Research Design Steps

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In the first quarter of 2021 we explore design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. We’ll continue to learn about the design stage in February with a focus on Choosing Methodology and Methods. In this post, Ann Devlin, author of The Research Experience, discusses some first steps of the design process. See two sample chapters to learn more about the book.


In designing a study, would it make any difference whether you first posed a closed-end question in which you asked participants to rate aspects of the institution (academics, food, social life, location, athletics) or an open-ended question (“What do you like about your institution?”). “Yes,” it would make a difference. Asking participants to rate the specific aspects first might prime them to include those aspects in response to the open-ended question; those aspects would be available in memory. We use availability as a kind of heuristic or mental shortcut to respond to our environment (i.e., think of examples, solve problems). Students of introductory psychology have probably seen an example of what is called Einstellung, or problem solving set (e.g., Luchins water jug problem), when people use the same procedure repeatedly to try to solve problems (it is “available” to them) when a simpler approach would work. One of the reasons researchers add what are called manipulation checks to experimental studies is to determine whether, in fact, participants noted or understood what was presented to them. These examples illustrate a fundamental aspect of human behavior. Humans are limited information processors, which means we cannot take in and process all of the information in our immediate environment at a given moment in time. We take mental short cuts, form categories, and exhibit stereotypes. As such limited information processors, participants in research also make predictions about what a researcher is investigating and take mental shortcuts (like heuristics) when they respond to questions and/or tasks in the research. In The Research Experience: Planning, Conducting, and Reporting Research, Chapter 1 includes material on how characteristics of human cognition such as biases, shape the research process.

Considerations of human information processing lead us to some points made in Ch. 2: Generating and Shaping Ideas: Tradition and Innovation. How do we build on tradition in research while offering some degree of innovation, that is, advancing the ball? As a process, researchers need to consider what has been investigated about a given topic (the “tradition” that typically comprises the literature review) and pose questions that will advance our understanding of the topic (the “innovation”). But sometimes our schemas or mental representations limit our ability to see outside of existing boundaries to ask new questions. Tradition is easier than innovation, but there is a downside to immersing yourself in the literature as a first step in the research process. Reading the literature is important, but not before you have reflected on your own ideas. Some of the major advances in science have come from newer researchers who are not immersed in a given paradigm or world view of a topic that constrains the kinds of questions considered appropriate to ask. Ideas are everywhere–your personal experience, the news, your courses, and making a list of what you observe and what intrigues you is a good way to start a research project and THEN immerse yourself in the literature.

Interested in purchasing the book?

Use this code, MSPACE20, for a 20% discount when you order the book from SAGE Publishing.

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