Home Page

Section 2 Becoming a Researcher/Scholar / Chapter 4 Effective Research

A person cannot truly “think outside the box,” unless the individual understands all six sides of the box, as well as demonstrates a number of different cognitive strategies to get to that point.

Learners also must possess technology literacy skills to navigate the system of databases operant in today’s modern libraries.

Whether learners are conducting research for a class project or working on their dissertation, the importance of sound research practices will be the foundation to high-level scholarship.

By Dr. Charles Banaszewski


1. Introduction


“Thinking outside of the box” is a common phrase that has found a place in popular culture as well as in academic circles. It refers to a person thinking creatively about a particular topic or issue; however, this description and action is not completely accurate. A person cannot truly “think outside the box,” unless the individual understands all six sides of the box, as well as demonstrates a number of different cognitive strategies to get to that point.


In doctoral studies, learners are expected to think critically about every aspect of their dissertation project. An enormous amount of time and effort will be spent thinking metacognitively about each stage of the process as well as each component. There will be times researchers will have to think creatively about their work and think outside of the box, in order to make discoveries that will contribute new knowledge to a learner’s field. These boxes can be found in many different places throughout the journey of doctoral learners. It can come in many sizes. In the beginning, learners might be confused about where to begin because their undergraduate and master’s programs have provided assisted and guided learning experiences, as opposed to the independent nature of a doctoral program. Doctoral learners will spend hours, days, and even weeks contemplating their project’s hypotheses or research questions, which will lead to a comprehensive review of literature and eventually a proposal demonstrating their knowledge of the topic, as well as outline the intended methodology for data collection and analysis. Learners can view the process as one big box or a bunch of boxes that fit inside of each other until the final project is complete.































In order to identify and open these boxes, doctoral learners must transform themselves into effective researchers who embrace independent learning strategies throughout the research process. Although, a doctoral learner’s committee is there to guide and support a learner, the majority of their research and analysis will take place independently. The early stages of the search and discovery phase will require learners to build a list of reading sources, followed by an extensive and exhaustive literature review of the topic and its related subjects. The independent researcher eventually will transform into an independent writer who will produce a dissertation. “Successful completion of the dissertation ‘marks the transition from student to independent scholar’” (Council of Graduate Schools, 1995, p. 9, as cited in Lovitts, 2008).


In order to conduct a research project of this magnitude, doctoral learners must become information literate, which means they must develop a set of skills to locate, identify, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information. The National Forum on Information Literacy (n.d.) defines information literacy as the "ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, synthesize, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand” (para. 4). Learners will need this combination of critical thinking and informed decision making in order to separate meaningful information from insignificant material. Learners also must possess technology literacy skills to navigate the system of databases operant in today’s modern libraries.


The purpose of this chapter is to help learners become information literate. It will provide definitions of key terms, explanations of effective research practices, and guidelines to navigate the GCU online resources. In addition, doctoral learners will recognize the necessary tools needed to think outside of the box, in order to become a successful independent learners and scholars.


Walter Webb

Walter Webb is in his first semester as a doctoral learner at GCU, and he does not have much experience with research. Although he has a master’s degree, his previous program was more project-based and did not require an extensive research component. His first assignment asks him to compare and contrast three empirical articles about transformational and transactional leadership. He is unfamiliar with the terms empirical, transformational, and transactional, but decides to read the research articles anyway, figuring he will pick up their meanings along the way. After reading the first article, he is more confused than when he began, because the terms are not explained specifically, and the research relies heavily on quantitative measures. The second article is more of the same, but he realizes there are a couple of names repeated in both studies that have contributed to the terms transformational and transactional. The third article is a qualitative research study that relies heavily on vignettes for its communication of data. Walter likes reading about the participants, but he does not really understand the researcher’s subjective narrative style of communicating the data.


Walter begins his research by typing the terms into his Google search bar. Each time he finds the same three websites at the top of the page: Wikipedia, About.com, and MindTools.com. He visits each webpage and reads the definitions as well as the history behind the concepts. He recognizes the repeated names from the first two articles and learns that these two people developed the leadership concepts. Walter is feeling good about his research and wants to get a head start on writing his paper.


Walter begins writing, but after about 15 minutes he realizes that he does not know what to write about. He discusses the two leadership styles and the founders, but he cannot think of anything else to write. He returns to the articles, finds some interesting quotes, and inserts them into his paper. Unfortunately, Walter is getting frustrated and is becoming anxious. He decides to do a little more research and finds a great YouTube video that demonstrates the difference between the two leadership styles using an animated dramatization. He adapts the example into his narrative and cites the video as a resource. Walter finishes up with a conclusion that repeats the definitions of the terms one more time. He submits the work and awaits his instructor’s feedback.


A couple of days later, Walter is shocked to see a below average grade with a considerable amount of feedback commenting on the lack of research and analysis. Walter’s confidence is shaken, but he contacts his instructor to find out more about the areas upon which he needs to improve. His instructor asks Walter about his research process and his use of these popular websites. After Walter explained his choices, his instructor discusses using quality resources, such as peer reviewed articles, seminal works, and primary source material to develop a doctoral-level narrative and explains the importance of using only scholarly resources. He warns Walter against the sites he used because they lack credibility, accuracy, and relevance. Many students are unable to make this adjustment, but Walter took his instructor’s advice and eventually developed into a fine researcher because he learned to manage his time more effectively and learned how to distinguish scholarly sources from non-scholarly material. Walter became information literate.


Sally Smart

Sally Smart is Walter’s classmate and she embarks on the same assignment. Her previous degree required her to write a master’s thesis, which relied heavily on research to support her ideas. Sally is also unfamiliar with the terms empirical, transformational, and transactional, but she elects to find out what the words mean before she begins reading the three articles. She uses the Internet to get a basic understanding of the terms. She takes some notes on key concepts and contributors, and then scrolls down to the references and further readings sections. Being familiar to the research process, she opens her RefWorks program and creates a reading list for this particular assignment by logging reference information for one book and three articles. Feeling confident in her understanding of the concepts, she reads each article and records detailed notes that include page numbers and paragraphs. Afterwards, she views the references of each article and enters a couple of entries into her RefWorks program. Her reading list now consists of one book and six peer-reviewed articles.


Because this was Sally’s first time using GCU’s Library, she watches the videos on how to navigate the search functions of the system and reads the supplemental instructions to make sure she does not miss anything important. Upon completion, she opens her RefWorks program and begins to enter the titles of the articles. She reads the abstracts to each article and decides that two of them appear promising for a complete reading. She downloads the articles to her computer and begins a search for the book she needs. GCU does not own a copy of the text, so she places a request for the book through InterLibrary Loan. Realizing the book may not show up in time to complete the assignment, she focuses her immediate attention on the two articles downloaded to her computer. Again, she takes detailed notes and writes down some more reference material she could examine.


The three assignment articles and two supplementary readings all reference the same two researchers. She thinks it would be a good idea to find out a little more about these two scholars by doing an Internet search. She finds out that one of them had written a seminal work on transformational leadership (the same book she ordered through InterLibrary Loan), and the second author recently built upon the seminal author’s work. Having a firm understanding of the research topic and articles, Sally decides it would be good to create an outline for her upcoming paper. It is a comparative analysis that requires her to create headings in APA format. She visits an APA related website to learn about the most current APA requirements concerning a research paper and creates a template on her computer. She begins to write the introduction and makes sure that all the pertinent information is present. She establishes her academic tone on the assumption that her audience is unfamiliar with these three articles but will have doctoral-level reading expectations.


The book arrives in the mail, but Sally does not have time to read the entire text. She reviews the Table of Contents and identifies one chapter that could contribute to her paper. She skims the chapter and takes her usual notes. Sally finishes the research component of her studies and begins writing. She gathers her notes and writes her paper. The writing process comes easily for her because she has so many ideas about which she could write. She supports her analysis with the outside reading material and she finishes her draft 3 days before the due date. Instead of submitting it right away, she steps away from the document for a day, and then returns to edit and proof her work. She fixes the shortcomings and submits her document. A couple of days later, Sally is pleased to receive an above average grade with complimentary feedback applauding her ability to balance facts with strong analysis. Her confidence is strengthened, and she looks forward to the next assignment.


Sally and Walter’s knowledge base began at the same place, but Sally was able to excel because she understood the steps to become information literate.

Throughout the doctoral program, learners will be asked to locate, read, analyze, and write about research on a regular basis. Learners must become information literate in order to open up those “boxes” and conduct successful research. Whether learners are conducting research for a class project or working on their dissertation, the importance of sound research practices will be the foundation to high-level scholarship.