What the Blazes: Anatomy of a Research Article

2018-10-22

SNA's Journal of Child Nutrition & Management

What is the point of research? Well, it is more than a bunch of gobbledygook! Research provides data that can help you in making informed decisions. The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management (JCN&M) makes research about school nutrition topics widely available to those in practice, so that they in turn can make evidence-based decisions.

Not all research articles are created equally. There is good research and there is bad research. Good research means the study is appropriately designed so that the question that is asked can be answered. JCN&M uses a peer-reviewed process—this is the gold standard in that someone who understands school nutrition and the research process has independently reviewed and approved the article for publication.

Research is a very logical process that follows a simple framework build around four key questions. (Hint: Former 4-Her’s may find these to be very similar to project reports!)

  • What do I want to know or find out?
  • What has been done already and how can the new research add to the body of knowledge?
  • What information do I need to collect and what is the best way to gather this data?
  • What does the gathered information mean?

Below, you’ll find a breakdown of all four questions and they can apply to all research articles. With these facts, you’ll be well-equipped to review all school nutrition-related articles with confidence and use the newfound information toward bettering your program.

What do I want to know or find out?
Because it is difficult to isolate a specific cause of a certain action, very precise questions are asked. It is well understood that the size of the district, characteristics of the students, the menus, styles of service, influence of teachers, time for lunch and more, will affect participation in a school nutrition program. And because there are so many factors, not all of them are analyzed for nutrition studies. So, an article might only address effect of one factor, such as studies that have investigated the effect of timing of recess on plate waste of students, even perhaps students at a specific grade level.

What has been done already and how can the research add to the body of knowledge?
No one wants to reinvent the wheel, so researchers will review what has been published or tried in the past to see what conclusions were reached. They then build upon that information. So, a study that investigated recess before lunch for third graders might be conducted again with a group of fifth graders.

What information do I need to collect and what is the best way to gather this data?
How the information is collected, who it is collected from and when and where this takes place are key elements of the design process. These details appear in the methods section in a printed body of research. The method and questions asked should align with the purpose of the study. A study asking for a director’s view on, say, breakfast in the classroom, should ask nutrition program directors and not classroom teachers. The questions asked should be about things that are within control of the nutrition program, such as amount of waste, not children’s readiness to learn. Once the audience has been selected and questions generated, the survey is nearly ready, but there is one more factor. When the survey is sent makes a difference too: Sending surveys during your busy time likely won’t result in many responses. So, avoiding holiday and end of school years is critical if high response is sought. (As it should be!)

What does the gathered information mean?
This is the “so what” question. What does the research mean? In JCN&M, the conclusions and applications sections reflect about a third of the article because this is where key takeaways will appear. Authors will provide a summary of what the research findings meant and how it can impact or can apply to those in school nutrition. This may be the most interesting as you’ll be able to see how the research can relate to the real world—your world!

To see these four components in action, pick up the Spring 2018 edition of JCN&M. In each article, the abstract will summarize these four elements (identification of purpose, methods, results and discussion of the findings, along with conclusions and applications. Articles cover a wide variety of topics, so there is something for everyone in the profession!

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