THE ELEMENTS OF A PROPOSAL
Introduction and Theoretical
is the part of the paper that provides readers with the background information
for the research reported in the paper. Its purpose is to establish a framework
for the research, so that readers can understand how it is related to other
research” (Wilkinson, 1991, p. 96).
introduction, the writer should
interest in the topic,
lay the broad
foundation for the problem that leads to the study,
place the study
within the larger context of the scholarly literature, and
reach out to a
specific audience. (Creswell, 1994, p. 42)
If a researcher
is working within a particular theoretical framework/line of inquiry, the
theory or line of inquiry should be introduced and discussed early, preferably
in the introduction or literature review. Remember that the theory/line of
inquiry selected will inform the statement of the problem, rationale for the
study, questions and hypotheses, selection of instruments, and choice of
methods. Ultimately, findings will be discussed in terms of how they relate to
the theory/line of inquiry that undergirds the study.
theoretical frameworks, and lines of inquiry may be differently handled in
quantitative and qualitative endeavors.
studies, one uses theory deductively and places it toward the beginning of the
plan for a study. The objective is to test or verify theory. One thus begins
the study advancing a theory, collects data to test it, and reflects on whether
the theory was confirmed or disconfirmed by the results in the study. The
theory becomes a framework for the entire study, an organizing model for the
research questions or hypotheses for the data collection procedure” (Creswell,
1994, pp. 87-88).
inquiry, the use of theory and of a line of inquiry depends on the nature of
the investigation. In studies aiming at “grounded theory,” for example, theory
and theoretical tenets emerge from findings. Much qualitative inquiry, however,
also aims to test or verify theory, hence in these cases the theoretical
framework, as in quantitative efforts, should be identified and discussed early
Statement of the Problem
statement describes the context for the study and it also identifies the
general analysis approach” (Wiersma, 1995, p. 404).
“A problem might
be defined as the issue that exists in the literature, theory, or practice that
leads to a need for the study” (Creswell, 1994, p. 50).
It is important
in a proposal that the problem stand out—that the reader can easily recognize
it. Sometimes, obscure and poorly formulated problems are masked in an extended
discussion. In such cases, reviewers and/or committee members will have
difficulty recognizing the problem.
statement should be presented within a context, and that context should be
provided and briefly explained, including a discussion of the conceptual or
theoretical framework in which it is embedded. Clearly and succinctly
identify and explain the problem within the framework of the theory or line of
inquiry that undergirds the study. This is of major importance in nearly all
proposals and requires careful attention. It is a key element that associations
such as AERA and APA look for in proposals. It is essential in all quantitative
research and much qualitative research.
State the problem
in terms intelligible to someone who is generally sophisticated but who is
relatively uninformed in the area of your investigation.
statements answer the question “Why does this research need to be conducted.”
If a researcher is unable to answer this question clearly and succinctly, and
without resorting to hyperspeaking (i.e., focusing on problems of macro or global
proportions that certainly will not be informed or alleviated by the study), then
the statement of the problem will come off as ambiguous and diffuse.
proposals, the statement of the problem is generally incorporated into the
introduction; academic proposals for theses or dissertations should have this
as a separate section.
Purpose of the Study
statement should provide a specific and accurate synopsis of the overall
purpose of the study” (Locke, Spirduso, & Silverman, 1987, p. 5). If the
purpose is not clear to the writer, it cannot be clear to the reader.
and delimit the specific area of the research. You will revisit this in greater
detail in a later section.
hypotheses to be tested or the questions to be raised, as well as the
significance of the study. These will require specific elaboration in
statement can also incorporate the rationale for the study. Some
committees prefer that the purpose and rationale be provided in separate
Key points to
keep in mind when preparing a purpose statement.
incorporate a sentence that begins with “The purpose of this study is . . .”
This will clarify your own mind as to the purpose and it will inform the reader
directly and explicitly.
and define the central concepts or ideas of the study. Some committee Chairs
prefer a separate section to this end. When defining terms, make a judicious
choice between using descriptive or operational definitions.
specific method of inquiry to be used.
Identify the unit
of analysis in the study.
Review of the Literature
“The review of
the literature provides the background and context for the research problem. It
should establish the need for the research and indicate that the writer is
knowledgeable about the area” (Wiersma, 1995, p. 406).
review accomplishes several important things.
It shares with
the reader the results of other studies that are closely related to the study
being reported (Fraenkel & Wallen, 1990).
It relates a
study to the larger, ongoing dialogue in the literature about a topic, filling
in gaps and extending prior studies (Marshall & Rossman, 1989).
It provides a
framework for establishing the importance of the study, as well as a benchmark
for comparing the results of a study with other findings.
It “frames” the
problem earlier identified.
the reader that you have a comprehensive grasp of the field and are aware of
important recent substantive and methodological developments.
Delineate the “jumping-off
place” for your study. How will your study refine, revise, or extend what is
that imply that little has been done in the area or that what has been done is
too extensive to permit easy summary. Statements of this sort are usually taken
as indications that the writer is not really familiar with the literature.
In a proposal,
the literature review is generally brief and to the point. Be judicious in your
choice of exemplars—the literature selected should be pertinent and relevant
(APA, 2001). Select and reference only the more appropriate citations. Make key
points clearly and succinctly.
want a section outlining your search strategy—the procedures you used
and sources you investigated (e.g., databases, journals, test banks, experts in
the field) to compile your literature review. Check with your Chair.
Questions and/or Hypotheses
Questions are relevant to normative or census type research
(How many of them are there? Is there a relationship between them?). They are
most often used in qualitative inquiry, although their use in quantitative
inquiry is becoming more prominent. Hypotheses are relevant to
theoretical research and are typically used only in quantitative inquiry. When
a writer states hypotheses, the reader is entitled to have an exposition of the
theory that led to them (and of the assumptions underlying the theory). Just
as conclusions must be grounded in the data, hypotheses must be grounded in the
question poses a relationship between two or more variables but phrases the
relationship as a question; a hypothesis represents a declarative
statement of the relations between two or more variables (Kerlinger, 1979;
to use questions or hypotheses depends on factors such as the purpose of the
study, the nature of the design and methodology, and the audience of the
research (at times even the taste and preference of committee members,
particularly the Chair).
The practice of
using hypotheses was derived from using the scientific method in social science
inquiry. They have philosophical advantages in statistical testing, as
researchers should be and tend to be conservative and cautious in their
statements of conclusions (Armstrong, 1974).
Hypotheses can be
couched in four kinds of statements.
Literary null—a “no difference” form in terms of theoretical
constructs. For example, “There is no relationship between support services and
academic persistence of nontraditional-aged college women.” Or, “There is no
difference in school achievement for high and low self-regulated students.”
null—a “no difference” form in terms
of the operation required to test the hypothesis. For example, “There is no
relationship between the number of hours nontraditional-aged college women use
the student union and their persistence at the college after their freshman
year.” Or, “There is no difference between the mean grade point averages
achieved by students in the upper and lower quartiles of the distribution of
the Self-regulated Inventory.” The operational null is generally the preferred
form of hypothesis-writing.
alternative—a form that states the
hypothesis you will accept if the null hypothesis is rejected, stated in terms
of theoretical constructs. In other words, this is usually what you hope the
results will show. For example, “The more that nontraditional-aged women use
support services, the more they will persist academically.” Or, “High
self-regulated students will achieve more in their classes than low
alternative—Similar to the literary
alternative except that the operations are specified. For example, “The more
that nontraditional-aged college women use the student union, the more they
will persist at the college after their freshman year.” Or, “Students in the
upper quartile of the Self-regulated Inventory distribution achieve
significantly higher grade point averages than do students in the lower
In general, the
null hypothesis is used if theory/literature does not suggest a hypothesized
relationship between the variables under investigation; the alternative is
generally reserved for situations in which theory/research suggests a
relationship or directional interplay.
Be prepared to
interpret any possible outcomes with respect to the questions or hypotheses. It
will be helpful if you visualize in your mind=s eye
the tables (or other summary devices) that you expect to result from your
research (Guba, 1961).
hypotheses are testable propositions deduced and directly derived from
theory (except in grounded theory studies and similar types of qualitative
Make a clear and
careful distinction between the dependent and independent variables and be
certain they are clear to the reader. Be
excruciatingly consistent in your use of terms. If appropriate, use the
same pattern of wording and word order in all hypotheses.
The Design--Methods and Procedures
“The methods or
procedures section is really the heart of the research proposal. The activities
should be described with as much detail as possible, and the continuity between
them should be apparent” (Wiersma, 1995, p. 409).
methodological steps you will take to answer every question or to test every
hypothesis illustrated in the Questions/Hypotheses section.
All research is
plagued by the presence of confounding variables (the noise that covers
up the information you would like to have). Confounding variables should be
minimized by various kinds of controls or be estimated and taken into
account by randomization processes (Guba, 1961). In the design section,
the variables you
propose to control and how you propose to control them, experimentally or
the variables you
propose to randomize, and the nature of the randomizing unit (students, grades,
Be aware of
possible sources of error to which your design exposes you. You will not
produce a perfect, error free design (no one can). However, you should
anticipate possible sources of error and attempt to overcome them or take them
into account in your analysis. Moreover, you should disclose to the reader the
sources you have identified and what efforts you have made to account for them.
The key reason
for being concerned with sampling is that of validity—the extent to
which the interpretations of the results of the study follow from the study
itself and the extent to which results may be generalized to other situations
with other people (Shavelson, 1988).
critical to external validity—the extent to which findings of a study
can be generalized to people or situations other than those observed in the
study. To generalize validly the findings from a sample to some defined
population requires that the sample has been drawn from that population according
to one of several probability sampling plans. By a probability sample
is meant that the probability of inclusion in the sample of any element in the
population must be given a priori. All probability samples involve the
idea of random sampling at some stage (Shavelson, 1988). In
experimentation, two distinct steps are involved.
to be included in the sample have been chosen at random from the same
population. Define the population and indicate the sampling plan in detail.
for the sample have been assigned at random to one of the experimental
for being concerned with sampling is that of internal validity—the
extent to which the outcomes of a study result from the variables that were
manipulated, measured, or selected rather than from other variables not
systematically treated. Without probability sampling, error estimates cannot be
constructed (Shavelson, 1988).
Perhaps the key
word in sampling is representative. One must ask oneself, “How
representative is the sample of the survey population (the group from which the
sample is selected) and how representative is the survey population of the
target population (the larger group to which we wish to generalize)?”
When a sample is
drawn out of convenience (a nonprobability sample), rationale and limitations
must be clearly provided.
outline the characteristics of the sample (by gender, race/ethnicity,
socioeconomic status, or other relevant group membership).
to follow to obtain informed consent and ensure anonymity and/or
instruments you propose to use (surveys, scales, interview protocols,
observation grids). If instruments have previously been used, identify previous
studies and findings related to reliability and validity. If instruments have
not previously been used, outline procedures you will follow to develop and
test their reliability and validity. In the latter case, a pilot study is
of instruments in most cases provides the operational definition of constructs,
this is a crucial step in the proposal. For example, it is at this step that a
literary conception such as “self-efficacy is related to school achievement”
becomes “scores on the Mathematics Self-Efficacy Scale are related to Grade
Point Average.” Strictly speaking, results of your study will be directly
relevant only to the instrumental or operational statements (Guba, 1961).
appendix with a copy of the instruments to be used or the interview protocol to
be followed. Also include sample items in the description of the instrument.
For a mailed
survey, identify steps to be taken in administering and following up the survey
to obtain a high response rate.
general plan for collecting the data. This may include survey administration
procedures, interview or observation procedures. Include an explicit statement
covering the field controls to be employed. If appropriate, discuss how you
Provide a general
outline of the time schedule you expect to follow.
procedures you will use, and label them accurately (e.g., ANOVA, MANCOVA, HLM, ethnography,
case study, grounded theory). If coding procedures are to be used, describe in
reasonable detail. If you triangulated, carefully explain how you went about
it. Communicate your precise intentions and reasons for these intentions to the
reader. This helps you and the reader evaluate the choices you made and
procedures you followed.
any analytic tools you will have available and expect to use (e.g., Ethnograph,
NUDIST, AQUAD, SAS, SPSS, SYSTAT).
Provide a well
thought-out rationale for your decision to use the design, methodology, and
analyses you have selected.
Limitations and Delimitations
identifies potential weaknesses of the study. Think about your analysis, the
nature of self-report, your instruments, the sample. Think about threats to
internal validity that may have been impossible to avoid or minimize—explain.
addresses how a study will be narrowed in scope, that is, how it is bounded. This
is the place to explain the things that you are not doing and why you have
chosen not to do them—the literature you will not review (and why not), the
population you are not studying (and why not), the methodological procedures
you will not use (and why you will not use them). Limit your delimitations to
the things that a reader might reasonably expect you to do but that you, for
clearly explained reasons, have decided not to do.
Significance of the Study
Indicate how your
research will refine, revise, or extend existing knowledge in the area under
investigation. Note that such refinements, revisions, or extensions may have
either substantive, theoretical, or methodological significance. Think
pragmatically (i.e., cash value).
Most studies have
two potential audiences: practitioners and professional peers. Statements
relating the research to both groups are in order.
This can be a
difficult section to write. Think about implications—how results of the
study may affect scholarly research, theory, practice, educational
interventions, curricula, counseling, policy.
about the significance of your study, ask yourself the following questions.
What will results
mean to the theoretical framework that framed the study?
for subsequent research arise from the findings?
What will the
results mean to the practicing educator?
influence programs, methods, and/or interventions?
contribute to the solution of educational problems?
influence educational policy decisions?
What will be
improved or changed as a result of the proposed research?
How will results
of the study be implemented, and what innovations will come about?
Follow APA guidelines regarding use of references in text and in the reference list. Of
course, your committee or discipline may require Chicago or MLA.
cited in the text are included in the reference list; however, exceptions can
be found to this rule. For example, committees may require evidence that you
are familiar with a broader spectrum of literature than that immediately
relevant to your research. In such instances, the reference list may be called
require that reference lists and/or bibliographies be “annotated,” which is to
say that each entry be accompanied by a brief description, or an abstract. Check
with your committee Chair before the fact.
The need for complete documentation generally dictates the inclusion of
appropriate appendixes in proposals (although this is generally not the case as
regards conference proposals).
The following materials are appropriate for an appendix. Consult with
your committee Chair.
Verbatim instructions to participants.
Original scales or questionnaires. If an instrument is copyrighted,
permission in writing to reproduce the instrument from the copyright holder or
proof of purchase of the instrument.
Sample of informed consent forms.
Cover letters sent to appropriate stakeholders.
Official letters of permission to conduct research.
American Psychological Association (APA). (2001). Publication
manual of the American Psychological Association (Fourth edition).
Washington, DC: Author.
Armstrong, R. L. (1974). Hypotheses: Why? When? How? Phi
Delta Kappan, 54, 213-214.
Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research design:
Qualitative & quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Guba, E. G. (1961, April). Elements of a proposal.
Paper presented at the UCEA meeting, Chapel Hill, NC.
Fraenkel, J. R. & Wallen, N. E. (1990). How to
design and evaluate research in education. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kerlinger, F. N. (1979). Behavioral research: A
conceptual approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
Krathwohl, D. R. (1988). How to prepare a research
proposal: Guidelines for funding and dissertations in the social and behavioral
sciences. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Locke, L. F., Spirduso, W. W., & Silverman, S. J.
(1987). Proposals that work: A guide for planning dissertations and grant
proposals (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Marshall, C., & Rossman, G. B. (1989). Designing
qualitative research: Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Shavelson, R. J. (1988). Statistical reasoning for
the behavioral sciences (second edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Wiersma, W. (1995). Research methods in education:
An introduction (Sixth edition). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Wilkinson, A. M. (1991). The scientist’s handbook
for writing papers and dissertations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
How to cite this web page:
Pajares, F. (2007). Elements of a proposal. Retrieved from http://des.emory.edu/mfp/proposal.html