You’re ready, you’re aimed, and now you have to fire off the objectives. But you’re a bit confused. What”s the difference between the two?
An aims-objectives confusion might arise when you are writing thesis proposal and the introductory thesis chapter. It’s always an issue in research bids. The what’s-the-difference question can have you going around in ever smaller unproductive circles if you can’t figure out a way to differentiate between the two things. And the difference is something I’ve recently been asked about, so I’ve decided to post something of an answer.
Dictionaries are only vaguely helpful when thinking about aims and objectives. My desk dictionary says that an aim is to do with giving direction. An aim is “something intended or desired to be obtained by one’s efforts”. On the other hand an objective is to do with achieving an object, it’s about actions, “pertaining to that whose delineation is known”. Now who actually speaks like this? The fact that these definitions are offered in this very formal language doesn’t help clarify matters. But, once past the antiquated expression, you might discern that the difference between the two is somehow related to a hope or ambition (aim) versus a material action (objective). Or we might say – and it is what is commonly said about aims and objectives – the aim is the what of the research, and the objective is the how.
So taking this what-how as a kind of loose and sloppy differentiation between the two, the rough rule of thumb with aims and objectives is generally that:
(1) The aim is about what you hope to do, your overall intention in the project. It signals what and/or where you aspire to be by the end. It’s what you want to know. It is the point of doing the research. An aim is therefore generally broad. It is ambitious, but not beyond possibility.
The convention is that an aim is usually written using an infinitive verb – that is, it’s a to + action. So aims often start something like.. My aim in this project is … to map, to develop, to design, to track, to generate, to theorise, to build … Sometimes in the humanities and social sciences we have aims which attempt to acknowledge the inevitable partiality of what we do, so we aim ‘to investigate, to understand, and to explore… ‘ But lots of project reviewers and supervisors prefer to see something less tentative than this – they want something much less ambivalent, something more like to synthesise, to catalogue, to challenge, to critically interrogate ….
(2) The objectives, and there are usually more than one, are the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim. This is where you make the project tangible by saying how you are going to go about it.
Objectives are often expressed through active sentences. So, objectives often start something like In order to achieve this aim, I will… collect, construct, produce, test, trial, measure, document, pilot, deconstruct, analyse… Objectives are often presented as a (1) (2) (3) formatted list – this makes visible the sequence of big steps in the project. The list of objectives spells out what you actually and really will do to get to the point of it all.
You have to make the objectives relatively precise. Having a bunch of vague statements isn’t very helpful – so ‘I will investigate’ or ‘I will explore’ for example aren’t particularly useful ways to think about the research objectives. How will you know when an investigation has ended? How will you draw boundaries around an exploration? In thinking about the answer to these questions, you are likely to come up with the actual objectives.
Objectives have to be practical, do-able and achievable. Research reviewers generally look to see if the time and money available for the research will genuinely allow the researcher to achieve their objectives. They also look to see if the objectives are possible, actually research-able.
Because the objectives also act as project milestones, it’s helpful to express them as things that are able to be completed – so for example scoping an archive of materials will have an end point which may then lead on to a next stage/objective. Even if objectives are to occur simultaneously, rather than one after the other, it is important to be clear about what the end point of each step/objective will be, and how it will help achieve the aim.
What not to do
It’s really helpful to think about what can go wrong with aims and objectives. There are some predictable problems that you want to avoid when writing them. These are some common aims-objectives issues:
• There are too many aims. One or two is usually enough. (I might stretch to three for other people’s projects if pushed, but I usually have only one for my own projects.)
• Aims and objectives waffle around, they don’t get to the point and the reader doesn’t have a clue what is actually intended and will be done – aims and objectives need to be concise and economically expressed.
• Aims and objectives don’t connect – the steps that are to be taken don’t match up with the overall intention.
• The aims and the objectives are not differentiated, they are basically the same things but said in different words.
• The objectives are a detailed laundry list rather than a set of stages in the research.
• The objectives don’t stack up with the research methods – in other words they are either not do-able, or what is to be done won’t achieve the desired results.
The final thing to say is that aims and objectives can’t be rushed. Because they generate the research questions and underpin the research design, sorting the aims and objectives are a crucial early stage in planning a research project. Aims and objectives are a foundation on which the entire project is constructed, so they need to be sturdy and durable.
This entry was posted in research design and tagged Pat Thomson, research aims and objectives, research design. Bookmark the permalink.
Note that the following provides general guidelines and suggestions only, as there is considerable variation in the ways theses are organised. Some of the suggestions may need to be adapted to meet the needs of your particular thesis.
The abstract is a short version of the entire thesis which should answer the following five questions (not necessarily in this order or separately):
- What was done?
- Why was it done?
- How was it done?
- What were the key findings or results?
- What is the significance or implications of the results?
This differs from the rationale - that there is a problem which needs to be solved for example - by discussing why your solution, for example, is one that others should pay attention to (is it more energy efficient, more effective, less expensive, etc than other solutions?).
The most common mistake with abstracts is to write them as though they are just another form of introduction, or perhaps as "advanced advertising" where the writer doesn't want to give too much away.
e.g. "To address the question of ..., such and such data was collected and analysed using the such and such methodological framework. Implications for practice are discussed."
But think about why you read abstracts and what you hope to get out of them, and ask if you're happy just getting "promotional material" or whether you'd rather get the whole story, including key results, in a nutshell.
Note also that abstracts play a critical role in determining whether someone reads on, and so deserve to be well written. In fact, some journals try to "force" authors to write them well by requiring that they put responses against a series of prompts, typically something like:
- Aims/Problem statement:
It has to be acknowledged, though, that the word limit that some journals put on abstracts means that it is not possible to answer all five of the above questions in your abstract, but in such cases key findings should not be something that gets sacrificed.
Finally, as a summary of the entire thesis, the abstract is the often the last thing to get finalised, but it shouldn't necessarily be the last thing to get written. If you're drowning in data or literature and feel you're not sure where you're going anymore, writing a "working abstract" might help you to get a "big-picture" view of what you're trying to do and, therefore, help you to get focussed again.
The Introduction and Literature Review
All theses require introductions and literature reviews, but the structure and location of these vary considerably. Options that are used include:
- A brief introductory chapter with a lengthy separate literature review chapter.
- A lengthy introductory chapter which includes a brief "Introduction" section followed by literature review sections.
- A lengthy introduction which includes a literature review.
- A brief introductory chapter with detailed literature reviews relevant to the topic of each chapter provided separately in each chapter (this is typical when each chapter is basically or literally a paper for publication).
- More than one literature review chapter. For example, one chapter might review what's known in an area and identify gaps or problems to address, while another might review the methodological approaches taken to investigating questions in this area and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each of these, thus providing a justification for the approach taken in this thesis (this may also occur in the first sections of a Methodology chapter).
Regardless of the approach taken, the Introduction to a thesis answers the three questions:
What was done?
May be stated in terms of both general aims (e.g. that you intend to contribute to the understanding of some phenomenon), and in terms of specific objectives (e.g. what aspects in particular of the phenomenon will you be investigating?).
Why was it done?
If the introduction is brief, then provide only the broad motivation (e.g. Why is there interest in this area? Why is it important? Why is this an interesting topic?), with more detailed motivation for precise goals coming out of a literature review (Why look at the particular aspects you do? Why pursue the specific line of investigation you do?).
One way of thinking about a brief introduction, is to think about providing the level of motivation or justification that would satisfy a well-educated friend of yours curious about what you are doing and why, with the literature review providing the level of motivation and justification that would satisfy an expert in the field.
Longer introductions might occur when a significant amount of background material needs to be reviewed in order for the reader to appreciate the context and significance of your research question. But if this is the case, then it is important to make it clear to the reader what the point of a long review is! (e.g. "In order to appreciate the significance of ..., it is first important to consider ...").
How do the pieces of the thesis fit together? (This is the "outline" or "overview".)
Provides the rationale for proceeding in the way you did and perhaps for why you have organised things the way you have (e.g. explaining why the literature review is scattered throughout the "papers for publication" chapters rather than being in a separate chapter as is common. The Introduction in Lewis Wolpert's book, The Unnatural Nature of Science (Biol Sc and Ipswich: Q175 .W737), gives a good example of what a useful outline looks like.)
These three questions can be used to broadly analyse the structure of other people's writing so that you can get an overview of what they have done and how they have organised things. Another way of analysing your writing and the writing of others is to consider which of the following three "moves" are being made in each paragraph or section of a paragraph (see Paltridge and Starfield, 2007, Ch. 6 for more):
- "Establishing a research territory" (i.e. that you're interested in the development of commerce in mediaeval Europe as opposed to the life cycle of flat worms for example). This involves showing or explaining why the area is of interest or important.
- "Establishing a niche"
By identifying gaps, problems or deficiencies in previous literature.
- "Occupying the niche"
By stating your particular aims or goals. Some writers also state their main findings at this point (sort of like stating your thesis in the opening paragraph of an essay).
A common structure is to start with the broadest possible motivation and then gradually narrow the scope until the particular focus of the thesis or article is reached (e.g. Example 4). However, some writers prefer to start with a statement of the aim of the research, then proceed to give the arguments for pursuing that aim. (Because of these reasons or observations, I'm going to do this, as opposed to: I am going to do this because of these reasons.)
In many instances, researchers don't know exactly where they will end up until they get there, so introductions and abstracts are often the last sections of a paper or thesis which are written. However, writing "working" abstracts and introductions as you go along can be useful to force you to think about the overview of, and motivation for, what you are doing. And while they will have to be revised and fine-tuned, having a general sense of where you are going and why is very useful when making the journey.
Providing unnecessary or uncontextualised background
Background is necessary to orientate the reader to what you are doing, but it is possible to give too much detail so that the reader starts to wonder why they need to know all of what they are being told.
Not explaining things enough
To simply say that your research will look at ways to deal with power grid instabilities indicates to the reader that you're working on solving a problem, but not why that problem is significant enough to work on. To indicate the significance of the problem, it would be necessary to briefly explain:
What are power grid instabilities?
What causes them?
How often do they occur?
What are the economic consequences of power grid instabilities? (Some indicative statistics would be enough to make your point, you wouldn't need masses of statistics.)
Working out what should go in the Introduction and what in the Literature Review
It might help here to think of your Introduction as being what you would tell an educated friend who wanted to know what your research is all about and why you are doing it, while the Literature Review is for other researchers in the field. It needs to be noted, however, that in some disciplines or areas the Introduction includes the Literature Review, and so can be quite lengthy.
Writing an outline that reads like the table of contents in paragraph form
(See Example 6 and Dr Leslie Sage's comments on this at the end of her article.
See the literature review section for more detailed information.
The methods section should explain:
- How you went about collecting and analysing your data
Only in enough detail that another expert in the field could repeat what you have done. For example, since the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) is a standard technique for determining the frequency spectrum of digital signals, in an electrical engineering thesis it would be enough to simply say, "The spectrum of the signal output from ... was analysed using an FFT and the results are shown in Figure 1." That is, in this case there would be no need to explain in detail what a FFT is and how it calculates spectra.
- why you collected the data that you did (e.g. why bother collecting demographic data in a questionnaire?)
This is done by explaining how certain types of data will help you to answer your research questions. (The thesis assessors want to be assured that you didn't simply collect as much data as you possibly could that might have been useful and then hoped for the best. Doing this also maintains a "connected story" for your thesis).
- why you thought the approach you chose was the best of all the approaches that were available to you (e.g. why conduct semi-structured interviews rather than surveys? Why use Inventory X rather than Inventory Y?)
- In order to account for any learning or fatigue effects amongst participants, a counter-balanced design was used.
- Semi-structured interviews rather than surveys were used to ... because it was believed that participants might have important unique as well as common experiences regarding ... which wouldn't be picked up in a standardised survey.
- In order to determine the effectiveness of speed cameras in reducing the road toll in ..., a longitudinal rather than a before-and-after design was used to take into account the significant fluctuations in an area's annual road toll, making it difficult to determine whether a single variation is due to an intervention or just a random fluctuation.
One possible structure is an introductory section that provides a justification and explanation of the methodological approach(es) chosen, followed by relevant elements of the classical sub-sections:
However, there is a lot of disciplinary variation in the way these things are done, so use the ideas from here to analyse what you see in your discipline.
Common problems include (see Paltridge and Starfield (2002), Ch. 8 for more):
- Insufficient justification of the proposed approach as being the best way to achieve the research objectives.
- Insufficient appreciation of the limitations of particular methods for achieving the desired research objectives.
- Inadequate statistical treatments.
If you present your results separately from your discussion, then the Results section for quantitative research is where you:
- Specify what the data were and how they were prepared for analysis.
- Present a summary and descriptive statistics in a suitable graphical or tabular form.
- Provide a verbal summary of the most important features of the above.
- Describe the data analysis (e.g., what sort of statistical test was applied to the data) and the outcome of the analysis.
- Interpret or offer any explanations for the results although you can say whether the data support or contradict any of your hypotheses.
- Include calculations.
For guidance on how to effectively incorporate quantitative data in the forms of tables and figures in your writing, see this Info Sheet(PDF, 38 KB).
Typically in a Discussion section, one would:
- Summarise, appraise, interpret and explain the results, relating them to your aims!
- Consider the significance or implications of the results.
- Compare, contrast and integrate your results with the findings of other studies.
- Point out and offer solutions for any methodological weaknesses or limitations.
- This is to help both you and your readers decide on the strength of your findings and to determine where any gaps or deficiencies might lie.
- It also indicates to thesis assessors a capacity to learn from experience.
- Make suggestions for future research (these often come out of identified methodological weaknesses, but it could be that your research has revealed yet more complexity and unanswered questions that need investigating).
- End with a concluding paragraph summarising the main findings and the lessons to be drawn from the study.