Research methods

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Developing a research plan: The research method

Charting my research plan
Now that you have selected and refined your research topic, you will need to write up a plan documenting how you will carry out your research including the approaches and methods you plan to use when answering your research questions. Your research plan documents the steps you will take to answer your research question(s). These steps are called the research method.

Different disciplines take different approaches to validating and creating knowledge. Even within a discipline, there may be a range of ways of doing research. The reason for the variation is related both to the history of the fields, and the nature of the topics which are the focus of the various disciplines.

The research approach, methodology, and methods must be suited to the nature of the question you seek to answer.

Many research text books divide research approaches into two categories: qualitative and quantitative. However, these labels exclude many forms or research. Researchers have a wide array of research approaches to choose from going beyond these categories. These approaches will determine the methods used to answer the research question.

This course does not cover the different research methods in substantive detail, but provides a few introductory pointers to get you started on thinking about your research method.

Methodology and research material

Methodology refers to the codified set or practises implemented by a discipline to approach problems and seek answers. It determines what type of material will be suitable for each research question.

The research approach will determine the plan of action and data collection methods for the researcher. Some approaches include:

  • Experiments. This is an approach where the researcher manipulates and controls certain variables to understand cause and effect and to test hypotheses. Generally, one or more variables are manipulated to determine their effect on a dependent variable. The experimental design frequently includes a control group where the subjects in this group are left untreated or unexposed to the procedure or intervention being researched (read more).
  • Ethnography. This is an approach used in the social sciences to gather data on human societies, cultures etc. Data collection is often done through participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, etc. and aims to describe the nature of those who are studied through writing[1].
  • Surveys use a variety of methods to document data from individual subjects.
  • Historical. The historical research approach attempts to explain a phenomenon in relation to time (i.e. past, present and future.)
  • Case Studies. This is also a popular approach used in the social sciences and is based on an in-depth investigation of a single individual, group, organisation or event.

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Taking your research question
  • What approach is suited best suited to your research question?
  • What type of information do you want to generate?

There are many different ways of gathering research data which will be considered in trying to answer your research question. Typically these are dictated by the chosen methodology. Methods are the practices included in a discipline's methodology, and could also be thought of as the steps considered acceptable to reach a certain objective.

Ways of gathering data

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Surveys use:

  • Questionnaire
  • Interview
  • Document analysis
  • Mailed questionnaire
  • Telephone interview
  • Content analysis

Experiments use

  • Controlled experiment
  • Randomised controlled trial

Ethnography uses

  • Observation
  • Interview
  • Artifact analysis
  • Participant observation
  • Open-ended interviews
  • Interpretation of visuals

Case Studies use

  • material from a case or cases
  • can be from a variety of sources


Sampling concerns who to include as subjects, participants, informants or other sources of information. The sampling approach is dependent on the method used for the research project. In the case of quantitative research studies involving statistically analysis, we recommend that you consult a statistician or researcher well versed in research design. Most education institutions provide access to these services for their learners. Once the data has been collected, it is often too late to correct mistakes in the research design or sampling methods chosen. Get advice before you start collecting data.

Cultural considerations

When researchers work with human beings, they have a responsibility to respect the individuals with whom they are working. This responsibility includes respecting the social and cultural sensitivity of the particular population to which the individuals belong.

Ethically-sound research considers the culture of the participants, or the subject of study as an important component ensuring that the research is safe. Consider for example this interesting discussion of ethical and cultural considerations in the study of non-tree forest products.

Ethical and legal considerations

Ethics is an important consideration in all forms of research. From archival to clinical research, researchers must be concerned with ensuring that their work is morally right. There are several key ethical considerations of research, primarily the issue of confidentiality. Confidentiality refers to limiting access to specific data, often by using codes to identify the original source or person. Anonymity however means that names and unique identifiers are never attached to the data, or known to the researcher.

In addition to confidentiality there are several other human rights that must be protected when humans are part of the research process. These include:

  • Freedom from harm
  • Full disclosure
  • Respect for people
  • Informed consent
  • Minimisation of harm

Many researchers, in particular those using humans or animals in their research, must obtain ethical approval from an ethics committee prior to collecting information. The procedures for obtaining ethical approval are similar from one environment to another.

The Nuremberg Code was paramount in setting the standard of ethical considerations for human research and we recommend that you consult this resource.

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Writing up your research plan

You are now at the point where you can compile your first draft of a research plan. A research plan is a living document and typically a few revisions and iterations will be required as your project progresses. The research plan should answer the following questions:

  • What do you intend to do?
  • Why is the work important?
  • What has already been done?
  • How are you going to do the work?

To get started, you can consult this research plan framework and write up a research plan under the following headings:

  1. Specific aims (what you intend to do - the research question)
  2. Background (Why the research is important)
  3. Preliminary Studies and Progress Reports (What has already been done (derived from the literature survey))
  4. Research Design and Methods (How you will do the work)

Analysis of research materials

Analysis is the part of the research process where the researcher subjects the facts obtained thus far to critical evaluation and/or organisation.

This analysis will use a method which aligns with the research approach and nature of the material the researcher has collected. The researcher will normally provide an explanation for the type of analysis they have chosen to use so that the readers of the study can themselves critically assess the soundness of the results of the study.

Examples of analysis types of research materials


  • Narrative
  • Grounded theory
  • Conversation analysis


  • Descriptive statistics
  • Inferential statistics


  • Content analysis
  • Literary criticism