Research proposals

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Writing a research proposal requires students to demonstrate a high level of knowledge and analytical thought. Students must choose a specific aspect of the course material to investigate, and ask an original question, which can increase their engagement and interest. This assesses students' understanding of the subject area, their capacity to perform a literature review, their evaluation of possible research tools, and their development of a research question. In addition, the course can require the student to carry out the project they propose, as another assessment task. Assessing the proposal as a separate task earlier in the year ensures the students are on a productive path, helps the students to plan their time, and can also deter academic misconduct by demonstrating authorship. Research-related assessments can support the students' later work on a dissertation.  This can be in terms of skills alone or both skills and content the research proposal informs the final-year dissertation.

Advantages of research proposals

  • Learning through research can lead to more engaged, critical and informed students than teaching by more didactic methods.

  • Learning about research methods can help students understand other courses more fully, and the 'nuts and bolts' of their discipline.

  • Becoming 'expert' in an area can increase students sense of autonomy in their learning, and can develop their confidence in articulating original arguments.

  • Developing a wider variety of types of writing and communication is useful for students' longer-term employability skills.

  • As a research proposal can be relatively short, it can be combined with peer feedback or presented in a different format such as a poster or an oral presentation.

  • Can be a good opportunity to introduce group work

Challenges of research proposals

  • Students more used to exams and essays may find a new format initially confusing.

  • Students may feel unsure of how to excel in this assessment method.

  • When students choose their own specific area to investigate, it carries the risk that the area will not be as productive as one pre-determined by their tutor as existing research literature on a topic may be sparse, for example.

How students might experience research proposals

Students may value the autonomy of creating a research proposal, and appreciate the insight it offers into their other courses, but experience anxiety at the novel assessment format. When students have undertaken specific, personal work, they can appreciate the opportunity of sharing their work with peers. LSE students in this situation report a sense of pride in their own and their cohort's work.

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity of research proposals

As with any assessment, the learning outcomes of the course need to be well served by the method - setting clear criteria and communicating them with students. The weighting of the task also requires consideration. An essay may be a more substantial writing task, but a research proposal requires additional time to find relevant readings, and understand and evaluate research tools. If peers are expected to comment on one another's work, guidance on this should also be provided. As the projects will be varied, students may make more use of office hours or other one-to-one guidance from tutors. Students from educational backgrounds which do not prioritise 'original argument' may particularly struggle to understand what is required of them by an open-ended and personalised project. Putting students in contact with their relevant library liaison is another form of support for when they are locating material.

How to maintain and ensure rigour in research proposals

Research proposals should be marked and moderated in accordance with departmental practice. Criteria should be established in advance and shared with students. Research proposals can provide a chance to excel in one area and underperform in others (e.g. a strong original argument combined with weak use of sources) therefore a clear marking system should help keep students (and staff) working (and marking) in line with the expected outcomes. Individual markers should take steps to avoid the problems which affect batch marking, such as the 'halo' effect where one or two positive characteristics of a student overly influence the marker.

How to limit possible misconduct in research proposals

Possible misconduct is comparable to other written assessment methods. The requirement for students to select their own sub-topic to work on means that assistance from previous cohorts will be of less use. As it is a novel form of assessment, students will also be less able to find existing examples online. Requiring students to submit early stages of the project – for example, an area of interest, an early research question - will require students to demonstrate authorship (and also allow tutors to intervene in projects which appear off-topic). Final submissions can make use of Turnitin to check against other student submissions, and against other possible sources (for example, article abstracts).

LSE examples

Further resources

Healey, M. and Jenkins, A. (2009) Developing undergraduate research and inquiry