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Choosing appropriate research methodologies and methods

Researchers must consider which of the diverse methods used in research are most appropriate for answering the questions they want to investigate. The choice of methods and the way in which they are implemented will largely be determined by the research questions, but will also be influenced by practical considerations, such as the availability of resources (including the type of data available and the knowledge and skills of the persons undertaking the research).  

Research may involve either empirical data (‘facts’  identified within a pre specified conceptual view) or conceptual data.  Empirical research is often adding up (aggregating) results to describe situations or to test theories. Conceptual research is often developing and arranging conceptual understandings. 

The complex nature of projects can sometimes make it difficult for all aspects of a research question to be answered by a single method.  ‘Mixed methods’ refers to research in which the investigator collects and analyses data, integrates the findings, and draws inferences using more than one method.

One way of thinking about (framing) research questions is to consider the purpose of the research in relation to an argument or theory. Table 3 compares the different approaches.

Table 3: Comparison of research questions and methods

Purpose Example Methods
To generate theory What are French lecturers’ experiences of using research to shape teaching practice? Qualitative data
Qualitative analysis: e.g.
  • Ethnography
  • Content analysis
  • Grounded theory
To test theory How effective are research briefings at influencing UK policymakers’ decisions?  Quantitative data
Quantitative analysis: e.g.
  • Surveys
  • Statistical modelling
  • Factor analysis
To explore theory What is known about the factors which promote or hinder the uptake of research evidence by policymakers in Greece? Mixed data
Mixed methods

Are there standard tools that can be used to collect data and measure change in outcomes?  Which methodologies do previous studies in the field recommend?

Whichever methods are used, it’s important to involve stakeholders.  This will increase their commitment to the project, confidence in the results, and prospects of using the findings.

Selected resources
  • Coe R (2004) Research design. Education Research Methods. School of Education, University of Durham. 
  • Cohen L, Manion L, Morrison K (2000) Research Methods in Education 5th Edition. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Tashakorri A, Teddlie C (2010) Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social and Behavioural Research (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Web Centre for Social Research Methods
  • What is research design?

Further resources can be found in the Resources section.