the Project
  5. Literature Review
  6. Specific Study Objectives
  7. Research Methods
    1. Study design
    2. Participants
      1. Inclusion/exclusion criteria
      2. Sampling
      3. Recruitment plans
      4. Method of assignment to study groups
    3. Data collection
      1. Variables: outcomes, predictors, confounders
      2. Measures/instruments
      3. Procedures
    4. Statistical considerations
      1. Sample size
    5. data analysis
  8. Ethical Considerations
  9. Work Plan
  10. Budget
  11. Bibliography

Literature Review

A critical summary of research on a topic of interest, generally prepared to put a research problem in context or to identify gaps and weaknesses in prior studies so as to justify a new investigation.

Be sure to:

  • Be thorough and complete
  • Present a logical case
  • Include recent research as justification
  • Propose original research (or if duplicating, note that)
  • Include primary sources
  • Include a critical appraisal of your study
  • Build a case for new study

Study Problem (Study Purpose)

Broad statement indicating the goals of the project. This was commonly called the “who gives a shit?” question in my grad program. Ask yourself that simple question and address it. If the answer is “no one,” rethink your study. In your answer be:

  • Clear
  • Relevant
  • Logical
  • Documented

Objectives/Research Questions/Hypotheses

Identifying the research problem and developing a question to be answered are the first steps in the research process. The research question will guide the remainder of the design process (read the in-depth article on writing qualitative research questions here).

Research Objectives
A clear statement of the specific purposes of the study, which identifies the key study variables and their possible interrelationships as well as the nature of the population of interest.

Research Question
The specific purpose stated in the form of a question. You study will be the answer to this question.

A tentative prediction or explanation of the relationship between two or more variables. A prediction of the answer to the research question is usually a hallmark of a quantitative study, qualitative studies are usually have far more open ended and don’t always contain predictions.


  • Provide reviewers with a clear picture of what you plan to accomplish.
  • Show the reviewers that you have a clear picture of what you want to accomplish.
  • Form the foundation for the rest of the proposal.
  • Will be used to assess the adequacy/appropriateness of the study’s proposed methods.

Keys to Success

  • Clear and consistent.
  • Key concepts/constructs identified.
  • Includes the independent and dependent variables (if applicable).
  • Measurable.
  • Hypotheses clearly predict a relationship between variables.
  • Relevant or novel

Research/Study Designs

The overall plan for obtaining an answer to the research question or for testing the research hypothesis.

Will have been chosen based on:

  • Research question/hypothesis.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of alternative designs.
  • Feasibility, resources, time frame, ethics.
  • Type of study: Qualitative, quantitative, or mixed.

Keys to Success

  • Clearly identify and label study design using standard terminology.
    • Quantitative/qualitative
    • Cross-sectional/longitudinal
    • True Experiment/Quasi-Experiment
  • Must specify the major elements of the design
    • Variables, instruments
    • Participants: sampling frame, sample size, selection procedures
    • Timing of testing/intervention
  • Use a diagram
  • Must be consistent with objectives/hypotheses.
  • Must justify choice of design
    • Appropriate choice to answer question
    • Lack of bias/validity
    • Precision/power
    • Feasible
    • Ethical


Obviously based on your type of study you may or may not have participants. A content analysis, for example, wouldn’t include this section.

  • Who will be studied?
  • How will they be selected?
  • How will they be recruited?
  • How will they be allocated to study groups?

1. Who Will Be Studied: Specify eligible participants

  • Target population: demographic characteristics
  • Accessible population: temporal & geographic characteristics
  • Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria

2. How Will They Be Selected: Sampling

The process of selecting a portion of the population to represent the entire population.

Types of Sampling

  1. Probability: each element in the population has an equal, independent chance of being selected.
    1. Simple random sampling
    2. Stratified random sampling
    3. Cluster sampling
    4. Systematic sampling
  2. Nonprobability
    1. Convenience sampling
    2. Snowball sampling
    3. Judgmental sampling

Keys to Success

  • Clear description of study population.
  • Appropriate inclusion/exclusion criteria.
  • Justification of study population and sampling method (bias).
  • Clear description of sampling methods.

3. How Will They Be Recruited?

Describe what methods will be used to recruit participants. Important to document that the study will be feasible and that there will be no ethical problems.

4. How Will They Be Allocated To Study Groups?

Random Allocation: The assignment of participants to treatment conditions in a manner determined by chance alone.

Goal of Randomization: to maximize the probability that groups receiving differing interventions will be comparable.

Methods of randomization

  • Drawn from a hat
  • Random number table
  • Computer generated

Data Collection

Variables: Characteristic or quality that takes on different values.

In Research Identify:

  • Dependent or outcome variables (the presumed effect).
  • Independent or predictor variables (the presumed cause).
  • Note: Variables are not inherently independent or dependent.
  • In descriptive and exploratory studies, this distinction is not made.

Questionnaire: A method of gathering self-report information from respondents through self-administration of questions in a paper and pencil format (Read the in-depth article on crafting a good survey questionnaire here).

Keys to Success

  • Are the words simple, direct and familiar to all?
  • Is the question as clear and specific as possible?
  • Is it a double-barreled question?
  • Does the question have a double negative?
  • Is the question too demanding?
  • Are the questions leading or biased?
  • Is the question applicable to all respondents?
  • Can the item be shortened with no loss of meaning?
  • Will the answers be influenced by response styles?
  • Have you assumed too much knowledge?
  • Is and appropriate time referent provided?
  • Does the question have several possible meanings?
  • Are the response alternatives clear and mutually exclusive (and exhaustive)?

Scale: A composite measure of an attribute, consisting of several items that have a logical or empirical relationship to each other; involves the assignment of a score to place participants on a continuum with respect to the attribute.

Examples of Scales

  • Quality of Life
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Source Credibility
  • Social Economic Status

Criteria for Instrument Selection

  • Objective of the study
  • Definitions of concept and measuring model
  • Reliability: degree of consistency with which an instrument or rater measures a variable (i.e., internal consistency, test-retest reproducibility, inter-observer reliability).
  • Validity: degree to which an instrument measures what it is intended to measure (i.e., content validity, concurrent validity and construct validity).
  • Sensitivity: ability to detect change.
  • Interpretability: the degree to which one can assign qualitative meaning to an instruments quantitative scores.
  • Burden or ease of use

Keys to Success

  • Always pretest questionnaires.
  • Always indicate if a questionnaire has been pretested.

In experimental research, the experimental treatment or manipulation.

Keys to Success

  • Careful description of treatment/manipulation
  • Be aware of unintended manipulations

Data Analysis

Detail your planned procedures for:

  • Recording, storing and reducing data
  • Assessing data quality
  • Statistical analysis

Step 1: Descriptive statistics

  • Describe the shape, central tendency and variability
  • Looking at variables one at a time: mean, median, range, proportion


  • Summarize important feature of numerical data
  • Pick up data entry errors: i.e. 3 genders, age 150
  • Characterize participants
  • Determine distribution of variables

Assess assumptions for statistical tests: Some statistical tests, such as a t test, are only valid if certain assumptions about the data hold true. For the t test, the assumptions are that the data for the two groups are from populations with a Normal distribution and that the variances of the two populations are the same. Inherent in these two assumptions is that the study sample represents a random sample from the population. These same assumptions hold for tests such as analysis of variance and multiple linear regression. When these assumptions can not safely be believed to be true than alternate, distribution-free, methods can be used. These are called non-parametric tests. Examples of these are the Wilcoxon signed rank test and the rank sum test.

Step 2: Analytic/inferential statistics

  • Example: Looking at associations among two or more variables


  • Estimate pattern and strength of associations among variables
  • Test hypotheses

Sample Size

To make a rough estimate of how many participants required answering the research question. During the design of the study, the sample size calculation will indicate whether the study is feasible. During the review phase, it will reassure the reviewers that not only the study is feasible, but also that resources are not being wasted by recruiting more participants than is necessary.

Hypothesis-based sample sizes indicate the number of participants necessary to reasonably test the study’s hypothesis. Hypotheses can be proven wrong, but they can never be proven correct. This is because the investigator cannot test all potential patients in the world with the condition of interest. The investigator attempts to test the research hypothesis through a sample of the larger population.

Keys to Success

  • Justify sample size
  • Provide data necessary to calculate and state how the sample estimates were obtained, including desired power, Alpha level, one/two-sided tests, estimated effect size.

Ethical Considerations

Many time you’ll need to certify your study with your school’s approval board for research on human subjects, pretty much so you don’t repeat the Stanford Prison Experiment.

  • Ethical Principles
    • Respect for persons (autonomy)
    • Non-maleficence (do not harm)
    • Beneficence (do good)
    • Justice (exclusion)
  • Ethical Considerations
    • Scientific validity – is the research scientifically sound and valid?
    • Recruitment – how and by whom are participants recruited?
    • Participation – what does participation in the study involve?
    • Harms and benefits – what are real potential harms and benefits of participating in the study?
    • Informed consent – have the participants appropriately been asked for their informed consent?


Getting funded is the primary reason for submitting a grant application.

Keys to Success

  • Read instructions (i.e., overhead, issues not covered, if in doubt call the person in charge of the grants)
  • Itemization of costs
    • Personnel (salary and benefits)
    • Consultants (salary) – Equipment
    • Supplies (be complete, include cost per item)
    • Travel
    • Other expenses
    • Indirect costs
  • Do not inflate the costs
  • Justify the budget
  • Enquire about the granting agency’s range
  • Review a successful application
  • Start early, pay attention to instructions/criteria
  • Carefully develop research team
  • Justify decisions
  • Have others review your proposal


Present a Works Cited list at the end of your proposal (i.e.: a list of only the works you have summarized, paraphrased, or quoted from in the paper.)

This basic information was available at in a sub-page, obviously I’ve added my own editorial and information throughout. But I’ve been unable to locate it, so it’s here for your enjoyment & enlightenment. If you know where I can attribute it please contact me and I’ll be happy to do so.

How to Write a Good Survey Questionnaire

Came across this in the thousands of papers I have lying around – thought it might be helpful to those who are trying to design survey questionnaires!

The complex art of question writing has been investigated by many researchers. From their experiences, they offer valuable advice. Below are some helpful hints typical of those that appear most often in texts on question construction. Survey research is traditionally almost always used in quantitative research, however it can be integrated into qual. with some creative thinking.

Keep the language simple & relax your grammar.
Analyze your audience and write on their level. Whenever possible, always avoid using technical terms/jargon. Remember, the simpler the better and if someone can misunderstand something, they certainly will. Relaxing your grammar can make much more formal questions sound a bit more personable, for instance feel free to use “who” in an instance where formal tradition might suggest that “whom” is, in fact, correct.

Write short questions and a short questionnaire.
Long questions can become ambiguous and confusing. A survey respondent, in trying to understand a long question, may forget part of the question and thus misunderstand question. Above all, draw a distinction between what is essential to know, what is useful, and what is unnecessary. Keep the essential, keep the useful to a minimum, and throw out anything unnecessary.

Always apply the “So what?” and “Who cares?” tests to each question. Remember, however, to keep in mind that you should not leave out questions that would yield necessary data just because it will shorten your survey. If the information is needed, ask the question.

Limit each question to one idea or concept.
A question consisting of more than one idea may confuse the respondent and lead to a pointless answer. Consider this question: “Are you in favor of raising taxes and lowering deficit?” What the hell would either answer mean?

Don’t write leading questions.
These questions are worded in a manner that suggests an answer. Some respondents may give the answer you are looking for whether or not they think it is right. Think about what you assume when you ask each question. For example, if you ask “What is the best day of the week to schedule the new review meeting?” you’re assuming that that everyone taking the questionnaire even wants/needs another meeting.

Remember a perfectly worded question gives the respondent no idea as to which answer you may believe to be correct.

Avoid subjective words & double negatives.
These terms mean different things to different people (hence, subjective…). One person’s “fair” may be another person’s “god awful.” How much is “often” and how little is “seldom?” You can easily confuse respondents when involving tow negative words. So tell me, don’t you not like this blog?

Allow for all possible answers.
Respondents who can’t find their answer among your list will be forced to give an invalid reply or, possibly, become frustrated and refuse to complete the survey. Wording the question to reduce the number of possible answers is the first step.

Avoid dichotomous questions. If you cannot avoid them, add a third option, such as no opinion, don’t know, or other. These may not get the answers you need but they will minimize the number of invalid responses. A great number of “don’t know” answers to a question in a fact-finding survey can be a useful piece of information. But a majority of other answers may mean you have a poor question, and perhaps should be cautious when analyzing the results.

Avoid emotional/morally charged questions.
This one kind of speaks for itself. It’s OK to ask about a person’s morals, etc. just don’t write leading questions.

Assure a common understanding.
Write questions that everyone will understand in the same way. Don’t assume that everyone has the same understanding of the facts or a common basis of knowledge. Identify even commonly used abbreviations to be certain that everyone understands.

Start with interesting questions.
Start the survey with questions that are likely to sound interesting and attract the respondents’ attention. Save the questions that might be difficult or threatening for later.

Don’t make the list of choices too long.
If the list of answer categories is long and unfamiliar, it is difficult for respondents to evaluate all of them. Keep the list of choices short.

Avoid difficult recall questions.
People’s memories are increasingly unreliable as you ask them to recall events farther and farther back in time. You will get far more accurate information from people if you ask, “About how many times in the last month have you gone out and seen a movie in a movie theater or drive-in?” rather than, “About how many times last year did you go out and see a movie in a movie theater or drive-in?”

Use Closed-ended questions rather than Open-ended ones.
Most questionnaires rely on questions with a fixed number of response categories from which respondents select their answers. These are useful because the respondents know clearly the purpose of the question and are limited to a set of choices where one answer is right for them. An open-ended question is a written response. For example: “If you don’t like the product, please explain why”. If there are an excessive number of written response questions, it reduces the quality and attention the respondents give to the answers.

Put your questions in a logical order.
The issues raised in one question can influence how people think about subsequent questions. It is good to ask a general question and then ask more specific questions. For example, you should avoid asking a series of questions about a free product sample and then question about the most important factors in selecting a product.

Understand the should-would question.
Formulate your questions and answers to obtain exact information and to minimize confusion.

For example, does “How old are you?” mean on your last or your nearest birthday? Does “What is your (military) grade?” mean permanent or temporary grade? As of what date? By including instructions like “Answer all questions as of (a certain date)”, you can alleviate many such conflicts.

Include a few questions that can serve as checks on the accuracy and consistency of the answers as a whole.

Have some questions that are worded differently, but are soliciting the same information, in different parts of the questionnaire. These questions should be designed to identify the respondents who are just marking answers randomly or who are trying to game the survey (giving answers they think you want to hear). If you find a respondent who answers these questions differently, you have reason to doubt the validity of their entire set of responses. For this reason, you may decide to exclude their response sheet(s) from the analysis.

Organize the pattern of the questions:

  • Place demographic questions at the end of the questionnaire.
  • Have your opening questions arouse interest.
  • Ask easier questions first.
  • To minimize conditioning, have general questions precede specific ones.
  • Group similar questions together.
  • If you must use personal or emotional questions, place them at the end of the questionnaire.

Pretest the questionnaire.
This is the most important step in preparing your questionnaire. The purpose of the pretest is to see just how well your cover letter motivates your respondents and how clear your instructions, questions, and answers are. You should choose a small group of people (from three to ten should be sufficient) you feel are representative of the group you plan to survey. After explaining the purpose of the pretest, let them read and answer the questions without interruption. When they are through, ask them to critique the cover letter, instructions, and each of the questions and answers. Don’t be satisfied with learning only what confused or alienated them. Question them to make sure that what they thought something meant was really what you intended it to mean. Use the above hints as a checklist, and go through them with your pilot test group to get their reactions on how well the questionnaire satisfies these points. Finally, redo any parts of the questionnaire that are weak.

And have fun in the wild world of survey research you freaking rebel!

Writing Style Differences in Newspaper, Radio, and Television News

Stumbled across an article by Irving Fang of the University of Minnesota, on the different writing styles in the mass media. A good read and very enlightening for anyone in any of the aforementioned fields.

Fang, I. (1991). Writing Style Differences in Newspaper, Radio, and Television News. University of Minnesota.

A monograph presented by the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing and the Composition, Literacy, and Rhetorical Studies Minor: Monograph Series, No. 2

Check out the paper here.

Cultivation Theory Overview Page is up!

The cultivation theory overview page is up, this give a brief overview of what the theory posits and the associated ideas, up soon I’ll be adding theory criticisms as well.

You can read all about cultivation theory here.

…and We’re Back!

As many of you have noticed, I’ve taken a hiatus from posting here on MCT. Well, my thesis is done, I have an MA in hand, and I’m going to start cracking again on bringing more theory and practicality to the masses.

Is there a specific topic you’d like to hear about? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to work it into the content schedule.

Writing Good Qualitative Research Questions

Got a great handout a while back that I stumbled over today, hopefully it’s as helpful to you as it was to me. Here are the steps for writing good (mass communication of course) qualitative research questions:

Specify the research problem: the practical issue that leads to a need for your study.

Complete these sentences:

  • “The topic for this study will be…”
  • “This study needs to be conducted because…”

How to write a good qualitative purpose statement: a statement that provides the major objective or intent or roadmap to the study. Fulfill the following criteria:

  • Single sentence
  • Include the purpose of the study
  • Include the central phenomenon
  • Use qualitative words e.g. explore, understand, discover
  • Note the participants (if any)
  • State the research site

A good place to start: The purpose of this ______________ (narrative, phenomenological, grounded theory, ethnographic, case, etc.) study is (was? will be?) will be to ____________ (understand, describe, develop, discover) the _____________ (central phenomenon of the study) for ______________ (the participants) at (the site). At this stage in the research, the ___________ (central phenomenon) will be generally defined as ____________ (a general definition of the central concept).

Research questions serve to narrow the purpose. There are two types:

  • The most general questions you could ask


  • Subdivides central question into more specific topical questions
  • Limited number

Use good qualitative wording for these questions.

  • Begin with words such as “how” or “what”
  • Tell the reader what you are attempting to “discover,” “generate,” “explore,” “identify,” or “describe”
  • Ask “what happened?” to help craft your description
  • Ask “what was the meaning to people of what happened?” to understand your results
  • Ask “what happened over time?” to explore the process

Avoid words such as: relate, influence, impact, effect, cause

Scripts to help design qualitative central and sub-questions:
Central question script (usually use only one):

  • “What does it mean to _________________ (central phenomenon)?”
  • “How would ______________ (participants) describe (central phenomenon)?”

Sub-question script:

  • “What _________ (aspect) does __________ (participant) engage in as a _____________ (central phenomenon)?”


  1. Cresswell. J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  2. Creswell, J. W., & Plano Clark, V. Principles of qualitative research: Designing a qualitative study. You can download the entire document here.

MCT Store is up and running!

So the Store has launched! And we have a ton of products for you to chose from… and I’m lying. I only have one shirt up there right now. Although it is superawesome… you can check out the Mass Comm Theory store here. I’ve decided to add Ts and other fun Mass Comm geekery as I publish the various new pages, etc. So right now I’m in catch-up mode. And on that note I offer you Agenda Setting Theory: Agenda Setting T-Shirt

So keep an eye out for more in the near future, I’m currently slaving over a massive post on Cultivation Theory which should be up in the next week.

Thanks and keep on… mass communicating…? That doesn’t sound quite right… Let’s go with kicking ass.