Formulating an original research question can be a daunting task–especially for a high school student. Amy Li, Founding Director of Pioneer Academics, describes a Pioneer scholar in Anthropology who was struggling to generate a research topic. While the student knew she needed to be creative, she felt limited by the constraints of the research process. Seeing that she was stuck, her professor suggested that observe her social surroundings and write down fifty questions about her observations. Through this exercise, she was able to generate ideas freely without constraints. Only after she had written these fifty questions did she begin to think critically to evaluate them and choose the most appropriate research question. In doing so, she was able to find a research topic that was both original and feasible. 

Research requires two types of thinking. The first, divergent thinking, is creative thinking in which an individual comes up with new ideas that are different from what he or she has been previously taught. This stage is expansive and considers many possible solutions to a given problem. In the example above, divergent thinking corresponds with the Anthropology student writing a list of fifty questions. By contrast, convergent thinking is the process of narrowing down these possible solutions by reflecting on them in a logical, linear manner. This is the process of critical thinking the student used to narrow down her list of questions and choose the best one. While both convergent and divergent thinking are essential to writing a research paper, it is important to note that they cannot take place at the same time. Many students get stuck trying to come up with a research question because they try to combine divergent and convergent thinking, limiting their ability to think creatively. Instead, students should begin with divergent thinking–a “brainstorming” stage in which they are open to many different possibilities–and then use convergent thinking to make decisions about those possibilities.

Divergent thinking allows students to come up with new ideas and explore  their interests, passions and creativity. Christina, a Pioneer Scholar from the United States (Ecology, 2019), allowed curiosity to be her guide in generating ideas. One of her strategies was to always have a list of questions ready before one-on-one meetings with her professor. One day, while reading literature in her research area, she came across an article about tiger DNA containing segments of cheetah DNA. Intrigued by this idea, she began to question the concept of “species” altogether. By thinking outside of the box, she identified a problem with the way ecologists define species, which she explores in her research paper “The Intensifying Species Problem in Conservation.”

Convergent thinking is equally important to ensure the feasibility of a research topic. Amy notes that there are a number of constraints to take into account. The topic cannot be too narrow or too broad. Students also have to consider the resources and time available to them in a one-semester online research program––their proposals might be quite different than a PhD. Pioneer ensures student success in the convergent thinking stage of developing a research topic in two main ways. Firstly, Pioneer’s academic system teaches students about research methodology. Developing a research topic, says Amy, “is actually a highly protocoled and formulated process.” By learning research protocols, students are able to tailor their questions into a feasible research topic. Students also develop their research topics through one-on-one meetings with professors, where they can ask questions and receive guidance. 

Divergent and convergent thinking work together to make research possible. The expansive creativity of divergent thinking allows scholars to think outside the box to find new solutions and ask original questions. The equally vital role of convergent thinking is to make sure research meets the necessary standards and protocols. Pioneer Scholars make use of both of these strategies to generate original, credible research.

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