Assignment 3 (Fall 2019)

Assignment 3 has two parts. The first, the Journal, is an open-ended opportunity for you to report to your mentor and classmates the progress you’ve made since last week in exploring the literature and refining your idea. Each week until the Qualifier Question, you’ll submit a new journal documenting your research progress since the last week. The second, the Activity, is a more structured opportunity to practice one of the skills you’ll need as you move forward in the class. Each part is worth 50% of this assignment’s grade.


Your journal for assignment 3 follows the same procedure as that in assignments 1 and 2. The journal is a self-reflective account of your exploration of the literature in pursuit of a problem to solve or a question to answer. In this week’s journal, you should continue to document the sources that you encounter, the questions they bring up, and the investigations you perform, in line with the guidance of the Research Guide and with an eye toward the requirements of Assignment 4, the Qualifier Question, and the Proposal. Your journal should be all-new material (as you aren’t repeating the same research you did last week!), but you can include your previous journals as appendices if you think they provide useful context to your peer reviewers.

How far along you are in the process will differ based on the ideas with which you entered the class. We would still generally expect 15-20 new papers this week, and ideally you’ll be honing in on an area to explore for your project, but some of you may still be exploring a good bit — that’s ok! However, in order to be ready for Assignment 4, the Qualifier Question, and the Proposal, we would expect everyone to end this journal with a decision on the general area of research that they want to pursue. This does not yet need to be highly specific, but it should indicate that your interests have narrowed enough that you will be able to fulfill the expectations of Assignment 4. Toward this end, you should close your journal with a one-sentence description of what research interest you plan to pursue, such as “I plan to pursue using virtual reality for teaching high school physics”, “I plan to investigate the usefulness of automated translators in taking online courses originally produced in other languages”, or “I plan to develop a course to teach academic writing.”

The most important things are to (a) document formal progress towards landing on a problem or question, and (b) supply enough information to get feedback from your mentor and classmates.

We would expect a good journal to be around 3-4 pages in JDF. This is neither a minimum nor a maximum, but rather is just a heuristic to understand the level of depth we would expect. We will expect your Journal to show that you’re following the advice prescribed by the Research Guide.


In the Project Proposal, you will state a problem or question, and then give a plan for how you will solve or answer it. The mistake many people make at this stage is to rush to what they plan to do without pausing to thoroughly define the problem or question itself. In the absence of a good problem statement or research question, it is difficult or impossible to judge whether the solution or answer adequately addressed the problem.

So, for this activity, you are going to practice writing both a problem statement and a set of research questions. A problem statement addresses Development and Content track projects: there exists some problem that needs to be solved (where that problem could be, “people need to learn X, but at present they cannot”). Research questions address Research track projects: there is a phenomenon that needs to be explained, or relatedly, there is an area in which phenomena may exist that have not yet been identified.

Although you’ll generally choose one track for your project (although there may be overlaps), in this activity you’ll practice writing both. This will equip you to give better feedback to your classmates. For Activity 2, you’ll thus turn in both a problem statement and a set of research questions.

Ideally, you are far along enough in your research that you can write problem statements and research questions that may be rough drafts for what you eventually use in your proposal. If not, you’re welcome to choose any problem with which you’re familiar. It does not even have to be in education for this activity (although we would recommend staying topical) but it may be easier to write in a domain with which you’re more familiar. Don’t overcomplicate what counts as a ‘problem’ or ‘phenomenon’: a problem is anything that isn’t working as well as it could, and a phenomenon is anything we can observe and may want to explain or explore. “Students need grades and feedback faster” or “Professional certifications are prohibitively expensive” would both be problems. “Retention rates in online courses are low” or “We do not know about the structures of online courses” would be phenomena to explore. 

Problem Statement

There are many ways to write a problem statement, but in order to give you a starting point, we follow the structure advocated by Ashford University among others. You might not follow this structure exactly in your proposal, but following it now should give you good practice on the value in defining these details piece-by-piece. Your problem statement, which defines a problem to be solved, should include the following parts:

  1. Background Information. First, provide some background information. Depending on your problem area, the reader may not be familiar with its basic vocabulary and existing structures. Provide enough background that someone with limited familiarity with the area will be able to understand the general problem.
  2. General Problem Statement. The general problem statement describes a broad problem within the domain you described above. The problem here is likely so general as to be unsolvable without further specification. For example, “global temperatures are rising” is a general problem statement. It is a stated problem, but without knowing more about why the problem exists, it is not solvable.
  3. Scholarly Support. Here, you would provide evidence that the problem or phenomenon actually exists. Note that if scholarly support is absent, you may supply other forms of support, although a complete lack of scholarly support means you would likely first approach this as a research question to establish if the problem exists in the first place.
  4. Specific Problem Statement. Here, based on that scholarly support, you drill the problem down into details that can actually be solvable. For example, “Industry is outputting carbon emissions at a greater rate than can be absorbed by the earth”, “The earth is retaining greenhouse gases causing an increasing concentration over time”, or “Environmentalism tends to be prioritized only by affluent nations” would all be more specific ways to state the problem: these are more solvable. You may find you define your problem statement specifically in a way that connects to the solution that you have in mind; that’s okay.
  5. Closing Commentary. Finally, you would briefly discuss the overall impact of the problem you have described. How will society be affected if it remains unsolved? How will it be affected if it’s solved?

We expect a good problem statement to be around 2 pages in JDF. This is neither a minimum nor a maximum, but rather is just a heuristic to understand the level of depth we would expect. Ignore the length heuristics from Ashford University itself; we expect more depth.

Research Questions

While problem statements focus on problems to be solved, research statements focus on phenomena to be observed or explained. Research questions are generally expected to have certain characteristics:

  • Clarity: Research questions should be clear and specific enough that the audience can understand the purpose.
  • Focused: Research questions should have a sufficiently narrow focus as to be addressable and answerable.
  • Concise: To be clear and focused, research questions are also expected to use as few words as possible.
  • Complex: Research questions generally cannot be answered by simple numbers or yes/nos; questions like ‘how’ and ‘why’ lead to more complex answers.
  • Arguable: Research questions should be addressable by facts rather than opinions.
  • Hierarchical: Research questions can generally be decomposed into sub-questions which, if answered, will supply an answer to the overall question.

Write a research question that can be decomposed into at least three smaller questions. For example, the question, “How can AI be used to improve performance on algebra homework?” could be decomposed into, “To what extent can AI make sense of students’ intermediate problem-solving steps?”, “To what extent can AI use that understanding to generate hints?”, and “To what extent do such hints improve students’ performance?”

Then, justify that all three sub-questions are meet the criteria above for complexity and arguability (clarity, focus, and conciseness will be relatively self-evident). What kinds of answers can you expect to receive to these questions, and what kinds of facts or data will support those answers?

Note that this is expected to be a difficult exercise; do not expect it to come naturally. Writing good research questions is difficult to do, but it is a very important skill to learn. A quick Google search for “how to write good research questions” will bring up some additional valuable material.

We expect a good set of research questions with accompanying justification to be around 2 pages in JDF. This is neither a minimum nor a maximum, but rather is just a heuristic to understand the level of depth we would expect.

Submission Instructions

Complete your assignment using JDF, then save your submission as a PDF. Assignments should be submitted to the corresponding assignment submission page in Canvas. You should submit a single PDF for this assignment. This PDF will be ported over to Peer Feedback for peer review by your classmates. If your assignment involves things (like videos, working software prototypes, etc.) that cannot be provided in PDF, you should provide them separately (through OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.) and submit a PDF that links to or otherwise describes how to access that material.

This is an individual assignment. Even if you already plan to work on a team for the project, this assignment should still be completed individually.

Late work is not accepted without advanced agreement except in cases of medical or family emergencies. In the case of such an emergency, please contact the Dean of Students.

Grading Information

As with all assignments in this class, this assignment will be graded on an 11-point scale (0 to 10), in accordance with the grading policy outlined in the syllabus. If your deliverable receives below a 9, you may revise and resubmit it once within one week of receiving a grade. Resubmissions may receive up to a 9. Note that this should not be treated as a de facto free pass to submit sorely lacking work initially; we reserve the right to deny resubmission or grade a resubmission more harshly if we perceive the original submission was lacking in earnest effort.

Peer Review

After submission, your assignment will be ported to Peer Feedback for review by your mentor and classmates. Grading is not the primary function of this peer review process; the primary function is simply to give you the opportunity to read and comment on your classmates’ ideas. All grades will come from the mentors alone.

You will typically be assigned four classmates to review. You receive 1.5 participation points for completing a peer review by the end of the day Thursday; 1.0 for completing a peer review by the end of the day Sunday; and 0.5 for completing it after Sunday but before the end of the semester. For more details, see the participation policy.