Basic Concepts of Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Research
Discovering causal relationships is the key to experimental research. In abstract terms, this means the relationship between a certain action, X, which alone creates the effect Y. For example, turning the volume knob on your stereo clockwise causes the sound to get louder. In addition, you could observe that turning the knob clockwise alone, and nothing else, caused the sound level to increase. You could further conclude that a causal relationship exists between turning the knob clockwise and an increase in volume; not simply because one caused the other, but because you are certain that nothing else caused the effect.
Independent and Dependent Variables
Beyond discovering causal relationships, experimental research further seeks out how much cause will produce how much effect; in technical terms, how the independent variable will affect the dependent variable. You know that turning the knob clockwise will produce a louder noise, but by varying how much you turn it, you see how much sound is produced. On the other hand, you might find that although you turn the knob a great deal, sound doesn't increase dramatically. Or, you might find that turning the knob just a little adds more sound than expected. The amount that you turned the knob is the independent variable, the variable that the researcher controls, and the amount of sound that resulted from turning it is the dependent variable, the change that is caused by the independent variable.
Experimental research also looks into the effects of removing something. For example, if you remove a loud noise from the room, will the person next to you be able to hear you? Or how much noise needs to be removed before that person can hear you?
Treatment and Hypothesis
The term treatment refers to either removing or adding a stimulus in order to measure an effect (such as turning the knob a little or a lot, or reducing the noise level a little or a lot). Experimental researchers want to know how varying levels of treatment will effect what they are studying. As such, researchers often have an idea, or hypothesis, about what effect will occur when they cause something. Few experiments are performed where there is no idea of what will happen. From past experiences in life or from the knowledge we possess in our specific field of study, we know how some actions cause other reactions. Experiments confirm or reconfirm this fact.
Experimentation becomes more complex when the causal relationships they seek aren't as clear as in the stereo knob-turning examples. Questions like "Will olestra cause cancer?" or "Will this new fertilizer help this plant grow better?" present more to consider. For example, any number of things could affect the growth rate of a plant-the temperature, how much water or sun it receives, or how much carbon dioxide is in the air. These variables can affect an experiment's results. An experimenter who wants to show that adding a certain fertilizer will help a plant grow better must ensure that it is the fertilizer, and nothing else, affecting the growth patterns of the plant. To do this, as many of these variables as possible must be controlled.
Matching and Randomization
Up to this point, we have been discussing an example in terms of one MegaGro plant, one Plant! plant, and one control plant. But even though you have tried to remove all extraneous variables, results may appear merely coincidental. Since you want to prove a causal relationship in which a single variable is responsible for the effect produced, the experiment would produce stronger proof if the results were replicated in larger treatment and control groups.
Selecting groups entails assigning subjects in the groups of an experiment in such a way that treatment and control groups are comparable in all respects except the application of the treatment. Groups can be created in two ways: matching and randomization. In the MegaGro experiment, the plants might be matched according to characteristics such as age, weight and whether they are blooming. This involves distributing these plants so that each plant in one group exactly matches characteristics of plants in the other groups. Matching may be problematic, though, because it "can promote a false sense of security by leading [the experimenter] to believe that [the] experimental and control groups were really equated at the outset, when in fact they were not equated on a host of variables" (Jones, 291). In other words, you may have flowers for your MegaGro experiment that you matched and distributed among groups, but other variables are unaccounted for. It would be difficult to have equal groupings.
Randomization, then, is preferred to matching. This method is based on the statistical principle of normal distribution. Theoretically, any arbitrarily selected group of adequate size will reflect normal distribution. Differences between groups will average out and become more comparable. The principle of normal distribution states that in a population most individuals will fall within the middle range of values for a given characteristic, with increasingly fewer toward either extreme (graphically represented as the ubiquitous "bell curve").
Differences between Quasi-Experimental and Experimental Research
Thus far, we have explained that for experimental research we need:
- a hypothesis for a causal relationship;
- a control group and a treatment group;
- to eliminate confounding variables that might mess up the experiment and prevent displaying the causal relationship; and
- to have larger groups with a carefully sorted constituency; preferably randomized, in order to keep accidental differences from fouling things up.
But what if we don't have all of those? Do we still have an experiment? Not a true experiment in the strictest scientific sense of the term, but we can have a quasi-experiment, an attempt to uncover a causal relationship, even though the researcher cannot control all the factors that might affect the outcome.
A quasi-experimenter treats a given situation as an experiment even though it is not wholly by design. The independent variable may not be manipulated by the researcher, treatment and control groups may not be randomized or matched, or there may be no control group. The researcher is limited in what he or she can say conclusively.
The significant element of both experiments and quasi-experiments is the measure of the dependent variable, which it allows for comparison. Some data is quite straightforward, but other measures, such as level of self-confidence in writing ability, increase in creativity or in reading comprehension are inescapably subjective. In such cases, quasi-experimentation often involves a number of strategies to compare subjectivity, such as rating data, testing, surveying, and content analysis.
Rating essentially is developing a rating scale to evaluate data. In testing, experimenters and quasi-experimenters use ANOVA (Analysis of Variance) and ANCOVA (Analysis of Co-Variance) tests to measure differences between control and experimental groups, as well as different correlations between groups.
Since we're mentioning the subject of statistics, note that experimental or quasi-experimental research cannot state beyond a shadow of a doubt that a single cause will always produce any one effect. They can do no more than show a probability that one thing causes another. The probability that a result is the due to random chance is an important measure of statistical analysis and in experimental research.