Types of Research Design
Over the years, the field of psychology has attempted to answer complicated questions about human nature, such as:
What treatments are effective for mental illness?
What is the most effective way to teach children?
What makes people happy?
Answers to these questions can only come from high quality research. This lesson will cover many different types of research design and give an example of each.
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Cross-Sectional vs. Longitudinal Design
The first decision a researcher must make is whether to test a group of people at a single moment in time or whether to test a group of people several times, across many days, weeks or even years. Imagine you need to make this decision. What are the pros and cons of each choice?
If you decide that you are going to study a group of people just one time, in a single session, that research design is called cross-sectional research. An obvious pro, or advantage, to cross-sectional research is that it is relatively easy and inexpensive. It’s also easier to do your study using a large group of people because you only need them for a single session. It’s easier to get people to agree to be in a study if it only takes a single hour or single day. However, a con, or disadvantage, to cross-sectional research is that you cannot study whether people change over time. That’s where the second type of research comes into play.
If you decide that you want to study a certain group of people over multiple sessions, or over an extended period of time, that research design is called longitudinal research. You can remember the name ‘longitudinal’ because it starts with the word ‘long,’ meaning a long period of time. The advantages and disadvantages of longitudinal research are the exact opposite of cross-sectional research. With longitudinal research, you can follow people over time, which means that you can see how their thoughts or behaviors change across different locations, when they are around different people or simply as they age.
For example, imagine you are studying happiness. You could study whether someone who is happy today is still happy next week, next month and next year. In this way, you might gain insight into the stability of emotions by using longitudinal research. However, the disadvantage of longitudinal research is that it is more expensive and time consuming, and often it’s difficult to get volunteers for the study due to their increased time commitment.
Types of Studies
The difference between cross-sectional and longitudinal research applies to every particular type of study. Next, we need to cover different types of studies. Again, each choice has advantages and disadvantages.
Imagine that you want to study happiness in children. This example will be used for the rest of the lesson to illustrate the differences between each type of research design.
The first option you have is called a case study. A case study is defined as the use of a single person in a research study. For our example of studying happiness in children, imagine that a particular child has been identified by his teachers as always being extremely happy. A researcher might study this child in-depth to attempt to understand why he is so happy.
The advantage of a case study is that it allows a researcher to gain a lot of in-depth, detailed information due to the close examination of this single case. However, a disadvantage is that what you learn about this particular person might not be true of anyone else. So, it may be difficult to make general conclusions about what makes other people happy because you only really know about this single person.
The next option researchers have is called a field study, or sometimes this is called a naturalistic study. Here, instead of asking participants to come to a strange lab to be studied, the experimenters observe the participants in their natural environments.
For example, if you wanted to study happiness in children, you might observe children at school or on a playground. Don’t get confused and think that just because it’s called a ‘field’ study, you actually have to go out into a field! The term simply means that you are not in a lab. Instead, you are in a natural environment.
The advantage of a field study is that the behaviors you observe will certainly be more natural because, ideally, you are simply watching what would have happened anyway, even if you weren’t there. The disadvantage of a field study is that you have no control over the environment, so you can’t really test the impact of changes to that environment, and you can’t really ask the participants any questions because that would be interrupting their natural behaviors.
Perhaps the most common type of research in psychology is a survey study. This is exactly what it sounds like. Researchers give a group of people a survey with lots of questions, and the participants simply answer the questions. For example, a researcher could ask every child in a certain school to fill out a questionnaire about what makes them happy or unhappy.
The clear advantage to this type of study is that it is easy, simple and inexpensive, and a researcher can get hundreds of people to complete the survey in a relatively short period of time. However, there are some disadvantages to survey studies. One disadvantage is that it’s difficult to truly test the impact of certain variables when all people are doing is filling out a survey. Another disadvantage is that some people might not be honest in their survey responses.
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