How to Ask ? Re: Your Research

Author(s): Christina Kalel, M.A.

Originally posted: April 8, 2016

Sometimes in the lab, you'll get stuck - all the research you're doing doesn't seem to make sense, or you're not sure if you are even researching the right things! When this happens, you may need to ask questions: of your professor, of other students, or even of an outside collaborator.

Below is a perfect example of how to go about this, from two student e-mails in the lab. I've added commentary (bolded) to highlight what made these e-mails so productive. Remember, e-mail communication should be designed to save time, not waste it; questions should be clear and concise so only one or two e-mails are needed to resolve an issue.

First Email

Research Assistant: I am finding a lot of information about self discovery in wilderness settings.

(He starts with a simple, directed question) Am I to be looking for articles specifically related to linear education?

(Then he adds a few related details) [Collaborator] does mention that he is interested in "observation and awareness of the surrounding environment." I know that social workers are starting to entertain a trans/ecological perspective.


Collaborator: I'm interested in identifying either linear or non-linear learning methods in wilderness settings.

Second E-mail

Research Assistant: (New questions, based off the reply)

1. I initially thought we wanted to know about how linear (textbook) education influences adult learning in a wilderness environment? Such a thing does exist, however I don’t believe there is a lot of literature on it, which might make for a good study. Your previous response confirms this; let me know if this isn't correct. (Here he is repeating/confirming back what he read, something you do in active listening as well.)

2. When I think of non-linear learning, I think of incidental learning. For example, the various discoveries one might make on an ecology hike, or while learning how to drive, I learned that pedestrians don't always use crosswalks (terrible example). Is that of interest? (He's brainstorming suggestions to see if they are in line with research goals.)

3. Also - are we interested in “enlightenment” that occurs in a wilderness setting? I know that's a common theme in popular writing, so it may have a place in the science of outdoor learning too. (Here he describes something he's actually seen in literature to see if he should delve deeper.)


The questions above led to a much clearer vision for the entire project - on both sides!

  • For the collaborator, it provided a good look at the research that was out there and what concepts it covered. Sometimes this will lead to a rewrite of the research questions, or even a completely new focus.

  • For the research assistant, the answers to his questions gave him the information he needed to narrow his literature search down. It also made the research process easier, as he had a well-defined focus on what he needed to find.

In the early days of literature reviews, research questions may be vague or undefined. The articles you find will help clarify where the research should go, but only if you communicate. Remember to keep it clear, concise, and on point - and you'll do great.

Happy Questioning!

- Christina

Image from Pixabay via Pexels.
And an extra special thanks to Robert McGrew for allowing the use of his e-mail for this example!

Tips & Related Ideas

Don't forget some of the critical things you should be doing when you research (like tracking your searches)! You can check that stuff and some relevant related ideas in these posts: