Methods: Five Steps
Experimental research can be roughly divided into five phases:
Identifying a research problem
The process starts by clearly identifying the problem you want to study and considering what possible methods will affect a solution. Then you choose the method you want to test, and formulate a hypothesis to predict the outcome of the test.
For example, you may want to improve student essays, but you don't believe that teacher feedback is enough. You hypothesize that some possible methods for writing improvement include peer workshopping, or reading more example essays. Favoring the former, your experiment would try to determine if peer workshopping improves writing in high school seniors. You state your hypothesis: peer workshopping prior to turning in a final draft will improve the quality of the student's essay.
Planning an experimental research study
The next step is to devise an experiment to test your hypothesis. In doing so, you must consider several factors. For example, how generalizable do you want your end results to be? Do you want to generalize about the entire population of high school seniors everywhere, or just the particular population of seniors at your specific school? This will determine how simple or complex the experiment will be. The amount of time funding you have will also determine the size of your experiment.
Continuing the example from step one, you may want a small study at one school involving three teachers, each teaching two sections of the same course. The treatment in this experiment is peer workshopping. Each of the three teachers will assign the same essay assignment to both classes; the treatment group will participate in peer workshopping, while the control group will receive only teacher comments on their drafts.
Conducting the experiment
At the start of an experiment, the control and treatment groups must be selected. Whereas the "hard" sciences have the luxury of attempting to create truly equal groups, educators often find themselves forced to conduct their experiments based on self-selected groups, rather than on randomization. As was highlighted in the Basic Concepts section, this makes the study a quasi-experiment, since the researchers cannot control all of the variables.
For the peer workshopping experiment, let's say that it involves six classes and three teachers with a sample of students randomly selected from all the classes. Each teacher will have a class for a control group and a class for a treatment group. The essay assignment is given and the teachers are briefed not to change any of their teaching methods other than the use of peer workshopping. You may see here that this is an effort to control a possible variable: teaching style variance.
Analyzing the data
The fourth step is to collect and analyze the data. This is not solely a step where you collect the papers, read them, and say your methods were a success. You must show how successful. You must devise a scale by which you will evaluate the data you receive, therefore you must decide what indicators will be, and will not be, important.
Continuing our example, the teachers' grades are first recorded, then the essays are evaluated for a change in sentence complexity, syntactical and grammatical errors, and overall length. Any statistical analysis is done at this time if you choose to do any. Notice here that the researcher has made judgments on what signals improved writing. It is not simply a matter of improved teacher grades, but a matter of what the researcher believes constitutes improved use of the language.
Writing the paper/presentation describing the findings
Once you have completed the experiment, you will want to share findings by publishing academic paper (or presentations). These papers usually have the following format, but it is not necessary to follow it strictly. Sections can be combined or not included, depending on the structure of the experiment, and the journal to which you submit your paper.
- Abstract: Summarize the project: its aims, participants, basic methodology, results, and a brief interpretation.
- Introduction: Set the context of the experiment.
- Review of Literature: Provide a review of the literature in the specific area of study to show what work has been done. Should lead directly to the author's purpose for the study.
- Statement of Purpose: Present the problem to be studied.
- Participants: Describe in detail participants involved in the study; e.g., how many, etc. Provide as much information as possible.
- Materials and Procedures: Clearly describe materials and procedures. Provide enough information so that the experiment can be replicated, but not so much information that it becomes unreadable. Include how participants were chosen, the tasks assigned them, how they were conducted, how data were evaluated, etc.
- Results: Present the data in an organized fashion. If it is quantifiable, it is analyzed through statistical means. Avoid interpretation at this time.
- Discussion: After presenting the results, interpret what has happened in the experiment. Base the discussion only on the data collected and as objective an interpretation as possible. Hypothesizing is possible here.
- Limitations: Discuss factors that affect the results. Here, you can speculate how much generalization, or more likely, transferability, is possible based on results. This section is important for quasi-experimentation, since a quasi-experiment cannot control all of the variables that might affect the outcome of a study. You would discuss what variables you could not control.
- Conclusion: Synthesize all of the above sections.
- References: Document works cited in the correct format for the field.