Sources of Topics for Thesis


As mentioned previously, you should begin your topic selection by identifying two or three broad areas in which many different types of research may be pursued. Examples of what is meant by broad topic areas are: teaching methods, leadership styles, bilingual education, school improvement, and so forth. Sources of ideas for broad topic areas include:

 

 (a) textbooks,

(b) professional journals, 

(c) dissertations, 

(d) theories,

 (e) current employment, and 

(f) existing databases.

 

Textbooks 

 

Textbooks that you are currently using in your courses or that you have used in previous courses can be a source of ideas for broad topic areas. Often, the authors of textbooks point out areas of controversy or gaps in the research on specific topics. For example, in the first chapter of their textbook Educational Administration: Concepts and Practices, Lunenburg and Ornstein (2008) identified some current issues in assessment, which include testing minority students and confidentiality of test data. In a subsequent chapter, they discussed current and emerging issues in the measurement of disabled children. In another chapter, they shared problems with the validation of some leadership theories and the use of majority samples in the development of some of these theories. In each of these chapters, the authors pointed out several broad areas in need of further research.

 

Professional Journals

 

 As mentioned previously, you should begin your topic selection by identifying two or three broad areas in which many different types of research may be pursued. Examples of what is meant by broad topic areas are: teaching methods, leadership styles, bilingual education, school improvement, and so forth. Sources of ideas for broad topic areas include:

 

 (a) textbooks,

(b) professional journals, 

(c) dissertations, 

(d) theories,

 (e) current employment, and 

(f) existing databases.



Textbooks 



Textbooks that you are currently using in your courses or that you have used in previous courses can be a source of ideas for broad topic areas. Often, the authors of textbooks point out areas of controversy or gaps in the research on specific topics. For example, in the first chapter of their textbook Educational Administration: Concepts and Practices, Lunenburg and Ornstein (2008) identified some current issues in assessment, which include testing minority students and confidentiality of test data. In a subsequent chapter, they discussed current and emerging issues in the measurement of disabled children. In another chapter, they shared problems with the validation of some leadership theories and the use of majority samples in the development of some of these theories. In each of these chapters, the authors pointed out several broad areas in need of further research.

 

Professional Journals 



Although reading textbooks will give you a broad overview of topic ideas for your thesis or dissertation, you need to steep yourself in the literature in your field and related fields. (If you are an education student, related fields are psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and business management.) This will enable you to examine the specifics of how other scholars have conducted research. These specifics can be found in reports of original, empirical research (which include both quantitative and qualitative studies) published in professional journals. Such reports can be accessed electronically. If you are unfamiliar with conducting such searches, consult the research librarian at your university. Some electronic databases provide the full text of research articles; others provide abstracts only. If an abstract interests you, obtain copies of the full article and carefully read it through.

 

 As you read, pay particular attention to the purposes, research questions, or hypotheses that are stated in the articles. Consider the methods used to examine the research questions or test the hypotheses, including participants, instrumentation, data collection, and data analysis the researcher(s) used, and, of course, the findings. Consider reliability and validity issues of the studies you review. You should also pay particular attention to the discussion sections. In their discussions, researchers often describe implications of their research for theory and practice, discuss limitations of their studies, and suggest possibilities for further research. Such an examination of the specifics of empirical research will assist you in developing and refining your own thesis or dissertation proposal.

Reading professional journals related to your field will help you keep abreast of research trends in your discipline and enable you to explore broad topic areas at the same time. Pay particular attention to periodicals that publish review articles, such as the Review of Educational Research, Harvard Educational Review, Sociological Review, Annual Review of Psychology, and Review of Research in Education. Review articles are helpful to you because they organize a great deal of literature efficiently. A topical review represents the analytical thinking of some scholar who has examined existing literature, interpreted it, and pointed out the theoretical issues it raises. These reviewers are invited to write reviews, because they are considered to be among the best scholars in their fields. A review article also provides you with an extensive reference list that can form the basis for a complete review of the literature once you select a topic for your thesis or dissertation. The review article is also a good model for the dissertation proposal and the abstract of your dissertation. It is relatively short and usually includes the purpose, research questions or hypothesis, methods, results, implications, and limitations.

 

 In some fields, books are published annually that are devoted to the review of significant recent theoretical and practical research developments. Four such annual publications include the Annual Review of Anthropology, Annual Review of Psychology, Annual Review of Sociology, and Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE). Each yearly volume of the annual reviews contains highly comprehensive and integrated reviews of numerous research areas in anthropology, psychology, sociology, and education, respectively. Some topics contained in these volumes are reviewed annually, while others are reviewed every five years. The researcher should look over the six or seven most recent volumes to get an idea of topical coverage. Other useful sources of reviews of research include the Handbook of Research on Teaching, Handbook of Qualitative Research, Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Handbook of Research on Educational Administration, and Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and Administration. The articles contained in these documents are written by distinguished scholars in specific content areas. The topics are selected for their timeliness at the time of writing and their theoretical or practical value to researchers. Because these volumes are not published annually, some of the contents may not be as current as the aforementioned annual reviews, but may be appropriate for the selection of broad topic areas.

 

Dissertations



Other completed dissertations can serve as another good source of topic selection. Be sure to secure exemplary projects to serve as models. Try to find: 

(a) award-winning dissertations in your field or related fields, 

(b) recent dissertations in the selected field at various universities, 

(c) good recent dissertations suggested by faculty in your department, and

 (d) the best dissertations suggested by your dissertation chair.

Examine the titles of these dissertations, as well as titles published in Dissertation Abstracts International. If a title interests you, read the abstract of the study. If you are still interested, get a copy of the document and read specifically the review of the literature and the suggestions for further research. Dissertations are now online through most university libraries.

 There are certain advantages of searching for a topic from completed dissertations that go far beyond topic selection. For example, a recently completed dissertation includes a comprehensive review of the literature up to the point of completion. Updating the most recent studies will be an easy task. Your study might include a different population, other variable(s), or another methodology. However, other dissertations can help you in identifying acceptable approaches to: (a) writing research questions or hypothesis, (b) choosing an appropriate sample size, (c) examining how data were collected and analyzed, and (d) observing what kinds of conclusions can be drawn from the results, and/or (e) formulating a theory. These specifics of conducting research can be valuable information learned from examining completed doctoral dissertations.

 

Theories



Theories are developed to explain phenomena in a field or to provide structure or framework to the knowledge base in a field. A new theory may be developed, or an existing theory may be modified or extended. For example, Paul Hersey (1976) did a theory dissertation in which he developed with his dissertation chair, Ken Blanchard, a new leadership theory known as the situational leadership theory (see Hersey & Blanchard, 2007 for an explanation of the situational leadership theory). One of our doctoral students, Salvatore Pascarella (1985), did a field test of Hersey and Blanchards situational leadership theory in a school setting using a sample of elementary school principals (see also, Pascarella & Lunenburg, 1988).

 Doris Delaney (2005), another one of our doctoral students, completed a dissertation that further field-tested Hersey and Blanchards situational leadership theory using a sample of prekindergarten principals. The development and testing of theory is important work and can make an important contribution to the field. Many theories have received only limited empirical testing. In addition, many theories have been tested using only majority populations. For example, many of the management theories developed in industrial settings between 1900 and 1960 used only men as participants. One of the authors of this book has developed a new gender-inclusive theory of leadership called the synergistic leadership theory (SLT) (Irby, Brown, Duffy, & Trautman, 2002). The theory can be applied to any organization. 

Developed through a qualitative approach, the SLT has been validated quantitatively, qualitatively, and with mixed methods designs nationwide and is currently being validated internationally by our doctoral students, using samples of principals, superintendents, and higher education leaders. These validation studies have included nonmajority populations (Bamberg, 2004; Hernandez, 2004; Holtkamp, 2001; Schlosberg, 2004; Trautman, 2000; Truslow, 2004). 

All of the aforementioned dissertations have used quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods designs. Wanda Bamberg and Teresa Schlosberg validated the theory through qualitative methodology. Rose Hernandez and Leslie Holtkamp used a quantitative methodology. Diane Trautman and Kimberly Truslow used a mixed methods design. More details on the methodology used in these dissertations are provided in subsequent chapters. You should not limit yourself to theories within your own discipline. 

Many professionals study the same problems educators do, including anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, business executives, and others. Thus, theories from other disciplines provide new ways of examining topics in your discipline. For example, a social psychological theory such as Banduras (1997) self-efficacy theory has been tested in applied areas of education and has greatly expanded the existing knowledge base. Woolfolk and Hoy (1990) tested Banduras self-efficacy theory in relation to prospective teachers control beliefs. Later, Hoy and Woolfolk (1993) tested self-efficacy theory in relation to the organizational health of schools. 

Tschannen-Moran and others (1998) modified Banduras teacher efficacy scale. Building on the work of Bandura, Hoy, Tschannen, and Woolfolk, Lauren Black (2003), one of our doctoral students, developed and validated a new instrument, the principal efficacy scale, which was the subject of her dissertation. Lauren Black used a mixed methods design in her dissertation. Some dissertations are guided by theory. Others are not. Look for reported research (survey textbooks, research journals, dissertations) that is grounded in a solid theoretical framework. Such works make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base. An excellent way to justify proposed research to your thesis or doctoral committee is to show that your research will either test certain aspects of an important theory or has its foundation in such a theory. 

Thus, we suggest that you consider whether your research could be guided by a particular theory and how you can create empirical ways of testing the theory or theories. Many quantitative studies are designed to test a theory that has been developed to explain educational phenomena. Such theory-driven studies use hypotheses as the starting point for designing the research methodology. Qualitative research studies can be designed so that data are collected first, and then a theory is derived from those data (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2007; Gay, Mills, & Airasian, 2006). Such qualitative studies might be informed by a theoretical or epistemological framework, but formal hypotheses are not typically used to frame the study (Gall et al., 2007). For example, in grounded theory methodology, hypotheses are the outcome of the study rather than the initiators of it (Glaser, 1978)



Current Employment



Another source of dissertation topics can be derived from your current employment. For example, one of our doctoral students, Vickie Basham (1988), was able to relate her dissertation topic to her employment (see also, Basham & Lunenburg, 1989). Vickie worked for the Kentucky Department of Education as the Director of Assessment. She wanted to determine the relationships between strategic planning, student achievement, and school district financial and demographic factors. At that time, the state of Kentucky had just implemented a statewide strategic planning model. In addition, the state administered annually a standardized achievement test to all students in grades 3, 5, 7, and 10 in three content areas: reading, language arts, and mathematics. The achievement data, as well as the financial and demographic factors she was studying, were easily accessible to her through the Kentucky Department of Educations database. (However, there was no instrument to measure the use of strategic planning in the state.) 

The State Superintendent of Schools was very interested in the study and sent a letter to all superintendents in the state requesting them to participate in Vickies study. The letter from the top administrator in the state opened doors for data collection, resulting in a nearly 80% return rate from the total population of superintendents in the state (her study sample); complete access to the states database; and free assistance from state department measurement experts in the statistical analysis of her data, as well as survey-item construction of the strategic planning instrument. These measurement experts also assisted her with the pilot study needed to validate the strategic planning scale she developed with her dissertation chair. Thus, after a careful review of the literature, Vickie developed an acceptable dissertation topic, conceptualized a problem, and completed a literature review, methodology, and supporting evidence that were firmly grounded in theory



Existing Database



Drawing on your current employment and having access to an existing database can be a real advantage in selecting a dissertation topic. Keith Clark (2002), one of our doctoral students, was chief financial officer (CFO) for a large, urban school district. Drawing on his work experience in finance, he examined student achievement, financial and demographic factors, and property wealth as related to the educational resources in public school districts. Another one of our doctoral students, Danielle Lutz (2006), was Director of Grants in another large, urban school district.

Drawing on her work experience in grants she examined, using a mixed methods design, the relationship between bilingual federal grant programs and student achievement in public schools. Because the school districts were interested in these students studies, they received free clerical assistance and access to computer services. Moreover, each student could retrieve a portion of his or her data through the states existing database. Sally Craycraft (1999), another one of our doctoral students, became intrigued by the availability of a large database at Hermann International that contained elements from a certified administration of the Herman Brain Dominance: Thinking Styles Assessment Instrument to 366 school superintendents and 599 chief executive officers (CEOs). The sample included individuals from across the United States and included males and females; different ethnic-racial groups; and urban, suburban, and rural organizations, equivalent to the national population. Using this existing database, she examined the relationship between brain dominance and leadership styles of school superintendents and business CEOs by gender, race, and organization size. 

Likewise, one of our international doctoral students, Ying-Chiao Tsai (2006), used an existing database of Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) reading achievement for English-language students in the United States and Singapore. She compared reading achievement levels for majority and minority language-students by gender for both countries. The federal government provides national databases related to early childhood, special education, longitudinal household surveys, higher education, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and the like. Most of these are provided through the National Clearinghouse of Educational Statistics (NCES). Three other of our doctoral students, Melinda Wooderson-Perzan (2000), Darlene Blair (2001), and Heather Thielemann (2004), used an existing database to examine some, but not all, of their study variables. Melinda and Darlene used an existing database for their student achievement and school district financial and demographic factors. 

For the other variables in their studies (leadership styles and instructional leadership/ management tasks profiles) of superintendents and principals, respectively, they used Bass and Avolios (1994) Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) and Lunenburgs (1982, 2000) Instructional Leadership/Management Tasks Profile. Heather collected data on the effectiveness of enrollment management programs in four-year universities and community colleges in Texas using an adaptation of Noel-Levitz enrollment management survey. She compared the data collected in Texas colleges and universities with the Noel Levitz national database of community colleges and four-year universities. After a careful review of the literature, Keith, Danielle, Sally, Ying-Chaio, Melinda, Darlene, and Heather developed an acceptable dissertation and completed their studies.

We have found quite often that research topics (and their accompanying research questions), including the aforementioned studies, need to be reworked by the student and dissertation chair (advisor) before they are approved. In some cases, a research topic may be completely rejected by the dissertation or masters thesis chair (advisor) as inappropriate for a dissertation or masters thesis.

 

Although reading textbooks will give you a broad overview of topic ideas for your thesis or dissertation, you need to steep yourself in the literature in your field and related fields. (If you are an education student, related fields are psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and business management.) This will enable you to examine the specifics of how other scholars have conducted research. These specifics can be found in reports of original, empirical research (which include both quantitative and qualitative studies) published in professional journals. Such reports can be accessed electronically. If you are unfamiliar with conducting such searches, consult the research librarian at your university. Some electronic databases provide the full text of research articles; others provide abstracts only. If an abstract interests you, obtain copies of the full article and carefully read it through.

 

 As you read, pay particular attention to the purposes, research questions, or hypotheses that are stated in the articles. Consider the methods used to examine the research questions or test the hypotheses, including participants, instrumentation, data collection, and data analysis the researcher(s) used, and, of course, the findings. Consider reliability and validity issues of the studies you review. You should also pay particular attention to the discussion sections. In their discussions, researchers often describe implications of their research for theory and practice, discuss limitations of their studies, and suggest possibilities for further research. Such an examination of the specifics of empirical research will assist you in developing and refining your own thesis or dissertation proposal.

Reading professional journals related to your field will help you keep abreast of research trends in your discipline and enable you to explore broad topic areas at the same time. Pay particular attention to periodicals that publish review articles, such as the Review of Educational Research, Harvard Educational Review, Sociological Review, Annual Review of Psychology, and Review of Research in Education. Review articles are helpful to you because they organize a great deal of literature efficiently. A topical review represents the analytical thinking of some scholar who has examined existing literature, interpreted it, and pointed out the theoretical issues it raises. These reviewers are invited to write reviews, because they are considered to be among the best scholars in their fields. A review article also provides you with an extensive reference list that can form the basis for a complete review of the literature once you select a topic for your thesis or dissertation. The review article is also a good model for the dissertation proposal and the abstract of your dissertation. It is relatively short and usually includes the purpose, research questions or hypothesis, methods, results, implications, and limitations.

 

 In some fields, books are published annually that are devoted to the review of significant recent theoretical and practical research developments. Four such annual publications include the Annual Review of Anthropology, Annual Review of Psychology, Annual Review of Sociology, and Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE). Each year