Teaching Research Design

Table of Contents

Preamble: Teaching About Research Design

Design Spine: Features and Guidelines

Spine Image

Design Spine Examples – MA Research 

Design Spines Produced by MA Student Jennifer Snoeks

Design Spine Produced by MA Student Kent Hall

Design Spine Examples – PhD Research

Design Spine Produced by PhD Student Janna Klostermann

Design Spines Produced by PhD Student Matthew Sanscartier


Preamble: Teaching About Research Design

At a recent teaching brown bag organized in my department, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to talk about my experience teaching research design to graduate students. I’ve done this teaching for quite a few years in the context of a course (titled the Logic of the Research Process) taken by almost all of our incoming MA students. The purpose of the course is to help students identify issues they need to address in the process of doing research, and to help them make progress in formulating research designs that speak to matters that interest them. Initially, I taught research design in the way it is done in many such courses: with the aim of having students complete at least a first draft of a thesis proposal, and using the department’s thesis proposal template as the guiding structure for this purpose. However, I was finding the proposal template unhelpful as a learning tool, and was soon searching for a different strategy. In particular, I wanted to find an approach to designing research that was compatible with the post-positivist understanding of social science methodology that was the foundation of my pedagogical orientation. I became increasingly interested in how to incorporate more open-ended, creative, iterative aspects of constructing research designs in my teaching. 

My answer to this search developed from some exploratory work I did with a PhD student I was supervising, Riva Soucie. She was trying to decide between two different doctoral research possibilities. I suggested she do a very short – 1 or 2 page – statement for each possibility to see if getting down the basic core of each project might provide a clue as to which was more exciting for her. We spoke about identifying and isolating the central spine of each project, the bare bones, so that the two possibilities could be more easily compared. We started to call these condensed representations of her possible thesis projects design spines. As we worked through this process, I started to see potential in the design spine as a pedagogical tool. 

For several years now, I have been piloting, refining and adding to the use of the design spine in my teaching of research design. For example, I have introduced a regular slot during class time for free writing as an important aspect of design development, and added a kinetic dimension to the peer review of the design spine. I’ve shared this teaching experience with other colleagues at Carleton who also now use this approach in their graduate methods teaching, and I myself have extended its use to my work with our Sociology PhD students in the second year of our Doctoral Seminar.  Feedback from the students has been uniformly positive, and they have also done their own creative extensions of the design spine idea (for example, as a way to plan course papers or thesis chapters, and, in one case, as a way to structure the co-creation of community-based learning activities).  

I am sharing this material in the hope of encouraging a conversation about graduate pedagogy, particularly to do with research design. The material also provides an elaboration on ideas about graduate pedagogy that myself and Sociology colleagues at Carleton are hoping to share via a submission to the Canadian Review of Sociology, and in sessions dedicated to issues concerning graduate pedagogy at the 2019 Congress (and Annual Conference of the Canadian Sociology Association) in Vancouver.  


Design Spine: Features and Guidelines 

Purpose and Features

1. The traditional thesis proposal template is a presentation format – the design spine is a process format.

2. The design spine helps you work through the thinking and decision-making involved in designing your research.

3. The intent of spine imagery is to encourage you to draw on the flow, complexity, flexibility and linearity of the spine to help you a) to see the connections between different aspects of your proposed research, b) to see how each aspect contributes to the overall logic of your argument, and c) to think about the flow of your thesis argument and evidence from beginning to end.

4. The content of the spine is fluid. Headings are a thinking agenda devised by you. They, and the text of the spine, will be more or less 'settled' depending on where you are in your thinking/decision-making process.

5. Plan to do succesive versions of the spine – revising proposed plans, adding more specific detail and addressing additional research design issues as you go forward. Eventually the content of the spine will settle and provide the information you need to present in a traditional thesis proposal format. 

Guidelines and Recommendations for Creating a Design Spine

1. Start with a blank page (or write on the spine image itself!) – identify what it is you need to work on to move your research design forward, and start to develop "decision-making" headings that will help focus your thinking. Build on this thinking as you go forward, but be prepared to revisit earlier thinking and decisions as you move through the design process.

2. When working with the text, keep the spine imagery. Use centre alignment for all headings and text. To help keep your thinking/decision-making agenda in mind, distinguish the headings from the text (i.e., by using caps or a larger font).

3. Keep text to a minimum. This is very important, especially in any theory/concept sections (where you will be tempted to write too much). Put down enough information to convey your ideas, but don't let wordiness overtake the purpose of "seeing" the whole thesis set out in a condensed fashion. Aim for 3 pages total.

4. Create your own headings – do not simply use headings developed in spines shown to you as examples. Your research will have unique aspects – use the construction of the headings as an aid to identifying and highlighting what these are. Also, as mentioned above, relevant headings will vary depending on where you are in your thinking/decision-making process.

5. Focus on research practice issues and plans that could address your research questions. Try to be as specific as possible. If you are not sure about something, formulate a question as a marker for future thinking.

6. You can use the spine to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of different research strategies.

7. Keep all versions of your spine – they are a good record of your thinking and decision-making process.


Spine Image

This is the spine image I have been using in my class. Use any image you like! We start by actually writing on this image – starting at any place that makes sense. When moving from writing on the image to typing text, keep the image of the spine as suggested by the guidelines above. (Image by Dorling Kindersley: Simone End) 



Design Spine Examples – MA Research

To help you understand what the design spine involves, here are examples of design spines produced by two first year MA Sociology students, Jennifer Snoeks and Kent Hall, in the second half of their winter term Logic of the Research Process course. For our Sociology MA students, the thinking, exploration and decision-making involved in successive versions of the design spine feed into the writing of a thesis proposal due as soon as possible after the completion of their first year course work. Thank you Jennifer and Kent for your permission to post your work.


Design Spines Produced by MA Student Jennifer Snoeks

Jennifer's first three design spines show the development of a research focus and specific research questions typical of the early stages of the research design process.

Jennifer's Design Spine #1 

Jennifer's Design Spine #2

Jennifer's Design Spine #3


Design Spine Produced by MA Student Kent Hall

This is Kent’s final design spine produced for the Logic of the Research Process course. It sets out a research project that has a well-articulated and sociologically-located research question, with a research strategy tightly linked to this question. The rationale for specific research sites was set out in the research proposal developed from this design spine.

Kent's Design Spine


Design Spine Examples – PhD Research

To help you understand what the design spine involves, here are examples of design spines produced by two PhD Sociology students, Janna Klostermann and Matthew Sanscartier. These designs were developed in the Doctoral Seminar during the second year of their program. Unlike the MA students who need to start their research work immediately upon completing their course work, our PhD students need to complete two comprehensives before they move onto their research. Consequently, this work on the design spine is positioned much earlier in the research timeline, and this gives students more flexibility in their use of the design spine process. For some, as in the example from Janna Klostermann, the exploration, integration and planning involved in the design spine can be used to conceptualize the entire PhD knowledge production process, including how the two comprehensives will inform and develop the focus, questions and research strategies of their proposed doctoral research. Using the design spine format can also be an opportunity to clarify more precisely the direction of research efforts by more closely identifying the theoretical positioning, conceptual resources and anticipated contributions of a doctoral thesis – as illustrated in the development of Matthew Sanscartier’s design spines. Thank you Janna and Matthew for your permission to post these early examples of your research design work.


Design Spine Produced by PhD Student Janna Klostermann

Janna's Design Spine

Design Spines Produced by Matthew Sanscartier

Matthew's Design Spine: Initial Version

Matthew's Design Spine: With More Elaboration



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Design Spine