What is correlational research?
A correlational research design investigates relationships between two variables (or more) without the researcher controlling or manipulating any of them. It’s a non-experimental type of quantitative research.
Methodology refers to the overarching strategy and rationale of your research project. It involves studying the methods used in your field and the theories or principles behind them, in order to develop an approach that matches your objectives.
In shorter scientific papers, where the aim is to report the findings of a specific study, you might simply describe what you did in a methods section.
In a longer or more complex research project, such as a thesis or dissertation, you will probably include a methodology section, where you explain your approach to answering the research questions and cite relevant sources to support your choice of methods.
A sample is a subset of individuals from a larger population. Sampling means selecting the group that you will actually collect data from in your research. For example, if you are researching the opinions of students in your university, you could survey a sample of 100 students.
In statistics, sampling allows you to test a hypothesis about the characteristics of a population.
Reliability and validity are both about how well a method measures something:
If you are doing experimental research, you also have to consider the internal and external validity of your experiment.
External validity is the extent to which your results can be generalized to other contexts.
The validity of your experiment depends on your experimental design.
Experimental design means planning a set of procedures to investigate a relationship between variables. To design a controlled experiment, you need:
When designing the experiment, you decide:
Experimental design is essential to the internal and external validity of your experiment.
In an experiment, you manipulate the independent variable and measure the outcome in the dependent variable. For example, in an experiment about the effect of nutrients on crop growth:
Defining your variables, and deciding how you will manipulate and measure them, is an important part of experimental design.
Quantitative variables are any variables where the data represent amounts (e.g. height, weight, or age).
Categorical variables are any variables where the data represent groups. This includes rankings (e.g. finishing places in a race), classifications (e.g. brands of cereal), and binary outcomes (e.g. coin flips).
Discrete and continuous variables are two types of quantitative variables:
A confounding variable is related to both the supposed cause and the supposed effect of the study. It can be difficult to separate the true effect of the independent variable from the effect of the confounding variable.
In your research design, it’s important to identify potential confounding variables and plan how you will reduce their impact.
Internal validity is the extent to which you can be confident that a cause-and-effect relationship established in a study cannot be explained by other factors.
Longitudinal studies and cross-sectional studies are two different types of research design. In a cross-sectional study you collect data from a population at a specific point in time; in a longitudinal study you repeatedly collect data from the same sample over an extended period of time.
|Longitudinal study||Cross-sectional study|
|Repeated observations||Observations at a single point in time|
|Observes the same group multiple times||Observes different groups (a “cross-section”) in the population|
|Follows changes in participants over time||Provides snapshot of society at a given point|
Longitudinal studies are better to establish the correct sequence of events, identify changes over time, and provide insight into cause-and-effect relationships, but they also tend to be more expensive and time-consuming than other types of studies.
Longitudinal studies can last anywhere from weeks to decades, although they tend to be at least a year long.
Cross-sectional studies are less expensive and time-consuming than many other types of study. They can provide useful insights into a population’s characteristics and identify correlations for further research.
Sometimes only cross-sectional data is available for analysis; other times your research question may only require a cross-sectional study to answer it.
The external validity of a study is the extent to which you can generalize your findings to different groups of people, situations, and measures.
The two types of external validity are population validity (whether you can generalize to other groups of people) and ecological validity (whether you can generalize to other situations and settings).
There are seven threats to external validity: selection bias, history, experimenter effect, Hawthorne effect, testing effect, aptitude-treatment and situation effect.
Samples are used to make inferences about populations. Samples are easier to collect data from because they are practical, cost-effective, convenient and manageable.
A statistic refers to measures about the sample, while a parameter refers to measures about the population.
A sampling error is the difference between a population parameter and a sample statistic.
Sampling bias is a threat to external validity – it limits the generalizability of your findings to a broader group of people.
Some common types of sampling bias include self-selection, non-response, undercoverage, survivorship, pre-screening or advertising, and healthy user bias.
In non-probability sampling, the sample is selected based on non-random criteria, and not every member of the population has a chance of being included.
Common non-probability sampling methods include convenience sampling, voluntary response sampling, purposive sampling, snowball sampling, and quota sampling.
Determining cause and effect is one of the most important parts of scientific research. It’s essential to know which is the cause – the independent variable – and which is the effect – the dependent variable.
You want to find out how blood sugar levels are affected by drinking diet soda and regular soda, so you conduct an experiment.
No. The value of a dependent variable depends on an independent variable, so a variable cannot be both independent and dependent at the same time. It must be either the cause or the effect, not both!
Yes, but including more than one of either type requires multiple research questions.
For example, if you are interested in the effect of a diet on health, you can use multiple measures of health: blood sugar, blood pressure, weight, pulse, and many more. Each of these is its own dependent variable with its own research question.
You could also choose to look at the effect of exercise levels as well as diet, or even the additional effect of the two combined. Each of these is a separate independent variable.
A confounding variable is closely related to both the independent and dependent variables in a study. An independent variable represents the supposed cause, while the dependent variable is the supposed effect. A confounding variable is a third variable that influences both the independent and dependent variables.
Failing to account for confounding variables can cause you to wrongly estimate the relationship between your independent and dependent variables.
There are several methods you can use to decrease the impact of confounding variables on your research: restriction, matching, statistical control and randomization.
In restriction, you restrict your sample by only including certain subjects that have the same values of potential confounding variables.
In matching, you match each of the subjects in your treatment group with a counterpart in the comparison group. The matched subjects have the same values on any potential confounding variables, and only differ in the independent variable.
In statistical control, you include potential confounders as variables in your regression.
In randomization, you randomly assign the treatment (or independent variable) in your study to a sufficiently large number of subjects, which allows you to control for all potential confounding variables.
Data collection is the systematic process by which observations or measurements are gathered in research. It is used in many different contexts by academics, governments, businesses, and other organizations.
When conducting research, collecting original data has significant advantages:
However, there are also some drawbacks: data collection can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive. In some cases, it’s more efficient to use secondary data that has already been collected by someone else, but the data might be less reliable.
Operationalization means turning abstract conceptual ideas into measurable observations.
For example, the concept of social anxiety isn’t directly observable, but it can be operationally defined in terms of self-rating scores, behavioral avoidance of crowded places, or physical anxiety symptoms in social situations.
There are five common approaches to qualitative research:
There are various approaches to qualitative data analysis, but they all share five steps in common:
In scientific research, concepts are the abstract ideas or phenomena that are being studied (e.g., educational achievement). Variables are properties or characteristics of the concept (e.g., performance at school), while indicators are ways of measuring or quantifying variables (e.g., yearly grade reports).
The process of turning abstract concepts into measurable variables and indicators is called operationalization.
A Likert scale is a rating scale that quantitatively assesses opinions, attitudes, or behaviors. It is made up of 4 or more questions that measure a single attitude or trait when response scores are combined.
To use a Likert scale in a survey, you present participants with Likert-type questions or statements, and a continuum of items, usually with 5 or 7 possible responses, to capture their degree of agreement.
Individual Likert-type questions are generally considered ordinal data, because the items have clear rank order, but don’t have an even distribution.
Overall Likert scale scores are sometimes treated as interval data. These scores are considered to have directionality and even spacing between them.
The type of data determines what statistical tests you should use to analyze your data.
An experimental group, also known as a treatment group, receives the treatment whose effect researchers wish to study, whereas a control group does not. They should be identical in all other ways.
A true experiment (a.k.a. a controlled experiment) always includes at least one control group that doesn’t receive the experimental treatment.
However, some experiments use a within-subjects design to test treatments without a control group. In these designs, you usually compare one group’s outcomes before and after a treatment (instead of comparing outcomes between different groups).
For strong internal validity, it’s usually best to include a control group if possible. Without a control group, it’s harder to be certain that the outcome was caused by the experimental treatment and not by other variables.
If participants know whether they are in a control or treatment group, they may adjust their behavior in ways that affect the outcome that researchers are trying to measure. If the people administering the treatment are aware of group assignment, they may treat participants differently and thus directly or indirectly influence the final results.
If properly implemented, simple random sampling is usually the best sampling method for ensuring both internal and external validity. However, it can sometimes be impractical and expensive to implement, depending on the size of the population to be studied,
If you have a list of every member of the population and the ability to reach whichever members are selected, you can use simple random sampling.
There are three types of cluster sampling: single-stage, double-stage and multi-stage clustering. In all three types, you first divide the population into clusters, then randomly select clusters for use in your sample.
You should use stratified sampling when your sample can be divided into mutually exclusive and exhaustive subgroups that you believe will take on different mean values for the variable that you’re studying.
Using stratified sampling will allow you to obtain more precise (with lower variance) statistical estimates of whatever you are trying to measure.
For example, say you want to investigate how income differs based on educational attainment, but you know that this relationship can vary based on race. Using stratified sampling, you can ensure you obtain a large enough sample from each racial group, allowing you to draw more precise conclusions.
Yes, you can create a stratified sample using multiple characteristics, but you must ensure that every participant in your study belongs to one and only one subgroup. In this case, you multiply the numbers of subgroups for each characteristic to get the total number of groups.
For example, if you were stratifying by location with three subgroups (urban, rural, or suburban) and marital status with five subgroups (single, divorced, widowed, married, or partnered), you would have 3 x 5 = 15 subgroups.
There are three key steps in systematic sampling:
A mediator variable explains the process through which two variables are related, while a moderator variable affects the strength and direction of that relationship.
Including mediators and moderators in your research helps you go beyond studying a simple relationship between two variables for a fuller picture of the real world. They are important to consider when studying complex correlational or causal relationships.
Mediators are part of the causal pathway of an effect, and they tell you how or why an effect takes place. Moderators usually help you judge the external validity of your study by identifying the limitations of when the relationship between variables holds.
A control variable is any variable that’s held constant in a research study. It’s not a variable of interest in the study, but it’s controlled because it could influence the outcomes.
If you don’t control relevant extraneous variables, they may influence the outcomes of your study, and you may not be able to demonstrate that your results are really an effect of your independent variable.
“Controlling for a variable” means measuring extraneous variables and accounting for them statistically to remove their effects on other variables.
Researchers often model control variable data along with independent and dependent variable data in regression analyses and ANCOVAs. That way, you can isolate the control variable’s effects from the relationship between the variables of interest.
In contrast, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample into control and experimental groups.
Then, you can use a random number generator or a lottery method to randomly assign each number to a control or experimental group. You can also do so manually, by flipping a coin or rolling a dice to randomly assign participants to groups.
Random assignment is used in experiments with a between-groups or independent measures design. In this research design, there’s usually a control group and one or more experimental groups. Random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable.
In general, you should always use random assignment in this type of experimental design when it is ethically possible and makes sense for your study topic.
In a between-subjects design, every participant experiences only one condition, and researchers assess group differences between participants in various conditions.
In a within-subjects design, each participant experiences all conditions, and researchers test the same participants repeatedly for differences between conditions.
The word “between” means that you’re comparing different conditions between groups, while the word “within” means you’re comparing different conditions within the same group.
In a factorial design, multiple independent variables are tested.
If you test two variables, each level of one independent variable is combined with each level of the other independent variable to create different conditions.
There are 4 main types of extraneous variables:
Depending on your study topic, there are various other methods of controlling variables.
The difference between explanatory and response variables is simple:
The term “explanatory variable” is sometimes preferred over “independent variable” because, in real world contexts, independent variables are often influenced by other variables. This means they aren’t totally independent.
Multiple independent variables may also be correlated with each other, so “explanatory variables” is a more appropriate term.
On graphs, the explanatory variable is conventionally placed on the x-axis, while the response variable is placed on the y-axis.
Random and systematic error are two types of measurement error.
Random error is a chance difference between the observed and true values of something (e.g., a researcher misreading a weighing scale records an incorrect measurement).
Systematic error is a consistent or proportional difference between the observed and true values of something (e.g., a miscalibrated scale consistently records weights as higher than they actually are).
Systematic error is generally a bigger problem in research.
With random error, multiple measurements will tend to cluster around the true value. When you’re collecting data from a large sample, the errors in different directions will cancel each other out.
Systematic errors are much more problematic because they can skew your data away from the true value. This can lead you to false conclusions (Type I and II errors) about the relationship between the variables you’re studying.
Random error is almost always present in scientific studies, even in highly controlled settings. While you can’t eradicate it completely, you can reduce random error by taking repeated measurements, using a large sample, and controlling extraneous variables.
You can avoid systematic error through careful design of your sampling, data collection, and analysis procedures. For example, use triangulation to measure your variables using multiple methods; regularly calibrate instruments or procedures; use random sampling and random assignment; and apply masking (blinding) where possible.
A correlation reflects the strength and/or direction of the association between two or more variables.
A correlation coefficient is a single number that describes the strength and direction of the relationship between your variables.
Different types of correlation coefficients might be appropriate for your data based on their levels of measurement and distributions. The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient (Pearson’s r) is commonly used to assess a linear relationship between two quantitative variables.
A correlation is usually tested for two variables at a time, but you can test correlations between three or more variables.
Correlation describes an association between variables: when one variable changes, so does the other. A correlation is a statistical indicator of the relationship between variables.
Causation means that changes in one variable brings about changes in the other; there is a cause-and-effect relationship between variables. The two variables are correlated with each other, and there’s also a causal link between them.
The third variable and directionality problems are two main reasons why correlation isn’t causation.
The third variable problem means that a confounding variable affects both variables to make them seem causally related when they are not.
The directionality problem is when two variables correlate and might actually have a causal relationship, but it’s impossible to conclude which variable causes changes in the other.
Closed-ended, or restricted-choice, questions offer respondents a fixed set of choices to select from. These questions are easier to answer quickly.
Open-ended or long-form questions allow respondents to answer in their own words. Because there are no restrictions on their choices, respondents can answer in ways that researchers may not have otherwise considered.
You can organize the questions logically, with a clear progression from simple to complex, or randomly between respondents. A logical flow helps respondents process the questionnaire easier and quicker, but it may lead to bias. Randomization can minimize the bias from order effects.
Questionnaires can be self-administered or researcher-administered.
Self-administered questionnaires can be delivered online or in paper-and-pen formats, in person or through mail. All questions are standardized so that all respondents receive the same questions with identical wording.
Researcher-administered questionnaires are interviews that take place by phone, in-person, or online between researchers and respondents. You can gain deeper insights by clarifying questions for respondents or asking follow-up questions.
The priorities of a research design can vary depending on the field, but you usually have to specify:
Quantitative research designs can be divided into two main categories:
These are the assumptions your data must meet if you want to use Pearson’s r:
Correlation coefficients always range between -1 and 1.
The sign of the coefficient tells you the direction of the relationship: a positive value means the variables change together in the same direction, while a negative value means they change together in opposite directions.
The absolute value of a number is equal to the number without its sign. The absolute value of a correlation coefficient tells you the magnitude of the correlation: the greater the absolute value, the stronger the correlation.
No, the steepness or slope of the line isn’t related to the correlation coefficient value. The correlation coefficient only tells you how closely your data fit on a line, so two datasets with the same correlation coefficient can have very different slopes.
To find the slope of the line, you’ll need to perform a regression analysis.
This method is often used to collect data from a large, geographically spread group of people in national surveys, for example. You take advantage of hierarchical groupings (e.g., from state to city to neighborhood) to create a sample that’s less expensive and time-consuming to collect data from.
Triangulation in research means using multiple datasets, methods, theories and/or investigators to address a research question. It’s a research strategy that can help you enhance the validity and credibility of your findings.
These are four of the most common mixed methods designs:
But multistage sampling may not lead to a representative sample, and larger samples are needed for multistage samples to achieve the statistical properties of simple random samples.
For a probability sample, you have to probability sampling at every stage. You can mix it up by using simple random sampling, systematic sampling, or stratified sampling to select units at different stages, depending on what is applicable and relevant to your study.
Ethical considerations in research are a set of principles that guide your research designs and practices. These principles include voluntary participation, informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, potential for harm, and results communication.
Scientists and researchers must always adhere to a certain code of conduct when collecting data from others.
These considerations protect the rights of research participants, enhance research validity, and maintain scientific integrity.
Research ethics matter for scientific integrity, human rights and dignity, and collaboration between science and society. These principles make sure that participation in studies is voluntary, informed, and safe.
Anonymity means you don’t know who the participants are, while confidentiality means you know who they are but remove identifying information from your research report. Both are important ethical considerations.
You can only guarantee anonymity by not collecting any personally identifying information—for example, names, phone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses, physical characteristics, photos, or videos.
You can keep data confidential by using aggregate information in your research report, so that you only refer to groups of participants rather than individuals.
Research misconduct means making up or falsifying data, manipulating data analyses, or misrepresenting results in research reports. It’s a form of academic fraud.
These actions are committed intentionally and can have serious consequences; research misconduct is not a simple mistake or a point of disagreement but a serious ethical failure.
Data cleaning involves spotting and resolving potential data inconsistencies or errors to improve your data quality. An error is any value (e.g., recorded weight) that doesn’t reflect the true value (e.g., actual weight) of something that’s being measured.
In this process, you review, analyze, detect, modify, or remove “dirty” data to make your dataset “clean.” Data cleaning is also called data cleansing or data scrubbing.
Without data cleaning, you could end up with a Type I or II error in your conclusion. These types of erroneous conclusions can be practically significant with important consequences, because they lead to misplaced investments or missed opportunities.
Every dataset requires different techniques to clean dirty data, but you need to address these issues in a systematic way. You focus on finding and resolving data points that don’t agree or fit with the rest of your dataset.
These data might be missing values, outliers, duplicate values, incorrectly formatted, or irrelevant. You’ll start with screening and diagnosing your data. Then, you’ll often standardize and accept or remove data to make your dataset consistent and valid.
For clean data, you should start by designing measures that collect valid data. Data validation at the time of data entry or collection helps you minimize the amount of data cleaning you’ll need to do.
After data collection, you can use data standardization and data transformation to clean your data. You’ll also deal with any missing values, outliers, and duplicate values.
Explanatory research is a research method used to investigate how or why something occurs when only a small amount of information is available pertaining to that topic. It can help you increase your understanding of a given topic.
You can use exploratory research if you have a general idea or a specific question that you want to study but there is no preexisting knowledge or paradigm with which to study it.
In general, the peer review process follows the following steps:
Peer review can stop obviously problematic, falsified, or otherwise untrustworthy research from being published. It also represents an excellent opportunity to get feedback from renowned experts in your field. It acts as a first defense, helping you ensure your argument is clear and that there are no gaps, vague terms, or unanswered questions for readers who weren’t involved in the research process.
Peer-reviewed articles are considered a highly credible source due to this stringent process they go through before publication.
However, peer review is also common in non-academic settings. The United Nations, the European Union, and many individual nations use peer review to evaluate grant applications. It is also widely used in medical and health-related fields as a teaching or quality-of-care measure.
Peer assessment is often used in the classroom as a pedagogical tool. Both receiving feedback and providing it are thought to enhance the learning process, helping students think critically and collaboratively.
There are four main types of triangulation:
Triangulation can help:
But triangulation can also pose problems:
A hypothesis states your predictions about what your research will find. It is a tentative answer to your research question that has not yet been tested. For some research projects, you might have to write several hypotheses that address different aspects of your research question.
A hypothesis is not just a guess — it should be based on existing theories and knowledge. It also has to be testable, which means you can support or refute it through scientific research methods (such as experiments, observations and statistical analysis of data).
In inductive research, you start by making observations or gathering data. Then, you take a broad scan of your data and search for patterns. Finally, you make general conclusions that you might incorporate into theories.
Inductive reasoning is a bottom-up approach, while deductive reasoning is top-down.
Inductive reasoning takes you from the specific to the general, while in deductive reasoning, you make inferences by going from general premises to specific conclusions.
There are many different types of inductive reasoning that people use formally or informally.
Here are a few common types:
In research, you might have come across something called the hypothetico-deductive method. It’s the scientific method of testing hypotheses to check whether your predictions are substantiated by real-world data.
The four most common types of interviews are:
An unstructured interview is the most flexible type of interview, but it is not always the best fit for your research topic.
Unstructured interviews are best used when:
The interviewer effect is a type of bias that emerges when a characteristic of an interviewer (race, age, gender identity, etc.) influences the responses given by the interviewee.
There is a risk of an interviewer effect in all types of interviews, but it can be mitigated by writing really high-quality interview questions.
A structured interview is a data collection method that relies on asking questions in a set order to collect data on a topic. They are often quantitative in nature. Structured interviews are best used when:
As a rule of thumb, questions related to thoughts, beliefs, and feelings work well in focus groups. Take your time formulating strong questions, paying special attention to phrasing. Be careful to avoid leading questions, which can bias your responses.
Overall, your focus group questions should be:
An independent variable is the variable you manipulate, control, or vary in an experimental study to explore its effects. It’s called “independent” because it’s not influenced by any other variables in the study.
Independent variables are also called:
A dependent variable is what changes as a result of the independent variable manipulation in experiments. It’s what you’re interested in measuring, and it “depends” on your independent variable.
In statistics, dependent variables are also called:
Construct validity is about how well a test measures the concept it was designed to evaluate. It’s one of four types of measurement validity, which includes construct validity, face validity, and criterion validity.
There are two subtypes of construct validity.
When designing or evaluating a measure, construct validity helps you ensure you’re actually measuring the construct you’re interested in. If you don’t have construct validity, you may inadvertently measure unrelated or distinct constructs and lose precision in your research.
Construct validity is often considered the overarching type of measurement validity, because it covers all of the other types. You need to have face validity, content validity, and criterion validity to achieve construct validity.
Statistical analyses are often applied to test validity with data from your measures. You test convergent and discriminant validity with correlations to see if results from your test are positively or negatively related to those of other established tests.
You can also use regression analyses to assess whether your measure is actually predictive of outcomes that you expect it to predict theoretically. A regression analysis that supports your expectations strengthens your claim of construct validity.
Face validity is important because it’s a simple first step to measuring the overall validity of a test or technique. It’s a relatively intuitive, quick, and easy way to start checking whether a new measure seems useful at first glance.
Good face validity means that anyone who reviews your measure says that it seems to be measuring what it’s supposed to. With poor face validity, someone reviewing your measure may be left confused about what you’re measuring and why you’re using this method.
It’s often best to ask a variety of people to review your measurements. You can ask experts, such as other researchers, or laypeople, such as potential participants, to judge the face validity of tests.
While experts have a deep understanding of research methods, the people you’re studying can provide you with valuable insights you may have missed otherwise.
An observational study is a great choice for you if your research question is based purely on observations. If there are ethical, logistical, or practical concerns that prevent you from conducting a traditional experiment, an observational study may be a good choice. In an observational study, there is no interference or manipulation of the research subjects, as well as no control or treatment groups.
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