How to Write a Research Proposal

As a professor of education, one of my favorite courses to teach was “Introduction to Education Research.” The primary purpose of this course is to introduce students to the concepts and methods of education research. The emphasis is placed on methods most frequently encountered in social science research, especially in the field of education. Students are expected complete a research proposal during this course, and in the follow-up course, “Applications of Education Research,” they use this proposal to conduct a research study.

Why did I love teaching this course? Because education research is not an easy skill to develop, but with hard work and dedication it can be mastered. When I was able to help someone who hated statistics learn to love statistics, it gave me a sense of accomplishment. In this piece, I plan to take you through the process of developing an education research proposal that you can be proud of.

Let’s start off by discussing research problems and questions and then moving on to the four main parts of a research proposal.

Research Problem and Question(s)

A research question is the core of a research project, study, or review of the literature. It centers the study, sets the methodology, and guides all stages of inquiry, analysis, and reporting.

A research question starts with a research problem, an issue that you would like to know more about or change. Research problems can be:

  • Areas of concern
  • Conditions that need to be changed
  • Difficulties that should be erased
  • Questions that need to be answered

A research problem leads to a research question that:

  • Is worth investigating
  • Contributes knowledge & value to the field
  • Improves educational practice
  • Improves humanity

The key features of a good research question:

  • The question is viable.
  • The question has clarity.
  • The question has gravitas.
  • The question is moral.

How to Get From Research Problem to Research Questions and Purpose

The following section was originally published on a site entitled Research Rundowns:

Step 1. Draft a research question/hypothesis.

Example: What effects did 9/11/01 have on the future plans of students who were high school seniors at the time of the terrorist attacks?

Example (measurable) Questions: Did seniors consider enlisting in the military as a result of the attacks? Did seniors consider colleges closer to home as a result?

Step 2. Draft a purpose statement.

Example: The purpose of this study is to determine the effects of the 9/11/01 tragedy on the future plans of high school seniors.

Step 3. Revise and rewrite the research question/hypothesis.

Example: What is the association between 9/11/01 and future plans of high school seniors?

Step 4. Revise and rewrite the research question/hypothesis.

Example: Purpose Statement (Declarative): The purpose of this study is to explore the association between 9/11/01 and future plans of high school seniors.

Note: Both are neutral; they do not presume an association, either negative or positive.

Parts of a Research Proposal

A research proposal includes four sections, and they are as follows:

Section One: Introduction

Section Two: Review of the Literature

Section Three: Research Methodology

Section Four: References

The information that follows offers step by step instructions on how to complete each section of your proposal.


Section One: Introduction

Part #1: Write a paragraph that introduces your topic.  Mention your topic in the first sentence. What are you planning to study? What is the purpose of the study?

Part #2: Fully discuss your topic.  What specifically interests you? Think of a specific research question (or questions) and state it clearly and precisely.  You can also begin to formulate your ideas on how you might study your research question, though you need not be very specific in this section. For example, if you plan to study attitudes toward school vouchers, suggest what characteristics influence how individuals feel about school vouchers (e.g., income, location, etc.).

Part #3: Explain to the reader why it is important to study your topic and put it into a larger educational context. Here is where you answer the “So what?” question. That is, you plan to study XYZ. So what? Why is it important to study this topic?  What is the educational importance of this research?  Why is this study significant? This is your opportunity to be broad, general, and theoretical in your thinking.

This section should be at least 3-5 pages. Based on the outline provided above, you must utilize sub-headings within this section. You must cite articles within this section to support your topic and claim.


Section Two: Review of the Literature

The purpose of this section is to find and summarize qualitative or quantitative research studies that directly relate to your research question(s).  Use library databases to start searching for articles, but employ other resources when necessary.

When looking for articles, you need to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Use scholarly journals rather than popular magazines, newspaper articles, or the internet.
  • Rely on the educational literature. If you are unsure whether an article or journal is included in the discipline, ask me.
  • In general, select recent articles (i.e., 1960 or later). However, if an article was written in 1952, for example, is extremely pertinent to your proposal, then use it.
  • Choose only research articles (qualitative or quantitative research) for the literature review. Do not include theoretical works, editorials, book reviews, program reports, etc.  If you are unsure about an article, I will gladly take a look at it. Your literature review should not be more than 15 pages.

Your task is to:

  • Briefly, restate your research topic in an opening paragraph. Provide a short introduction about what question(s) you are trying to answer, why this is educationally interesting, and why you chose it. Also, provide a brief overview of the topics you will cover in your literature review.
  • Divide the literature that you have into sections of like Then, for each section, write an essay summarizing the studies. Be sure to state the research purpose, method(s), and findings ONLY for the studies that are paramount to your study. [NOTE: Use transitions within your essay so that it flows and does not appear like disjointed blocks of information.]
  • Write a concluding paragraph that summarizes the articles. For example, how will these articles inform your research?


Section Three: Research Methodology

The purpose of this section is to allow you to explain your research methodology.  This can be the hardest part of the proposal for some students; therefore, do not wait until the last minute to write this section. Think about your design when you write your literature review.

Your task is to:

  • In a brief introduction, restate your research problem(s)/question(s).
  • Indicate the following parts of your research methodology:
  1. Describe your vehicle of observation. How do you plan to collect your data?  If you are creating a survey, what kinds of questions do you plan to ask? If you are going to do interviews, what will you ask of your interviewees?
  2. What population do you plan to use? How do you plan to sample this population?
  3. How will you select your sample? What kind of sampling method will you use?
  4. How will you analyze your data? What kind of analysis best fits your project, and why?
  • If you plan to conduct qualitative research, discuss the following issues (be as detailed and accurate as possible):
  1. Define the theoretical constructs will you be using.
  2. What is the main concept you are investigating? What other concepts will be examined (note the concepts’ potential structures, processes, causes, and consequences)?
  3. What type(s) of qualitative analysis will you conduct?
  • If you plan to conduct quantitative research, discuss the following issues (be as detailed and specific as possible):
  1. Clearly, state your hypotheses.
  2. Identify and operationalize your variables. List the independent variables and the dependent variable.
  • List the pros and cons of your methodology.
  • Write a concluding paragraph that summarizes the research design and proposal. When writing this section, imagine that have enough resources for your research design. Since you will not perform the research be creative, but appropriate, with your design.


Section Four: References

On the last section of your proposal, include an APA-formatted bibliography of the articles, books, websites, etc. that you refer to in the text.  This page should be titled “References.” The references should be listed alphabetically by the last name of the first author. As a rule of thumb, you need an average of 4 references per page. For instance, if your proposal is ten pages, then technically need 40 references. However, this does not necessarily to have four references on each page.

Please carefully note the following issues:

The entire proposal should be no more than 40 pages excluding the title page and the “References” section. Any page(s) over the 40th page will not be read.  All of the parts must be typed, double-spaced, in a 12-point font, with 1-inch margins on all four sides of each page.

If you followed the outline and instructions that we have provided, we are confident that you have completed a top-notch research proposal.


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