Skip to content Skip to navigation

Making the Most of Small-Scale Research

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 

A key question for all small-scale researchers is: how much is it possible to achieve in work of modest scope?  Even if small in scale, a tightly focused study that is well designed and executed can contribute to the delineation of an issue or problem in the field of enquiry.  It may open up a new avenue for investigation, illuminate and exemplify a substantive topic already identified within the field, or approach a familiar substantive issue from a different theoretical perspective.  Less commonly, it might even develop a new methodological approach to a topic.  



The posting below looks at what makes for quality small-scale research and the reasons why such research can be important. It is from Chapter 2 - Designing and writing about research: developing a critical frame of mind, by Louise Poulson and Mike Wallace, in the book, Learning to Read Critically in Educational Leadership and Management, edited by Mike Wallace and Louise Poulson. SAGE Publications, Ltd. 1 Oliver's Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP Copyright © 2003 by Sage Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Creativity and the Flipped Classroom 



Tomorrow's Research

---------- 1768 words ---------- 

Making the Most of Small-Scale Research 


While much small-scale research is undertaken for dissertations and theses, many experienced professional researchers periodically engage in studies of similar scope.  Sometimes their purpose is to explore a new idea or topic to find out whether it is feasible for a research enquiry, or to pilot a particular approach or instrument prior to undertaking a larger study.  At other times small-scale research might be part of a major investigation, as where a case study is conducted of a specific aspect of the wider phenomenon being explored.  Large studies often combine different components, each of which may vary widely in scope.  The research reports in Part 2 offer examples of such small-scale research and also individual components of larger studies, some of which are more ambitious than you could realistically attempt for a dissertation or thesis.  However, while the context in which such studies were done may be different from that of an individual completing a research investigation for a dissertation or thesis, many principles and procedures are similar.  In the physical and natural sciences, doctoral theses may be written about an aspect of a much larger study when students work with their supervisor as part of a team in a laboratory.  But in the humanities and the social sciences it is more likely that as a student you will work alone, perhaps researching a problem or an issue arising from your professional context. 

A key question for all small-scale researchers is: how much is it possible to achieve in work of modest scope?  Even if small in scale, a tightly focused study that is well designed and executed can contribute to the delineation of an issue or problem in the field of enquiry.  It may open up a new avenue for investigation, illuminate and exemplify a substantive topic already identified within the field, or approach a familiar substantive issue from a different theoretical perspective.  Less commonly, it might even develop a new methodological approach to a topic. 

For a dissertation or thesis, one of the first things to do is to clarify the focus and define the parameters of the research.  In short, you should identify your intellectual project:  consider what you will concentrate on, and what is practicable for a lone researcher with limited resources and a tight time-scale.  A challenge facing you is to design a study that is both practicable and of sufficient scope and significance to yield worthwhile data.  Be wary of pre-judging what you will find (see Chapter 7). 

Someone may be interested in an example of national policy change and how it impacts on practice in organizations affected. Obviously, a wide-ranging empirical investigation of the national context of policy implementation in a representative sample of organizations would be beyond the scope of most individual dissertations or theses. But an individual researcher could reasonably undertake a clearly delineated study of implementation in a locality, or even a single institution within a bounded time-scale.  While the scope of such a study might be limited, if it were carefully thought out and conceptualized, it would still have the potential to make a contribution to understanding of the phenomenon.  To do so, it would have to be narrowly focused, with a clear specification of what was being undertaken and an explanation of how it would be done.  The specific problem or topic being studied would have to be linked to the wider context of the field of enquiry, indicating why it was a significant problem to study.  In the example above, this linkage might be to the wider policy context, and perhaps to changing notions of practice in the organizations to implement change. 

A further means of strengthening the significance of a small-scale study is by making clear links between the work being conducted and existing literature in the field and, if appropriate, related fields.  These links can be made in relation to three aspects of your enquiry (paralleling the focus for an academic literature review outlined in Chapter 1): 

1. the substantive focus of the study - the particular topic or issue that constitutes the substance of the investigation within a field of enquiry; 

2. the theoretical issues - how particular concepts, or theoretical perspectives, may guide and inform the study, and what the strengths and limitations of such perspectives are; 

3. methodological approaches - in a particular field a methodology might be accepted as standard practice.  You may use this approach in your study, or turn to a different methodology, perhaps by attempting to gain in-depth knowledge of a phenomenon in a particular context. 

If the investigation makes strong substantive, theoretical and methodological connections with other studies within the field, its potential value will be enhanced.  In relation to a dissertation or thesis, you might ask: 

* How is my study similar to other work in substance, theory or methodology? 

* In what ways does it build upon or extend previous work and is there other research that confirms the direction of my findings? 

* What does my study do that has not been done before?

It is important to remember that small-scale research need not always generate its own data. The collection of primary data direct from the subjects of your research is often the most time-consuming, expensive and difficult part of an investigation. There are numerous statistical databases and other archive materials now accessible through the internet which could be used as the basis for study (see Chapter 4).  Gorard (2001) exemplifies how he undertook a piece of small-scale research using secondary data: statistical information that had already been collected and was easily available through the internet from government sources.  He explains that he started by questioning the assertion made in research literature that schools in Wales did not perform as well as their counterparts in England.  He then set out to test this assertion by using existing statistical data to reanalyze the comparative results of equivalent schools in both countries.  Gorard outlines how using secondary data sources enabled him to tackle and important topic that would have been impossible had he attempted to collect the data himself: 

The findings of this simple value-added analysis run contrary to the schooled for failure hypothesis (about schools in Welsh LEAs).  They defended children, teachers and schools in Wales, and met with considerable local media and some political interest.... The complete study, including data collection, transcription and analysis took me one afternoon at an additional cost of less than £10 for photocopying and access to census figures.  I would have been very happy to conduct this study for my masters' dissertation instead of traipsing round schools conducting yet another survey (which is what I actually did).  I would have saved time, money and produced interesting results for my discussion section. (Gorard, 2001: 48)

Note that Gorard had a clearly focused idea for a study.  It let to the formulation of a clearly specified hypothesis, firmly grounded within existing research literature.  He then tested this hypothesis, not by attempting to collect new evidence himself, but by careful analysis of existing data.  The outcome was an example of small-scale research that had wider significance and impact.  It also showed how a key to successful small-scale research is achieving a balance between a tightly focused topic embodying a practicable design and making connections with the wider context in which the problem has arisen. 

What makes for a high-quality final written account of a small-scale study?  Here are the top ten components we, as critical readers, would look for: 

1. a clearly-focused substantive topic, with the focus sustained throughout, incorporating a well-defined broad central question leading to detailed research questions or hypotheses; 

2. a critical review of literature in the field, and clear connections drawn between existing knowledge and the small-scale study (in terms of the substantive topic, theories and    concepts, and methodology); 

3. an appropriate methodological approach and detailed methods for answering the research questions or testing the hypotheses; 

4. a well-structured and explicit design for the study whose methods are fit for their purpose; 

5. data that is analyzed thoroughly, with the processes of data preparation, summary and analysis clearly set out; 

6. discussion of the analysis or findings that relates back to the original research questions or hypotheses, and to the critical review of the literature; 

7. a reflective summary of what the study has achieved, its strengths and weaknesses, any problematic issues that arose, and any implications for future research (and policy or practice  if appropriate);

8. accurate referencing, both in the text and in the references list, so that, in principle, any reference may be followed-up; 

9. clear expression with attention to writing style, punctuation, spelling and grammar, so that the account may be easily understood; and

10.the development of a logical argument from the title to the end of the account, providing as much backing as possible for the claims being made. 

Make the most of your small-scale research by bearing these components in mind, together with the principles of self-critical writing outlined in Table 1.1 in the previous chapter, when planning the structure and presentation of your dissertation or thesis.  It is also advisable to refer from the outset to the statement of criteria used in assessing your work that is likely to be included in the students' handbook for the programme.  Ensure that your written account meets each of these criteria. 

Box 2.1  Ten pitfalls to be avoided in a small-scale study 

1. Too diffuse a focus for the study or attempting to collect too much data to analyze. 

2. A descriptive or uncritical review of the literature ('X said this; Y said that'). 

3. Lack of linkage between the research questions and the review of literature. 

4. No connection made between the research questions and the methodology and detailed methods of data collection chosen for the study. 

5. Failure to make explicit how the study was designed: its time-scale, how the research subjects or sites sampled were chosen, how research instruments were designed and tested, or how   the data were analyzed. 

6. Data not analyzed in sufficient detail or depth to provide an answer to the research questions. 

7. Inadequate description or explanation of what the data showed. 

8. Lack of discussion of the findings and their significance, how they answered the research questions, tested the research hypotheses, or illuminated the issues studied. 

9. Weak conclusions, and failure to return to the original questions or hypotheses and say what the study has achieved, what problems were encountered, and what issues arose from the  work. 

10. Over-ambitious or over-generalized recommendations for policy or practice that are not backed by evidence from the study. 


Gorard, S. (2001) Quantitative Methods in Educational Research.  London: Continuum.  

Miles, M. and Huberman, M. (1994) Qualitative Data Analysis.  New York: Sage.