100 Ways To ‘Think Like a Researcher’ Without Really Trying


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the ‘most followed teacher on social media in the UK’. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the ‘500 Most Influential People in Britain’ by The Sunday…
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

How can teachers improve their teaching using research-informed practice?

A list of 100 things I’ve been doing in my academic life to improve my teaching without really trying. I hope this list inspires your research approaches…

As I navigate the ups and downs of my doctoral research, I am reminded of a few comments by academics that stand out for me in my life as a teacher, and in some ways dampened my desire to engage with academic research:

  1. “What teachers call ‘research’ isn’t actually research…
  2. “What every teacher needs to know…” or
  3. “This is a must-read, but I doubt you’ll have the time!”

I guess the message here is: be careful what you say to an excited teacher who wants to start their research journey. I’ve shared as many ideas as I can under the following sub-headings to help you think like a researcher without having to do a PhD alongside your full-time job really trying.

  1. How to develop a focus.
  2. How to start thinking like an academic!
  3. How to search for ‘relevant’ research?
  4. How to read a journal?
  5. How to read smartly?
  6. How to informally publish your ideas.
  7. What your school/college leader can do?

Developing a focus

  1. Avoid bias in your research inquiry.
  2. For example, ‘How does verbal feedback improve pupil outcomes?’ suggests that it already does.
  3. Think about perspective: macro, meso, micro.
  4. For depth, think inch-wide, mile-deep, not mile-wide, inch-deep.
  5. When conducting a PhD or masters, remember, it’s your research. It’s ‘your baby’, but it’s not your life’s work!
  6. Open-ended enough to allow possibilities to emerge
  7. When designing a research question (RQ), avoid using “yes and no”-type questions
  8. RQs that begin with “how” or “why” or “under what conditions”
  9. Will it make a measurable difference to pupil learning?
  10. Is the research ambition really achievable in the time you have?
  11. Is it really and truly of personal and professional importance?
  12. Is your RQ: specific, simply stated?
  13. Is the RQ in line with academic research parameters? Will it contribute new knowledge?
  14. Short questions are useful for gathering information.
  15. Does your research design require a control and sample group?
  16. Remember, control groups have no treatment and are sampled under normal conditions, whereas the sample group has a treatment applied. For example, the teacher provides verbal feedback only.
  17. Education research is generally sensitive, as you are most likely working with young people and/or using data. Therefore, consider the ethical implications of conducting research with live participants.

Thinking academically…

  1. When developing an academic perspective, it’s crucial to identify a philosophical and theoretical framework.
  2. What methods will you use?
  3. Know the difference between positivism and constructivism research.
  4. All research should identify and use a methodology. Here’s framework to help teachers.
  5. Are you conducting an experiment where a set of variables are kept constant while the other set of variables are being measured as the subject of the experimentestablishing cause-and-effect relationships?
  6. Maybe try a survey: longitudinal, trend, panel or cohort surveys. Researchers deploy trend surveys to understand the shift or transformation in the thought process of respondents over a period of time.
  7. Most teachers are familiar with action research: a method of systematic inquiry that teachers undertake as researchers of their practice.
  8. Remember, various evaluative, investigative, and analytical research methods are designed to diagnose problems or weaknesses.
  9. I was unfamiliar with was grounded theory – something I think my EdD research will explore – a type of strategy adopted in social science research; involving the construction of theories through methodical gathering and analysis of data; likely to begin with a question, or the collection of qualitative data.
  10. There’s also a case study approach; a methodology used to explore a particular detail eg the teaching of a scheme of work in a school department, a visit to a museum by one class of students.
  11. Finally, an ethnography – here’s a good example – Educational ethnography utilizes two main research strategies; non-participant observation from a distance, or participant observation involving direct contact with participants. (Gobo, 2008)
  12. There are several ways you can collect data. For example, using experiments, questionnaires, document analysis, interviews or observation to name a few key techniques.
  13. You will then need to know how to analyze the data you collect. There are several key techniques you can use. For example, inference, descriptive statistics, counting, coding, category construction or theory building.
  14. How could you reliably conduct your research via internet-based surveys, experiments or interviews?
  15. If you have got this far with your thinking, consider how the research will be evaluated.
  16. What are your potential blind spots or limitations?
  17. How will you report back your findings and disseminate your research?
  18. Ultimately, the time you have to complete the research – and how much you dedicate to completing it – will play a significant factor in your success. Once you have factored this, you can start planning your research approach.

Searching for relevant research

  1. There are many serious and sophisticated tools researchers use for sourcing research. Eg Bibtex, EndNote etc
  2. Google Scholar is the easiest and best reference tool for busy teachers!
  3. Inside Scholar, use ‘OR’ or the vertical bar | to find alternatives.
  4. Add “quotations” around keywords (example) to return the exact search items you want.
  5. Add dashes in front of keywords (- example) you want search engines to exclude.
  6. Use the + sign in front of keywords to find all research with that word (example)
  7. In linguistics, use a tilde inside Google Scholar ~ to omit certain words.
  8. You can add location: England to find specific research in one area. This is uesful if you want to be inspired by relevant research to your region rather than somewhere else out of context.
  9. Adding two dates 1988..2022 allows your search entry to find date-specific research. Very useful if you want to go back to the original source for retrieval practice…
  10. Once you find something of interest, set up an email alert.
  11. Try ConnectedPapers to mindmap how research is interconnected.
  12. Try the Education Endowment Foundation’s teaching and learning toolkit.
  13. Try VisibleLearningMetaX for a portal of education research using a neat filter.
  14. Read the Great Teaching Toolkit by Evidence Based Education – a lifetime of CPD!
  15. Use ResearcherApp to find a set of academic journals to follow.
  16. Sign up for The Learning Scientists’ weekly blogs and resources to stay current.
  17. Take a look at retrievalpractice.org too – fantastic tips on retrieval practice
  18. It’s worth considering how to identify if any research you are reading is valid.

How to read a journal

  1. When reading published work, the ‘abstract’ provides a bitesize overview – this is your go-to point.
  2. The introduction typically explains ‘what the article is about?’
  3. Skimming this section allows you to learn what the author plans to test or show?
  4. How does the research intend to contribute new knowledge to the field?
  5. Any literature review aims to summarise what we already know in the field. The above ‘comes into play’ is where the research can offer a new contribution based on what we already know.
  6. The hypothesis is usually discussed in the literature review.
  7. The methodology tends to outline how data is identified and collected.
  8. It’s always worth understanding the research location and context; the sample size etc.
  9. This section identifies what type of study it is. Ethnography, quantitative etc.
  10. Most research ends with a conclusion or discussion. It should relate the research to the larger context and suggest avenues for future research.
  11. Look over the limitations of the research. These should be identified.
  12. There is a fantastic table/overview by Frederique Laubepin PhD below. What is reassuring is to read that Laubepin says, “Very few articles in a field are so important that every word needs to be read carefully. It’s okay to skim and move on.” Don’t waste your time.
Frederique Laubepin PhD Social Science research methods
Credit: Frederique Laubepin PhD

Read / work smartly

  1. Use academic platforms such as Zotero or Mendeley for referencing.
  2. Synchronize what you read on a desktop and any app versions to ensure notes/highlights are transferred.
  3. Follow some of your favorite academics on ResearchGate and get notified when they publish.
  4. Do the same on Google Scholar too!
  5. Always read the bibliography of papers you find interesting = more sources
  6. Use Pocket to store your reading list away from your Inbox. This synchronises between the app and your desktop.
  7. Work in 30-minute chunks when reading or writing. Aim for 1,000 rubbish words a day. Use voice dictation!
  8. There are many types of research. Where does yours fit in?
  9. Build a bibliography from day one, even if you later omit the reference (see no.1 above)
  10. Share your draft ideas with people who have gone before you, and who are keen to critique your ideas.

How to design, publish and share your work?

  1. You will need a clear statement of intent.
  2. As well as the aims, you must identify any constraints with your research.
  3. What are the intended outcomes and research methodology used?
  4. What are the ethics and politics of your research? For example, are you researching your school?
  5. Who is the intended audience?
  6. What resources will you need to conduct and complete the research?
  7. What, when and how will you write up the report and research?
  8. Publish on your school website – look at all these research schools!
  9. Publish your work on a blog, newsletter or social media profile.
  10. Build networks and connections; share others’ work before asking people to share yours!
  11. Create a ResearchGate, Google Scholar or Academic profile.
  12. Join journal subscriptions and take part in free events.

What school and college leaders can do?

  1. Abandon procedures that aren’t research-informed! Eg graded lessons.
  2. Use coaching for development, not supporting those who need help.
  3. Ask closed questions during deep dive work scrutiny.
  4. Ask the same questions between classrooms.
  5. Use these techniques for professional development, line management, and for developing a research culture.
  6. Be like Staffordshire University Academy
  7. Abandon 3 annual performance management targets.
  8. Allow staff to curate their appraisal target using this research method.
  9. Test yourself to see if your school meets these 7 research hallmarks.
  10. Pass my 20-question autonomy test.
  11. Create research-focused meetings with smaller groups, tackling organizational priorities.
  12. Get your governors on board.
  13. Publish an annual journal and host public events.

Making small changes to how you think and do ‘research’ can help you not only transform your habits, but it’ll make you a better teacher in the end too!

Read 100 other ways to…

Leave a Comment