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Choose an issue

Identify a general topic for research.


Choose an issue to research. Look for issues that are general, literate and nonlocal. Find your issue by searching through topics, problem cases, texts, and the communities to which you already belong



Here are some issues written by undergraduate and graduate researchers: 

1. Can PBL teaching methods be used to teach design problems given the complexity and low structuredness of these problems (Jonassen et al., 2008; 2015). If so, how can PBL be adapted to and evaluated? (“How might the PBL process be adapted in order to support these different components of problem difficulty?”-- Jonassen et al., 2008, p.22).

Notice that this issue was raised in an article by a specific researcher, so this project starts by picking up that issue. It raises an question about whether a popular pedagogical approach can work in a specific domain. There is a potential practical benefit to design teachers and a benefit to the PBL community that wants to know how widely PBL can be applied.

2. How do peer leaders spread new practices in peer-led learning communities?

This issue arose out of a practical problem.  In extra-curricular learning environments run by university students, peer-leaders don't "teach" the same way that a professor might.  This question is applying a Roger's Diffusion of Innovations framework (by asking about spread) to this question of how peer-leaders teach.  This question would be of interest to learning scientists because the field things learning communities are important, it hasn't studied  peer-lead communities as much as other learning environments.  The potential practical benefits of the issue might be to identify best-practices for other peer-leaders can use, or might identify challenges that someone has to overcome (in future work).

3. Studio-Based Learning is an effective and robust way to support learning of the design disciplines but we are not sure how to get the benefits of SBL in a distributed network of extracurricular university chapters.

This issue is a another nice example of a research question that arose out of a practical problem.  The Design for America network uses a "studio-based learning" environment at its university chapters and struggles to figure out how to take advantage of it's network to support its studios.  SBL and networked learning environments are new topics in Learning Sciences that we don't know much about, so there is potential to create new knowledge that solves a practical problem.



A topic is any subject matter about which you can read, think, write and which you can discuss.

An issue is a topic that sparks controversy within a community of speakers, readers, and writers.  More specifically, an issue is a topic that creates a tension in the community, a discontent or dissatisfaction with the status quo.  If the tension is commonly acknowledged by the community and judged important enough to command its attention, the topic that created it is recognized as an issue.

For example, "carrot soup" is a topic.  We can talk about it and even disagree whether it is good or not, but that's pretty much the end of the discussion.  "Carrot soup causes cancer" is an issue—it's something that matters to a lot of people and would generate a good deal of research to resolve that issue.

Types of issues

General versus Specialized Issues.  A general issue affects a larger audience whereas a specialized issue affects a narrow subgroup.  Specialized issues require specialized knowledge to address.  As an undergraduate student practicing argument, you will want to address general issues.  As a master's and doctoral student, you will address more specialized issues in your field.  Usually, you want to address as many people of possible in your "community" although that community may be quite narrow for a practitioner, professional, or academic.

Literate versus Oral Issues.  Literate issues are ones where all the sides of the issue have been communicated in written form whereas oral issues are ones where (at least) 1 side does not express their position as authors and you must rely on word of mouth to get a balanced perspective. Resolving a design or research issue will most likely require you collect data that is not in written form, but when developing the literature review justifying your investigation, you begin with literate issues in which different researchers and practitioners have committed to written positions—these define the "state of the art," the "theory," or the "knowledge base" of the community.

Local versus Nonlocal Issues.   Local issues have a narrower scope, i.e., they affect your school, neighborhood, town, city, country, or state, whereas nonlocal issues have a broader scope.  Often in design research, you start with a local issue but treat it as an instance of a broader issue.  For practitioners and professionals, it might be sufficient to address to treat an issue as local, i.e.,  is my program working, while researchers and designers may treat the same issue more broadly to show how the phenomenon applies across many contexts or to design products that can be used by a wider audience.

So for masters and doctoral students, you will tend to choose issues that are:

  • as general as possible within your specialized discipline 
  • literate, although you will typically collect data to resolve the issue
  • nonlocal, although your empirical studies will typically investigate a local instance of a nonlocal issue



To find an issue, you can start from a:

  • topic, by linking the topic with an issue and making sure that there is a community that has a longstanding disagreement about it
  • problem case,  a "concrete situation whose existence raises discontent or dissatisfaction for a community," 
  • text - such as a research article, newspaper, magazine or book that defines an issue you want to follow and contribute to
  • researcher - think about a previous class you took or ask a teacher or advisor for a possible issue to address
  • practitioner - practitioners can often describe or demonstrate the problem cases they face in trying to accomplish their work
  • community - an issue that arises in a community to which you already belong or from your own experience, whether that is your nation, age group, class, race, religion, gender, family, interest group, etc. 

If you have a vague idea of what to focus on, you can dig into the literature to find a few key texts and use those to find more. If you have no idea what your topic is, then diving into the literature will probably be aimless and waste a lot of time.  In that case, start by connecting to a real world issue, something that is important to practitioners, or policy or social issue.



An issue!

Critique questions

In choosing an issue ask:

  • Does the issue create a tension (controversy or uncertainty) among a community of speakers?
  • Is the issue general (vs. specific)
  • Is the issue literate (vs. oral)
  • Is the issue nonlocal (vs. local)


Kaufer, D. S., Geisler, C., & Neuwirth, C. M. (1989). Developing research questions (chapter 1). Arguing from sources: Exploring issues through reading and writing. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.  

White, P. (2009). Developing research questions: A guide for social scientists. Palgrave Macmillan, p 8-10.