Two terms that can create a considerable amount of confusion for TESOL professionals are the terms “approach” and “design” when it comes to educational research. One might think that they are interchangeable; yet they are not.
When you are considering undertaking a research study, a useful general question to begin with is “What do you want to do?” This is a practical question, and from a research perspective, can have responses such as the following:
- Study a program or a group of learners as is.
- Study statistical relationships among factors affecting learning.
- Study the effects of a technique or educational material on learning.
- Explore a possible solution to an issue affecting learning in my classroom.
These are not the only possible answers; however, they provide a ready opportunity to discuss different common approaches in educational research. Each of the above responses represents a purpose for conducting research is best pursued using a specific approach:
- Studying a program or a group of learners as is calls for a naturalistic research approach.
- Studying statistical relationships among factors affecting learning requires a multivariate approach.
- Studying the effects of an instructional technique or educational material on learning requires an experimental approach.
- Exploring a possible solution to an issue affecting learning in your classroom calls for an action research approach.
Each of these approaches, in turn, is best implemented by particular research designs. Creswell defines research designs as “procedures for collecting, analyzing, and reporting research“.1 These procedures may have a degree of fluidity, as in naturalistic studies, or be much more set and predetermined as in experimental research. They may involve the collection and analysis of primarily verbal data, as in qualitative studies, numeric data (quantitative studies), or a blend of the two (mixed-methods studies). The common design options for each type of research approach are presented here:
Each option in turn, as Creswell’s definition suggests, is undertaken using particular procedures for data collection and analysis, depending on if, or how, participants in a study are placed in groups, and on if learning is simply described as is (ethnographies, and case studies, for example) or on whether specific statistical relationships among factors related to learning (motivation, proficiency, confidence, etc.) are being examined. There are indeed many options for carrying out a research study, but considering which to choose goes back to that question:
“What do you want to do?”
1Creswell, J. W. (2015). Educational Research: Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research. Fifth Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.