Module 6: FORMULATION OF RESEARCH OBJECTIVES
At the end of this session you should be able to:
State the reasons for writing objectives for your research project.
Define and describe the difference between general and specific objectives.
Define the characteristics of research objectives.
Prepare research objectives in an appropriate format for the project you are developing.
Develop further research questions, and research hypotheses, if appropriate for your study.
STEPS IN DEVELOPING A RESEARCH PROJECT
Title of the study
The OBJECTIVES of a research project summarise what is to be achieved by the study.
Objectives should be closely related to the statement of the problem. For example, if the problem identified is low utilisation of child welfare clinics, the general objective of the study could be to identify the reasons for this low utilisation, in order to find solutions.
The general objective of a study states what researchers expect to achieve by the study in general terms.
It is possible (and advisable) to break down a general objective into smaller, logically connected parts. These are normally referred to as specific objectives.
Specific objectives should systematically address the various aspects of the problem as defined under ‘Statement of the Problem’ and the key factors that are assumed to influence or cause the problem. They should specify what you will do in your study, where and for what purpose.
A study into the cost and quality of home-based care for HIV/AIDS patients and their communities in Zimbabwe, developed at an HSR workshop, for example, had as its general objective: To explore to what extent community home-based care (CHBC) projects in Zimbabwe provide adequate, affordable and sustainable care of good quality to people with HIV/AIDS, and to identify ways in which these services can be improved. It was split up in the following specific objectives: 1. To identify the full range of economic, psychosocial, health/nursing care and other needs of patients and their families affected by AIDS. 2. To determine the extent to which formal and informal support systems address these needs from the viewpoint of service providers as well as patients. 3. To determine the economic costs of CHBC to the patient and family as well as to the formal CHBC programmes themselves. 4. To relate the calculated costs to the quality of care provided to the patient by the family and to the family/patient by the CHBC programme. 5. To determine how improved CHBC and informal support networks can contribute to the needs of persons with AIDS and other chronically and terminally ill patients. 6. To use the findings to make recommendations on the improvement of CHBC to home care providers, donors and other concerned organisations, including government.
The first specific objective usually focuses on quantifying or specifying the problem. This is necessary in many studies, especially when a problem has been defined (but not quantified) for which subsequently the major causes have to be identified. Often use can be made of available statistics or of the health information system. In the study on the high defaulter rate of TB patients, this rate should first be established, using the records, and only then would the contributing factors to defaulting be analysed. In the example given, the needs of AIDS patients and their relatives for care and support have been defined in the first objective. The objectives which follow concentrate on adequacy, cost and quality of care provided whereas the last two objectives specify possible improvements with respect to CHBC, and to whom the results and recommendations of the study will be fed back.
Note: It may be helpful to use the diagram as a point of departure and check whether the problem and all major, directly contributing factors (analytic study) or major components (descriptive or evaluation study) have been covered by the objectives. An objective indicating how the results will be used should be included in every operational study, either as part of the general objective or as a specific objective. Why should research objectives be developed? The formulation of objectives will help you to: Focus the study (narrowing it down to essentials); Avoid the collection of data which are not strictly necessary for understanding and solving the problem you have identified; and Organise the study in clearly defined parts or phases. Properly formulated, specific objectives will facilitate the development of your research methodology and will help to orient the collection, analysis, interpretation and utilisation of data.
How should you state your objectives? Take care that the objectives of your study: Cover the different aspects of the problem and its contributing factors in a coherent way and in a logical sequence; Are clearly phrased in operational terms, specifying exactly what you are going to do, where, and for what purpose; Are realistic considering local conditions; and Use action verbs that are specific enough to be evaluated. Examples of action verbs are: to determine, to compare, to verify, to calculate, to describe, and to establish. Avoid the use of vague non-action verbs such as: to appreciate, to understand, or to study. Keep in mind that when the project is evaluated, the results will be compared to the objectives. If the objectives have not been spelled out clearly, the project cannot be evaluated.
Using the previous example on cost and quality of CHBC, we may develop more specific research questions for the different objectives, such as: Do rural and urban CHBC projects differ with respect to the adequacy, quality, affordability and sustainability of HBC provided? How satisfied are AIDS patients, relatives and service providers with the care provided? Are there differences in perceptions between those groups? Is the stigma attached to being HIV+ the same strong for women as for men? Or are there gender differences in stigma? What impact does the care provided to AIDS patients have on the economy of the homestead? Is there competition with other basic needs (e.g. schooling of children, purchases of food)?
. HYPOTHESES Based on your experience with the study problem, it might be possible to develop explanations for the problem, which can then be tested. If so, you can formulate hypotheses in addition to the study objectives. A HYPOTHESIS is a prediction of a relationship between one or more factors and the problem under study that can be tested. In our example concerning the cost and quality of HBC in Zimbabwe it would have been possible to formulate and test the following hypotheses: The role of first-line relatives in the provision of care to AIDS patients is more substantial in rural than in urban areas. The silence and stigma surrounding AIDS makes the formation of self-help groups of AIDS patients and their relatives next to impossible, which in turn maintains the high level of stigma on HIV/AIDS.
Note: Policy makers and field staff usually feel the need for research because they do NOT have enough insight into the causes of a certain problem. Therefore, most HSR proposals present the specific objectives in the form of open statements (as given in the examples earlier) instead of focusing the study on a limited number of hypotheses.
TITLE OF THE STUDY Now you can finalise the title of your study. The title should be in line with your general objective. Make sure that it is specific enough to tell the reader what your study is about and where it will be calculated. NOT: ‘A study on community home-based care’ BUT: ‘A study on cost and quality of community home-based care for HIV/AIDS patients and their communities in Zimbabwe’ You might also consider fancier titles: ‘Do We Care? A study on cost and quality of CHBC for HIV/AIDS patients in Zimbabwe’* Another example could be: ‘WORKSHOPS: Blessings or Burdens? A study of the workshops held in 1999 in Province Y - Their utility and consequences for daily working activities of health staff’ *The study with this title, used as an example in the present module, was carried out by G Woelk, H Jackson, R Kerkhoven, K Hansen, N Manjonjori, P Maramba, J Mutambirwa, E Ndimande and E Vera. It was published in December 1997 by the Department of Community Medicine, University of Zimbabwe, the Southern African AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAFAIDS) and the National AIDS Control Programme, Ministry of Health, Harare, Zimbabwe.
Prepare a general objective and specific objectives for the research proposal you are developing. After formulating your objectives ask yourself the following questions: Do the objectives deal with all aspects of the research problem in a logical and coherent way? Are the objectives clearly phrased? Are the objectives defined in operational terms that can be measured? Are they realistic? Do they indicate where the study will be conducted? Do they include the development of recommendations for how the research results will be used to solve the problem?
Adjustments Facilitators in past courses have found it useful to provide a second group work session in which participants can finalise their objectives, analysis diagram and title of the research project, after they have received feedback during the plenary session.
Variables in research When doing social research, variables are both important and tricky. Here's a few words about them.
Definitions A variable is something that can change, such as 'gender' and are typically the focus of a study. Attributes are sub-values of a variable, such as 'male' and 'female'. An exhaustive list contains all possible answers, for example gender could also include 'male transgender' and 'female transgender' (and both can be pre- or post-operative). Mutually exclusive attributes are those that cannot occur at the same time. Thus in a survey a person may be requested to select one answer from a list of alternatives (as opposed to selecting as many that might apply). Quantitative data is numeric. This is useful for mathematical and statistical analysis that leads to a predictive formula. Qualitative data is based on human judgement. You can turn qualitative data into quantitative data, for example by counting the proportion of people who hold a particular qualitative viewpoint. Units are the ways that variables are classified. These include: individuals, groups, social interactions and objects.
Types Descriptive variables are those that which will be reported on, without relating them to anything in particular. Categorical variables result from a selection from categories, such as 'agree' and 'disagree'. Nominal and ordinal variables are categorical. Numeric variables give a number, such as age. Discrete variables are numeric variables that come from a limited set of numbers. They may result from , answering questions such as 'how many', 'how often', etc. Continuous variables are numeric variables that can take any value, such as weight.
Independence An independent variable is one is manipulated by the researcher. It is like the knob on a dial that the researcher turns. In graphs, it is put on the X-axis. A dependent variable is one which changes as a result of the independent variable being changed, and is put on the Y-axis in graphs. The holy grail for researchers is to be able to determine the relationship between the independent and dependent variables, such that if the independent variable is changed, then the researcher will be able to accurately predict how the dependent variable will change. Extraneous variables are additional variables which could provide alternative explanations or cast doubt on conclusions. Variables may have the following characteristics: Period: When it starts and stops. Pattern: Daily, weekly, ad-hoc, etc. Detail: Overview through to 'in depth'. Latency: Time between measuring dependent and independent variable (some things take time to take effect).
Control Note that in an experiment there may be many additional variables beyond the manipulated independent variable and the measured dependent variables. It is critical in experiments that these variables do not vary and hence bias or otherwise distort the results. There is a struggle between control vs. authenticity in managing this.
Correlation With perfect correlation, the X-Y graph of points (as a scatter diagram) will give a straight line. Whilst this may happen in physics, it seldom happens in social research and a probabilistic relationship is the best that can be determined. Correlation can be positive (increasing X increases Y), negative (increasing X decreases Y) or non-linear (increasing X makes Y increase or decrease, depending on the value of X). Correlation can also be partial, that is across only a range of values X. As all possible values of X can seldom be tested, most correlations found are at best partial.
Cause When correlation is determined, a further question is whether varying the independent variable caused the independent variable to change. This adds complexity and debate to the situation. Sometimes a third variable is the cause, such as when a correlation between ice-cream sales and drowning is actually due to the fact that both are caused by warm weather.