What is meant by research methods? Part 1
gives an overview of research methods and explains the types of research conducted in the social sciences and education. Topics 1
introduce research methods as a way of generating knowledge. Topics 4
describe common approaches to research, and Topics 10
introduce ethical considerations that underlie all types of research.
Research methods are the building blocks of the scientific enterprise. They are the “how” for building systematic knowledge. Let’s take a moment to think about knowledge. How do you “know” things? One way you know things is through your own personal experiences. Even as personal experiences are rich in depth and detail, and create a lot of meaning in life, they are also quite limited in scope. If you try to generalize what is true for you, it is easy to overgeneralize and arrive at misleading conclusions for everyone.
Another fundamental way to gain knowledge is through the authority of others—your parents, teachers, books you have read, shows you have watched, news and articles from social media. This “second-hand” knowledge includes many diverse sources, and often this knowledge is more than one step removed from where it originated. Life is made simpler by inheriting knowledge from humanity’s vast collection, instead of relying only on what you can discover for yourself. In fact, most people spend years attending school to acquire a basic set of knowledge that seems relevant for living and working in today’s world. Even though it can still take a long time to learn even a small proportion of the knowledge that is available, the efficiency of being able to gain a lot of knowledge in this way benefits us and allows us to continue to build and further what is collectively known. However, not all information that is passed along is of equal value. While some of the things that we learn on the authority of others is based on scientific research, certainly there is much more information that is based simply on opinion, common sense, misinterpretation, or skewed information. It takes critical thinking skills to sort this out.
By learning about research, reading samples of research, and practicing research it is possible to expand your ability to think through knowledge and its acquisition in new ways. When you learn the rules on which research is based, you are learning to generate knowledge in the tradition and practice of science. Regardless of the method selected, social science research methods are designed to be systematic and to minimize biases. The goal is to produce findings that represent reality as closely as possible, overcoming some of the hidden biases that influence our conclusions when we are not systematic. As you will soon learn, research involves making many careful decisions and documenting both the decisions and their results. Decisions are important throughout the practice of research and are designed to help researchers collect evidence that includes the full spectrum of the phenomenon under study, to maintain logical rules, and to mitigate or account for possible sources of bias. In many ways, learning research methods is learning how to see and make these decisions.
These days, research is everywhere. Whether you pursue an academic career or enter an applied field, research skills are likely to have a valuable application. In academic research, the application is obvious. Academic writing nearly always describes research methods because academic work is judged first on the merits of its methods. Findings must be supported by how the information was collected, and whether it was thorough and unbiased, and addressed the research question appropriately. Outside of academia,
more and more careers call on people to understand data, to design ways to solicit feedback or information, to actually collect the information, and to figure out through analysis what the responses mean. For instance, people in many fields and sectors of the job market want to understand who is using their products or services, how well they are carrying out internal or market objectives, how well their employees are performing, and who is interacting with their website or following them on social media. It is possible to specialize in research and become an expert in answering questions of this type, but even knowing some basic principles of research can help you to make intelligent and meaningful contributions. Knowing about research methods can also empower you in your personal life because it can make you a wiser, more critical consumer of all information. It can help you ask better questions about the information you encounter and ultimately act as a better informed citizen.
The accumulation of knowledge through research is by its nature a collective endeavor. Each well-designed study provides evidence that may support, amend, refute, or deepen the understanding of existing knowledge. However, individual studies, no matter how compelling, are rarely enough evidence to establish findings as “fact.” It is through the ability to find similar findings across studies, and the variability that studies may find when they ask questions in different ways and of different groups, that theories (covered in Topic 3
) grow to be established as our working knowledge. Much like language, scientific knowledge is a living conversation in which new studies and new inquiries allow what we know to grow and change over time.
■ Topic Review
- What are three ways we “know” things?
- What makes scientific knowledge different from other types of knowledge?
- What makes knowledge biased?
- Why do research reports include a section describing research methods?
- What is the goal of research in the social sciences?
- What makes research a collective endeavor?
■ Discussion Questions
- Think about everything you know about schools. How much can you sort what you know from personal experience? From the authority of others? If you were to do research on schooling, what would you study?
- Consider your chosen career path, or if you are not yet sure, bring to mind one career path you are considering. How do you think knowledge of research methods could help you in that career?
■ Research Planning
Think about a research interest that you have as you begin this book/course. Generate a list of questions that interest you about this topic. Are there any aspects of this research interest that seem especially prone to researcher bias?
The empirical approach
to knowledge simply means that it is based on observation, direct or indirect, or in other words, on experience.1
In a casual sense, everyone uses the empirical approach in his or her daily life. For instance, a person may notice that the mail comes at the same time every day, and begin to expect the mail to arrive at that time, based on experience. Or a commute may typically take 30 minutes, so a worker decides to leave for work based on previous experiences of the commute length. As useful as observation and experience are, they can also be misleading, especially when they are not collected or reviewed systematically. In everyday thinking, we often make mental shortcuts that are helpful but not always accurate. We are all susceptible to biases in thinking that can cause us to overestimate the value of some information and underestimate the value of other evidence. For instance, confirmation bias
is a tendency to recall or favor the information or interpretation that fits with one’s existing beliefs. We give less consideration to information or interpretations that do not fit with what we already believe to be true. Not all biases are related to one’s personal opinions. Take, for instance, availability bias
, in which we tend to rely on the most recent information we have or only consider the immediate examples that come to mind on a topic, which may not represent all the information very accurately.
It is also possible to misinterpret observations. A teacher might observe that students become restless during a particular lesson and interpret their response as boredom. The teacher may have misinterpreted the reason for the students’ restlessness. The time of day may instead be the reason that students are restless, not the dullness of the lesson. Even if the lesson in question is boring to these particular students, the teacher might conclude that the lesson is boring to students in general. In fact, students who differ from the current students in ability level, background, or subject matter interests may find the lesson very engaging.
Researchers use the empirical approach as a way to avoid misleading results and poor interpretations. The key is carefully planning why
they want to make observations, how
to observe, when
to observe, and whom
they want to observe. Researchers create a plan or design, collect data in a systematic way, document their data collection, analyze data, and report the results. Empirical approaches to research encompass all research design approaches, including experimental designs
and nonexperimental designs
(see Topic 4
). They include qualitative
approaches to research design and analysis. Research decisions about what methods to use comprise much of the rest of Part 1
. Regardless of which method is used, researchers still need to answer these basic questions about their observations.
Let’s consider a case in which researchers wish to determine which teaching approach will best help students acquire math skills. After considering their own personal experiences with learning math and reviewing literature on the topic, researchers learn that one
effective approach uses “hands-on manipulatives.” Manipulatives are concrete objects that can be viewed and physically handled by students to demonstrate or model abstract concepts. The researchers prepare a formal statement of research purpose, proposing to test “whether the use of hands-on manipulatives to teach Math Topic X
will result in greater student achievement than teaching Math Topic X
using a workbook-only approach.”
Now that the researchers have defined their research question more concretely, they must decide how to carry out the research. Deciding why to make particular observations is connected to sufficiently narrowing one’s research interest into a manageable project that has a clear research question. Approaches will vary depending on the question that is posed, the opportunities the researchers have to conduct research, and what information already exists to address the question.
Planning how to observe
is also connected to matching approach and research question. As a part of the research design, researchers have to answer many “how” questions. This is because research involves translation between ideas and measures
For instance, in the above example the researchers have to decide how to measure “greater student achievement.” Figuring out how
to measure something may be more or less challenging based on how abstract the concept that must be measured. Consider the first example of bored students in the classroom. Boredom sounds easy to identify but it can prove hard to measure. A person can “look bored,” but how does the researcher know they are bored, and not simply sleepy? Perhaps the best method to measure boredom is to ask people to rate their boredom. This self-assessment approach might not work as well to measure differences in student achievement. Measures vary from established, standardized instruments such as psychological inventories, to interview questions that the researcher writes and adjusts to fit the goals of the specific study. Other examples of measures include surveys, scales, direct observation of behavior, and objective tests.
Researchers must also decide when
they will use the measures to obtain the most relevant results. If you want to study student achievement, successful weight loss, criminal re-offending, or smoking cessation, your results may have a lot to do with when you ask. Measurement issues are explored in detail in Part 5
of this book.
When researchers plan whom to observe
, they first decide whether to observe an entire population (such as all fifth-grade students in a school district) or just a sample of the population. If a sample is chosen, which is often the case, researchers decide how to select a sample that is not biased against any types of individuals or subgroups. For instance, asking students to volunteer to take a mathematics lesson might result in a sample of students who are more interested in, or better at, mathematics than students in the entire population. Such a sample might bias the results to look like better performance when compared against the population, which includes those who are less interested or more challenged by math. If a sample is biased and does not include all types of students who might be affected, the findings are less likely to align with reality. Methods of selecting unbiased samples are discussed in Part 4
of this book.
Once observations are made, the researcher has data.
Data may be in the form of numbers, which are analyzed statistically. This is called quantitative research. Some data are not initially collected in numerical form but are translated into numbers. For instance, rating one’s health may be in terms like “excellent, good, fair, or poor,” which is then coded numerically and analyzed using statistics. Widely used statistical techniques are described in Part 8
of this book. Other scientific observations are not
reduced to numbers but are expressed in words. For instance, interview data may be described in a narrative that points out themes and trends. Such research is referred to as qualitative research
. The differences between qualitative and quantitative research are described throughout the book but are specifically addressed in Topics 7
. Qualitative research design and methods are discussed in some detail in Part 6
of this book.
■ Topic Review
- On what is the empirical approach to knowledge based?
- Is the empirical approach used in everyday living?
- What does the question “how” establish?
- According to the topic, do researchers usually observe a sample or a population?
- Which type of research results are not reduced to numbers (“quantitative” or “qualitative”)?
■ Discussion Questions
- Briefly describe a time when you were misled by an everyday observation (i.e., when you reached a conclusion on the basis of an everyday observation that you later decided was an incorrect conclusion).
- You have probably encountered conflicting research reported in the mass media. For example, one study might indicate that drinking red wine improves health while another study indicates that it does not. Speculate on the reasons why various researchers might obtain different results when studying the same problem.
■ Research Planning
Return to your answers to the Research Planning activity in Topic 1
. As you consider the general problem area in which you might conduct research, think about the “why,” “how,” “when,” and “whom” questions posted in this topic. Take some preliminary notes on your answers to these questions.
Begin to think about th...