Did I Pick the Wrong Topic? (and How to Eat an Elephant) Lamentations of a Research Student.

I must confess, sometimes I stare blankly at my blog wondering what on earth I’m going to write about this week. I set the aim of writing 500 words a week, every week, (well… most weeks) this year, and I hate to not achieve a goal. Particularly when it’s nothing but laziness, lack of vision, or failure to time-manage properly that is stopping me from achieving said goal. 
This week was another of those weeks where it just felt a little challenging to devise an “interesting” topic that people might actually want to read about. So I let my mind wander over my research from the past week and a bit, searching for some gem of information I uncovered. Then I remembered this. That sinking feeling that I’m sure every research student feels at some (or, realistically more than one) point: did I pick the wrong topic?

Don’t get me mistaken. I love my topic. I like that it’s based in educational psychology, and that whilst I’m investigating a topic specific to mathematics education, a number of the concepts I’m researching are applicable across not only Key Learning Areas, but to other domains such as sport and business. As someone who grew up with a keen interest in medicine and health, (and studied health at university) selecting a topic that delves into this area is a good fit for me.

This study aligns well with my own beliefs and interests. My fascination with goals, attitudes, motivation, beliefs, and reflection is long-reaching. I’m a very self-reflective, introspective individual. My topic was literally borne out of me examining my consideration of what made me a successful learner against a body of research. I think it’s an interesting way to commence research as it is deeply connected and relevant to the primary researcher. The key is ensuring it is generalisable and relevant to other individuals.

My moment of self-doubt the other day was not based on a dislike of my topic. Rather it was a ‘this topic is huge’ and ‘maybe I should’ve picked something smaller.’ It’s true. There are more straight-forward topics in mathematics education. I could have selected purely quantitative data collection instruments. I could have tested whether daily times tables improved students’ test results (or a similar such study). But they wouldn’t have held the same interest for me. I would not feel the same level of personal investment in these topics.

It has really hit me now how much there is in my research topic. Even at confirmation I failed to appreciate the breadth and depth of content involved. Students’ affective domains, constructivism, and mathematics reform, are significant branches of educational literature on their own – combined they become almost overwhelmingly immense. This is when I need to be focused on the ‘end goal’ – what exact point am I trying to make?

My topic is certainly specific enough to be answerable. It passed confirmation last September and I’ve made significant progress in my literature review and data collection since then. I am certain my struggle to keep the focus of my topic sufficiently narrow is not unusual. As with many research students, new literature can bring with it a fresh angle, a different viewpoint to consider. Sometimes these viewpoints are critical and must be incorporated in some way. At all times a consideration of their relevance is necessary: does this particular article need to be included in my literature review?Why? Does the article in question enhance my literature review in some way, or does it serve to be extra ‘padding’ without actually strengthening my argument?

I’m sure there will be countless more times between now and graduation that I question my topic, question my enrolment in a higher-degree research degree, and straight-out question my sanity. But how does one eat an elephant? Why one bite at a time of course! And the same principal applies to undertaking a thesis. Staying focused in ‘the moment.’ Slowly crossing tasks off my (never-ending) to-do list. Writing the monolithic 100k words in pebble-sized fragments of 500. These are the bites in which I’ll devour my elephant.


About madelinebevs

Mathematics and religion teacher and researcher. Runner. Home-renovation enthusiast. PhD Candidate. I'm excited by education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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