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Research Methods Information : Research Study Design

Research Methods Information

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Selected Books on Research Methods & Design

Web Resources: Types of Research Design


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Introduction to Research Design

folded map

Before beginning your paper, you need to decide how you plan to design the study.

The research design refers to the overall strategy that you choose to integrate the different components of the study in a coherent and logical way, thereby, ensuring you will effectively address the research problem; it constitutes the blueprint for the collection, measurement, and analysis of data. Note that your research problem determines the type of design you can use, not the other way around!


Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Part 1, What Is Research Design? The Context of Design. Performance Studies Methods Course syllabus. New York University, Spring 2006; Trochim, William M.K. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.

General Structure & Writing Style


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The function of a research design is to ensure that the evidence obtained enables you to effectively address the research problem as unambiguously as possible. In social sciences research, obtaining evidence relevant to the research problem generally entails specifying the type of evidence needed to test a theory, to evaluate a program, or to accurately describe a phenomenon.

However, researchers can often begin their investigations far too early, before they have thought critically about about what information is required to answer the study's research questions. Without attending to these design issues beforehand, the conclusions drawn risk being weak and unconvincing and, consequently, will fail to adequate address the overall research problem.

 Given this, the length and complexity of research designs can vary considerably, but any sound design will do the following things:

  1. Identify the research problem clearly and justify its selection,
  2. Review previously published literature associated with the problem area,
  3. Clearly and explicitly specify hypotheses [i.e., research questions] central to the problem selected,
  4. Effectively describe the data which will be necessary for an adequate test of the hypotheses and explain how such data will be obtained, and
  5. Describe the methods of analysis which will be applied to the data in determining whether or not the hypotheses are true or false.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Part 1, What Is Research Design? The Context of Design. Performance Studies Methods Course syllabus. New Yortk University, Spring 2006.

Types of Research Design


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Each section below includes additional information that addresses the following:

  • What do these studies tell you?
  • What do these studies not tell you?



ACTION RESEARCH DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

The essentials of action research design follow a characteristic cycle whereby initially an exploratory stance is adopted, where an understanding of a problem is developed and plans are made for some form of interventionary strategy. Then the intervention is carried out (the action in Action Research) during which time, pertinent observations are collected in various forms. The new interventional strategies are carried out, and the cyclic process repeats, continuing until a sufficient understanding of (or implement able solution for) the problem is achieved. The protocol is iterative or cyclical in nature and is intended to foster deeper understanding of a given situation, starting with conceptualizing and particularizing the problem and moving through several interventions and evaluations.


CASE STUDY DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

A case study is an in-depth study of a particular research problem rather than a sweeping statistical survey. It is often used to narrow down a very broad field of research into one or a few easily researchable examples. The case study research design is also useful for testing whether a specific theory and model actually applies to phenomena in the real world. It is a useful design when not much is known about a phenomenon.


CAUSAL STUDY DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

Causality studies may be thought of as understanding a phenomenon in terms of conditional statements in the form, “If X, then Y.” This type of research is used to measure what impact a specific change will have on existing norms and assumptions. Most social scientists seek causal explanations that reflect tests of hypotheses. Causal effect (nomothetic perspective) occurs when variation in one phenomenon, an independent variable, leads to or results, on average, in variation in another phenomenon, the dependent variable.

Conditions necessary for determining causality:

  • Empirical association--a valid conclusion is based on finding an association between the independent variable and the dependent variable.
  • Appropriate time order--to conclude that causation was involved, one must see that cases were exposed to variation in the independent variable before variation in the dependent variable.
  • Nonspuriousness--a relationship between two variables that is not due to variation in a third variable.




COHORT DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

Often used in the medical sciences, but also found in the applied social sciences, a cohort study generally refers to a study conducted over a period of time involving members of a population which the subject or representative member comes from, and who are united by some commonality or similarity. Using a quantitative framework, a cohort study makes note of statistical occurrence within a specialized subgroup, united by same or similar characteristics that are relevant to the research problem being investigated, rather than studying statistical occurrence within the general population. Using a qualitative framework, cohort studies generally gather data using methods of observation. Cohorts can be either "open" or "closed."

  • Open Cohort Studies [dynamic populations, such as the population of Los Angeles] involve a population that is defined just by the state of being a part of the study in question (and being monitored for the outcome). Date of entry and exit from the study is individually defined, therefore, the size of the study population is not constant. In open cohort studies, researchers can only calculate rate based data, such as, incidence rates and variants thereof.
  • Closed Cohort Studies [static populations, such as patients entered into a clinical trial] involve participants who enter into the study at one defining point in time and where it is presumed that no new participants can enter the cohort. Given this, the number of study participants remains constant (or can only decrease).


CROSS-SECTIONAL DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

Cross-sectional research designs have three distinctive features: no time dimension, a reliance on existing differences rather than change following intervention; and, groups are selected based on existing differences rather than random allocation. The cross-sectional design can only measure diffrerences between or from among a variety of people, subjects, or phenomena rather than change. As such, researchers using this design can only employ a relative passive approach to making causal inferences based on findings.


DESCRIPTIVE DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

Descriptive research designs help provide answers to the questions of who, what, when, where, and how associated with a particular research problem; a descriptive study cannot conclusively ascertain answers to why. Descriptive research is used to obtain information concerning the current status of the phenomena and to describe "what exists" with respect to variables or conditions in a situation.


EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

A blueprint of the procedure that enables the researcher to maintain control over all factors that may affect the result of an experiment. In doing this, the researcher attempts to determine or predict what may occur. Experimental Research is often used where there is time priority in a causal relationship (cause precedes effect), there is consistency in a causal relationship (a cause will always lead to the same effect), and the magnitude of the correlation is great. The classic experimental design specifies an experimental group and a control group. The independent variable is administered to the experimental group and not to the control group, and both groups are measured on the same dependent variable. Subsequent experimental designs have used more groups and more measurements over longer periods. True experiments must have control, randomization, and manipulation.




EXPLORATORY DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

An exploratory design is conducted about a research problem when there are few or no earlier studies to refer to. The focus is on gaining insights and familiarity for later investigation or undertaken when problems are in a preliminary stage of investigation.

The goals of exploratory research are intended to produce the following possible insights:

  • Familiarity with basic details, settings and concerns.
  • Well grounded picture of the situation being developed.
  • Generation of new ideas and assumption, development of tentative theories or hypotheses.
  • Determination about whether a study is feasible in the future.
  • Issues get refined for more systematic investigation and formulation of new research questions.
  • Direction for future research and techniques get developed.


HISTORICAL DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

The purpose of a historical research design is to collect, verify, and synthesize evidence from the past to establish facts that defend or refute your hypothesis. It uses secondary sources and a variety of primary documentary evidence, such as, logs, diaries, official records, reports, archives, and non-textual information [maps, pictures, audio and visual recordings]. The limitation is that the sources must be both authentic and valid.


LONGITUDINAL DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

A longitudinal study follows the same sample over time and makes repeated observations. With longitudinal surveys, for example, the same group of people is interviewed at regular intervals, enabling researchers to track changes over time and to relate them to variables that might explain why the changes occur. Longitudinal research designs describe patterns of change and help establish the direction and magnitude of causal relationships. Measurements are taken on each variable over two or more distinct time periods. This allows the researcher to measure change in variables over time. It is a type of observational study and is sometimes referred to as a panel study.


OBSERVATIONAL DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

This type of research design draws a conclusion by comparing subjects against a control group, in cases where the researcher has no control over the experiment. There are two general types of observational designs. In direct observations, people know that you are watching them. Unobtrusive measures involve any method for studying behavior where individuals do not know they are being observed. An observational study allows a useful insight into a phenomenon and avoids the ethical and practical difficulties of setting up a large and cumbersome research project.


PHILOSOPHICAL DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

Understood more as an broad approach to examining a research problem than a methodological design, philosophical analysis and argumentation is intended to challenge deeply embedded, often intractable, assumptions underpinning an area of study. This approach uses the tools of argumentation derived from philosophical traditions, concepts, models, and theories to critically explore and challenge, for example, the relevance of logic and evidence in academic debates, to analyze arguments about fundamental issues, or to discuss the root of existing discourse about a research problem. These overarching tools of analysis can be framed in three ways:

  • Ontology -- the study that describes the nature of reality; for example, what is real and what is not, what is fundamental and what is derivative?
  • Epistemology -- the study that explores the nature of knowledge; for example, on what does knowledge and understanding depend upon and how can we be certain of what we know?
  • Axiology -- the study of values; for example, what values does an individual or group hold and why? How are values related to interest, desire, will, experience, and means-to-end? And, what is the difference between a matter of fact and a matter of value?


SEQUENTIAL DESIGN

Definition and Purpose

Sequential research is that which is carried out in a deliberate, staged approach [i.e. serially] where one stage will be completed, followed by another, then another, and so on, with the aim that each stage will build upon the previous one until enough data is gathered over an interval of time to test your hypothesis. The sample size is not predetermined. After each sample is analyzed, the researcher can accept the null hypothesis, accept the alternative hypothesis, or select another pool of subjects and conduct the study once again. This means the researcher can obtain a limitless number of subjects before finally making a decision whether to accept the null or alternative hypothesis. Using a quantitative framework, a sequential study generally utilizes sampling techniques to gather data and applying statistical methods to analze the data. Using a qualitative framework, sequential studies generally utilize samples of individuals or groups of individuals [cohorts] and use qualitative methods, such as interviews or observations, to gather information from each sample.


Selected Journals on Research Approaches

open journal

VIDEO: Developing a Quantitative Research Plan: Choosing a Research Design

Presented by Navigating the Doctoral Journey. Although tageting doctoral students, master's students doing their thesis/capstone research will find it of use as well.

Published June 6, 2013
Runtime: 46:12 min

VIDEO: Qualitative Research for Public Health and Clinical Investigation

A "soup-to-nuts" presentation. Long, but worth the viewing time!

[Video description] "This video is a one-hour lecture that Roberta E. Goldman, PHD delivered as part of the Harvard Catalyst lecture series in 2011. The lecture presents an overview of qualitative research methods that can be used in combination with each other, and in combination with quantitative methods for mixed methods primary care and public health study designs."

Published on July 25, 2012 | Runtime 1:09.54 min.

Design Flaws to Avoid


wrong way sign

The research design establishes the decision-making processes, conceptual structure of investigation, and methods of analysis used to address the central research problem of your study. 

Taking the time to develop a thorough research design helps to organize your thoughts, set the boundaries of your study, maximize the reliability of your findings, and avoid misleading or incomplete conclusions.

Therefore, if any aspect of your research design is flawed or under-developed, the quality and reliability of your final results and, by extension, the overall value of your study will be weakened.

Click here for detailed descriptions on the following design flaws.

  • Lack of Specificity
  • Poorly Defined Research Problem
  • Lack of Theoretical Framework
  • Significance
  • Relationship between Past Research and Your Study
  • Contribution to the Field
  • Provincialism
  • Objectives, Hypotheses, or Questions
  • Poor Method
  • Proximity Sampling
  • Techniques or Instruments
  • Statistical Treatment
  • Vocabulary
  • Ethical Dilemmas
  • Limitations of Study

Flow Charts for Research Methods


flow chart

A flow chart is a "diagram that shows step-by-step progression through a procedure or system especially using connecting lines and a set of conventional symbols." [from Merriam-Webster.com

Some people find using a flow chart a very good way of visualizing the research method process.

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