Research Approaches and Designs in Education

How can we designate the different methods of doing research in education in a manner that is useful for helping both students in education programs and professional teachers understand the range of possibilities available? As a doctoral student, I understood that the most basic distinction used was to describe research as being either “qualitative”, “quantitative”, or “mixed methods”; in other words, research that involved the analysis of words, numbers, or some blend of the two. However, these terms convey nothing with respect to what we actually want to do as researchers (describe a learning setting, try out a teaching technique, etc.) or how we want to do it (by observing and interviewing members of a class, randomly selecting learners and assigning them separate groups, etc.).

Therefore, understanding the options available for conducting educational research requires that we begin with terms suitable for making helpful distinctions which can enable researchers to understand which method to choose when we wish to embark on a study. The first question to ask someone planning to conduct a research study is “What do you want to do?”  This may elicit responses such as “I want try out cooperative learning in my EAP class to encourage my students to try to speak more, and I want to know how effective if is,” or “I want to understand what it’s like to teach in an English immersion program.” Since the information being sought is very different in each of these two instances, the research approach chosen for selecting participants, collecting and analyzing data, and ensuring the reliability and validity of the findings will be very different. The teacher trying to get his or her students to speak more in class will find an action-research approach to be the best option, while the educational researcher interested in immersion education would find a naturalistic approach,  by which a researcher seeks to describe a particular educational setting–or some aspect therein–as is, to be the preferred route to use.

Research approaches in education can be divided three branches: general, administrative, and pedagogical.

Research and Design diagram

General approaches are those selected by professional researchers for the purpose of generating knowledge to inform theory and/or practice. This branch of approaches includes: the aforementioned naturalistic approach, such as ethnographies and case studies, which are descriptive and subjective in nature; the experimental approach, through which studies are conducted to test one or more hypotheses by administering a treatment (a teaching technique or use of a material) and measuring the effects through the use of statistical analysis; and, the multivariate approach, which involves the quantitative analysis of effects and relationships among factors affecting language learning. Administrative approaches are evaluative in nature and are undertaken to generate knowledge informing policymakers at either the program, institution, or district level to make decisions relating to staffing, funding, or program reform, for example. Finally, pedagogical approaches are conducted to improve classroom practices and may aim to inform theory as well. The action-research approach is  conducted by one or more classroom teachers to find a solution to a teaching or learning issue in a particular course or school subject. Action research is a short-term venture, intended to find an immediate solution, if possible, for the problem at stake. Design(-based) research, on the other hand, is a long-term collaborative project involving both researchers and practitioners and is aimed not only at resolving a teaching issue, but in the process of doing so, generating knowledge that can result in innovative practices and updated theory. ¹

Once a researcher has decided on an approach, the next step is to select the most suitable design. Naturalistic approaches, being descriptive in nature, allow for either a thorough, overall portrayal (ethnography) of an educational milieu, such as an immersion program, or a more in-depth examination (case study) of one aspect of it, such as a class or teacher, to give two common examples. An experimental approach can involve either the random selection of participants (pure experiment) from a particular target population (e.g. international students enrolled in EAP programs in a particular region) so as to generalize the findings to the target group, or the use of one or more existing classes (one-group or quasi-experiment), which does not allow such generalizations but can have important local implications. A multivariate approach may involve a single group or multiple groups, and make use of a survey or factorial design for example, to measure statistical relationships or effects among variables relating to language learning. A wide range of designs and statistical analysis options is possible, depending on the nature and number of independent and dependent variables of interest to the researcher. Finally, the pedagogical approach, being pragmatic in nature  is flexible with respect to the design chosen, depending on the number and size of the classes involved. Ethical concerns relating to matters such as the involvement of teachers researching their own classrooms dictate that the specific options available for a given study are limited to those which pose the least threat to the learners.

Contemplating research? What do you want to do?

¹Shah, J. K., Ensminger, D. C., & Thier, K. (2015). The Time for Design-Based Research Is “Right” and “Right Now.” Mid-Western Educational Researcher27(2), 152–171.

2 thoughts on “Research Approaches and Designs in Education

  1. Thank you for this piece, Gordon! In researching the development of pragmatic competence in the classroom and focusing on instructor interventions, I chose a naturalistic study rather than an action-research model.


    • If your desire is simply to describe the development rather than implement a solution yourself, a naturalistic study would be the choice.


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