One of the most difficult aspects of research – and one of the least discussed – is how to develop the idea for the research project in the first place. In training students, most faculty just assume that if you read enough of the research in an area of interest, you will somehow magically be able to produce sensible ideas for further research. Now, that may be true. And heaven knows that’s the way we’ve been doing this higher education thing for some time now. But it troubles me that we haven’t been able to do a better job of helping our students learn how to formulate good research problems. One thing we can do (and some texts at least cover this at a surface level) is to give students a better idea of how professional researchers typically generate research ideas. Some of this is introduced in the discussion of problem formulation in applied social research.

But maybe we can do even better than that. Why can’t we turn some of our expertise in developing methods into methods that students and researchers can use to help them formulate ideas for research. I’ve been working on that area pretty intensively for over a decade now – I came up with a structured approach that groups can use to map out their ideas on any topic. This approach, called concept mapping can be used by research teams to help them clarify and map out the key research issues in an area, to help them operationalize the programs or interventions or the outcome measures for their study. The concept mapping method isn’t the only method around that might help researchers formulate good research problems and projects. Virtually any method that’s used to help individuals and groups to think more effectively would probably be useful in research formulation. Some of the methods that might be included in our toolkit for research formulation might be: brainstorming, brainwriting, nominal group technique, focus groups, Delphi methods, and facet theory. And then, of course, there are all of the methods for identifying relevant literature and previous research work. If you know of any techniques or methods that you think might be useful when formulating the research problem, please feel free to add a notation – if there’s a relevant Website, please point to it in the notation.