Elements of Inquiry: Reflection, Critical Thinking, and Research
Talking informally about their research, many scholars will share a personal connection to the work they do in their professional roles as teachers and researchers. That connection might be grounded in a sense of social responsibility, that is, some commitment to create change. They may talk about the way their research connects meaningfully with personal, family, or community history. It may also be that a scholar pursues a particular research topic because she, he, they find the subject intriguing. A passion to understand drives research. Often we are curious and driven to know more about issues and questions for no obvious reason at all beyond fascination.
Far from secondary or extracurricular, personal interests and connections to research can be a powerful pathway for learning and gaining knowledge. As you make your way through this course, we ask that you pursue twin paths of inquiry: a path of reflection and a path of research. This course will encourage you down both, thinking and writing about the lived experience that have brought you to your current interests, and pursuing research understood more traditionally as the gathering, analysis, and integration of the work of other scholars and researchers. Both activities will take you on a search for information and knowledge. Click here to continue reading.
Critical Thinking: An Engine for Inquiry
You have probably heard teachers talk about “critical thinking” as a method of problem solving. At the risk of being repetitive we will briefly discuss the foundational importance of critical thinking here.
Critical thinking is the activity that joins reflection and research in a process of inquiry, a careful analysis of our own experience and knowledge undertaken even as we gather more information and increase our knowledge. Definitions abound, but we ask you to adopt this definition of critical thinking at least for the duration of this course:
Critical thinking is the habit or practice of non-prejudicial and uncompromising analysis and inquiry, thinking from multiple perspectives, and adopting positions in light of all available information.
But more than just accept this definition without question, let’s put the concept of Critical Thinking to work with you answering some questions found in the Exercise Tab.
When you are finished, check out the video, titled simply “Critical Thinking.” It offers an extended overview of this important concept.
Reflection Begins with a Decision
Question: How do you decide what issue to pursue as a topic for inquiry?
Answer: Choose the one that has already chosen you.
Some issues make a claim on our interest and grab our attention through the force of their importance. These issues have impact in our lives. There is no end to the variations on “the call to write,” as scholar and writing teacher John Trimbur has termed the motivating factors that get writers and researchers working. [Read more.]
Choose a Focus
So then, let’s decide: what is the issue? The problem? The occasion? What is the question to answer? What is the challenge to which we must respond individually, locally, as well as a broader society? You must be the one who makes these decisions in the context of the research and writing for this course. Therefore, as we have suggested, it is crucial that you choose something that holds real interest for you, something important that demands your attention. Here’s an idea: choose something to research that you would be interested in even if you were not enrolled in a writing course!
Of course, it is impossible to officially require that students care about their work, but we offer this choice as an opportunity for you to experience how your own personal interests can be your guide to important research and writing. Our classroom community is the space in which you can follow your own interests with support, collaboratively.
When you are ready, please proceed to the Exercise Tab.
Research and Inquiry
What academics include in their definition of research will vary from discipline to discipline. In some sciences, laboratory experimentation is a primary form of research, but those experiments will be different depending on the science. Some social scientists—sociologists or anthropologists, for example—often conduct extensive interviews or “ethnographies” to gather information about the experience, attitudes, or way of life among a particular segment of the population. This form of research requires methods of analysis entirely different from those of researchers in the “hard sciences” of biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Scholars in the humanities undertake other research methodologies. Historians and literary critics employ specific kinds of reading methodologies to interpret “primary texts,” perhaps hard copies aging somewhere in an archive, perhaps digitized and readily available.
You get the point; research is not a single activity. Research practices are multiple and adaptable.
A common and fundamental element unites most research methodologies, however. Academic research is driven by questions. These questions emerge around gaps or problems within the overall body of knowledge that makes up a discipline. This kind of research question focuses on how to build on and correct previous scholarship.
Research questions also emerge in direct response to situations “in the real world,” for there isn’t much truth to the old stereotype that academic researchers are cut off from reality and work among abstract ideas in the “ivory tower.” Certainly, we hope your direction for inquiry will be “worldly,” so to speak, engaging issues all the more important for their immediate relevance in the social world.
Whatever the focus, the time for developing research questions has arrived.
Formulating a Research Question
One way to summarize the difference between high school and college work is that in high school you were trained to answer questions that were put to you. As a student in the university, you must decide which questions are most important to ask, and more, which are most important to pursue with all your intellectual energy.
Carefully posing questions is a very important activity for academic researchers, the ranks of whom you have now joined. A research question emerges from interest and necessity and points to the direction further inquiry will take. But as your work in the previous section brainstorming possible topics suggests, coming up with a research question capable of moving you in a clear direction of inquiry will also take time and careful thought.
This is why we believe that the questioning process must precede the answering process. While students are often told to begin research projects with a thesis statement, that is, the main claim they will support with their research, our point is that before a student can arrive at a thesis, she or he must first gather strong knowledge and certainty about a topic in order even to conceive of let alone argue a thesis. Again, a process of inquiry is first necessary.[Read More.]
Revising the Research Question
Once you receive feedback from your classmates, teacher, and others, you will be in a place where you can revise your research question. Remember that the final decision is yours. You will have to decide which advice for revision to take and which to ignore. However, we offer the following questions for you to consider as you revise:
- Is there agreement among your readers that your research question is too broad?
- Have you been good advice for narrowing your research question, or can you think of a good way to focus the question?
- Is there a consensus among readers that your research question is too narrow? What ideas do you have for making it more general?
- Have you received feedback that suggests you have some misunderstanding of the issue at hand?
- Have your readers provided you with specifics about what it is you misunderstand?
- Did you receive comments about the clarity of your question? Were your readers specific about how to clarify your statement of the question?
After reviewing your initial research question, all of the response initiated by this question, as well as your answers to the above questions, you are ready to move from working exercises to a formal presentation of your Research Question.
You can access the full assignment description here.