Research Approaches

In considering step two, the collection of data, it seems that people often mistakenly use the words "research" and "experiment" interchangeably. A student might ask whether an experiment has been done on a particular topic when, in fact, the student really wants to know if any kind of research has been conducted in that area. All experiments are examples of research, but not all research is experimental. Research that is nonexperimental in nature might be either descriptive or correlational.

Descriptive research is nearly self-explanatory; it occurs when the researcher wants merely to characterize the behaviors of an individual or, more likely, a group. For example, one might want to survey the students of a high school to ascertain the level of alcohol use (alcohol use might be described in terms of average ounces consumed per student per week). One might also spend considerable time observing individuals suffering from, for example, infantile autism. A thorough description of their typical behaviors could be useful for someone investigating the cause of this disorder. Descriptive research can be extremely valuable, but it is not useful when researchers want to investigate the relationship between two or more variables (things that vary, or quantities that may have different values).

In a correlational study, the researcher measures how strongly the variables are related, or the degree to which one variable predicts another variable. A researcher who is interested in the relationship between exposure to violence on television (variable one) and aggressive behavior (variable two) in a group of elementary school children could administer a survey asking the children how much violent television they view and then rank the subjects from high to low levels of this variable. The researcher could similarly interview the school staff and rank the children according to their aggressive behavior. A statistic called a correlation coefficient might then be computed, revealing how the two variables are related and the strength of that relationship.

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