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Types of Research in Language Education

Larry Mikulecky
Indiana University-Bloomington

If you are in this class, chances are you are pursuing a doctorate and will
quite soon be in a position to serve on the research committees of graduate
students and sometimes direct their research as their major advisor. In
addition, you will be expected to review the research others submit to journals
and conferences as part of the service you contribute to the profession.
Though you may be partial to a particular research topic and/or approach, you
are unlikely to have the luxury of restricting yourself to only what pleases you.
Your employer, your students, and your profession will expect you to
contribute to judging several sorts of research quality and being able to offer
suggestions to improve many kinds of research.
There is no consensus about the best way to classify the various types,
approaches, and methods used to do educational research in general and
language research in particular. For example, Mason & Bramble (1997) list
five overlapping categories of research:
1)
2)
3)
4)
5)

Descriptive research;
Experimental and quasi-experimental;
Qualitative;
Historical; and
Evaluation and policy studies.

Within each of these broad categories, they include anywhere from three to
six sub-types. They point out that studies sometimes are of mixed
methodology using more than one type of research approach to answer key
questions (pp. 37-44).
Gay and Airasian (2000) list six types of research (i.e. historical,
qualitative, descriptive, correlational, causal-comparative, and experimental).
Labels like correlational and causal-comparative, which are sub-categories for
Mason and Bramble, become full categories in their own right for Gay and
Airasian. Evaluation studies and policy studies arent addressed by Gay and
Airasian. As with Mason and Bramble, Gay and Airasian do list several subtypes under each of their major classifications. None of the authors above list
two important types of research (i.e. studies to develop new theory and
studies that synthesize and meta-analyze existing research).
Gay and Airasian try to clarify the relationships among the types of
research they address in the diagram below. As you examine the diagram, try
to think of studies you know of that use each type of research approach. If
you havent encountered (or cant clearly remember) a study that fits within
each of Gay and Airasians categories, put a check mark next to the term. We
will be using these check marks (as well as check marks you make next to
other terms in this hand-out) as starting places for small group and full class
discussions. Take a moment, now, to place check marks next to or make
note of any terms on this page or the diagram on the next page for
which you are unable to think of a concrete study example.
1

Sutter (1998) takes another approach to describing the various sorts of


educational research when he writes:
Labelling educational research as a type is not as important as
understanding the implications of a studys most distinctive features. I
believe that describing the distinctive features of educational research
and thus avoiding contrived artificial typologies, captures the
complexity and does not place imposing restraints on researchable
questions. (p. 86).
He goes on to suggest that there are six distinguishing features that
should be taken into account. These are:
1)
2)
3)
4)
5)
6)

Quantitative versus Qualitative,


Descriptive versus Inferential,
True Experiment versus Quasi-experimental,
Causal Comparative versus Correlational
Single-Subject versus Group, and
Teacher (sometimes call action research) versus Traditional.

Sutters distinguishing characteristics cover the categories and subcategories of the authors discussed earlier. They also introduce a new
research type (i.e. teacher or action research).
In this course and throughout your professional life you will be
expected to critically read and provide feedback about all the sorts of
research. As you do this, three questions remain central. These are:
1) What kind of evidence is sufficient and can be trusted for this kind
of study?
2) How far can one extend beyond the evidence in this study to
drawing conclusions and making recommendations?
3) Does this study link to previous research and push the edge of
knowledge?
Throughout this semester, you will be examining several sorts of research
and providing feedback as if you had already completed your doctorate. This
will occur in several ways.
1)

After seeing modelling about how to review manuscripts in class, you


will review manuscripts as if you were a journal reviewer or a faculty
member providing professional feedback to the research of a student
or colleague. Some of the material you will review is already
published and some is in manuscript form and hasnt yet been
published.

2)

You will compare the strengths and weaknesses you identify in your
reviews with those identified by other students and also by actual

journal reviewers. In addition, you (with 1-2 other students) will be


both presenting someone elses doctoral dissertation to the class and
sometimes functioning as a review committee asking questions about
the dissertation and making suggestions.
3)

You will design a small pilot study that may serve as a stepping-stone
to your dissertation. This study should link to and go beyond existing
research. Examples are:
A) developing and trying out a means for gathering evidence;
B) doing some initial analysis of data to see if full analysis is
warranted, or
C) Identifying where the weaknesses are in previous studies and
suggesting ways to overcome these weaknesses.
You will be presenting the results of your pilot study to a small group
of your colleagues in this course during the last two class sessions.

Glossary of Some Key Research Terms *


Action research/Teacher research: These studies usually involve a teacher
gathering evidence to study her or his own teaching, to improve skills, or to
understand the learning process of students. Such research is mainly for the
teachers own use, though it can be more widely useful if it connects to
previous research and extends our conceptual knowledge. This research is
sometimes criticized for having inadequate research design and lacking
trustworthy evidence.
Case Study: These studies involve collecting data from several sources over
time, generally from only one or a small number of cases. It usually provides
rich detail about those cases, of a predominantly qualitative nature.
Causal-comparative research. These studies attempt to establish causeeffect relationships among the variables of the study. The attempt is to
establish that values of the independent variable have a significant effect on
the dependent variable. This type of research usually involves group
comparisons. For example, a causal-comparative study might attempt to
identify factors related to the drop-out problem in a particular high school
using data from records over the past ten years; to investigate similarities and
differences between such groups as smokers and nonsmokers, readers and
non readers, or delinquents and non-delinquents, using available data. In
causal-comparative research the independent variable is not under the
experimenters control, that is, the experimenter can't randomly assign the
subjects to a group, but has to take the values of the independent variable as
they come. The dependent variable in a study is the outcome variable.
Correlational research: These studies attempt to determine whether and to
what degree, a relationship exists between two or more quantifiable
(numerical) variables. However, it is important to remember that just because
there is a significant relationship between two variables it does not follow that
one variable causes the other. When two variables are correlated you can use
the relationship to predict the value on one variable for a subject if you know
that subject's value on the other variable. Correlation implies prediction but
not causation. The investigator frequently uses the correlation coefficient to
report the results of correlational research. Multiple regression studies
determine the ability of several different variables taken together and in
various sequences to predict a new variable (i.e. study time, quality of
instruction, home background used to predict language learning gains).
Descriptive research: These studies involve collecting data in order to test
hypotheses or answer questions regarding the subjects of the study. In
contrast with the qualitative approach the data are numerical. The data are
typically collected through a questionnaire, an interview, or through
observation. In descriptive research, the investigator reports the numerical
results for one or more variables on the subjects of the study. Examples
include public opinion surveys, fact-finding surveys, job descriptions, surveys
*

Many of these definitions draw upon course material developed by Jonathan Plucker at
Indiana University and John Wasson at Morehead State University.

of the literature, documentary analyses, anecdotal records, critical incident


reports, test score analyses, normative data, description of the type and age
of computers in rural schools. Policy makers often rely on this type of
research to inform and justify their decisions.
Evaluation: This might be an evaluation of a curriculum innovation or
organisational change. An evaluation can be formative (designed to
inform the process of development) or summative (to judge the effects).
Often an evaluation will have elements of both. If an evaluation relates
to a situation in which the researcher is also a participant it may be
described as teacher research or action research. Evaluations will
often make use of case study and survey methods and a summative
evaluation will ideally also use experimental methods. For an evaluation
to push the edges of knowledge it must go beyond Did this work when
we tried it? to provide information that extends our knowledge of why
and how something worked.
Experimental Research: These studies investigate possible cause-andeffect relationships by exposing one or more experimental groups to one
or more treatment conditions and comparing the results to one or more
control groups not receiving the treatment (random assignment being
essential). Issues of generalisablity (often called external validity) are
usually important in an experiment, so the same attention must be given
to sampling, response rates and instrumentation as in a survey (see
below). It is also important to establish causality (internal validity) by
demonstrating the initial equivalence of the groups (or attempting to
make suitable allowances), presenting evidence about how the different
interventions were actually implemented and attempting to rule out any
other factors that might have influenced the result. In education, these
studies are difficult to implement because of logistical problems and
sometimes ethical problems.
Qualitative approach Qualitative approaches involve the collection of
extensive narrative data in order to gain insights into phenomena of interest.
Data analysis includes the coding of the data and production of a verbal
synthesis (inductive process). Trustworthiness is usually achieved by
supporting conclusions with information triangulated from several different
sources and/or the same source over time. Inter-rater agreement about what
goes into qualitative categories is usually called for.
Quantitative approach: Quantitative approaches involve the collection of
numerical data in order to explain, predict, and/or control phenomena of
interest, data analysis is mainly statistical (deductive process).
Trustworthiness is usually achieved by establishing several sorts of validity
and reliability for the measures being used to create the numerical data.
Quasi-experimental research: These studies are not able to make use of
random assignment, though control groups are usually expected. Attempts
are made to demonstrate that the treatment and control groups are somewhat
equivalent and to statistically account for beginning differences if the groups
arent equivalent. Less credible quasi-experiments do not include control

groups and simply document change for participants receiving a particular


treatment. Like true experiments, there is a expectation that acceptable
validity and reliability have been established for the information collected.
Research synthesis and meta-analysis: A research synthesis is an attempt
to summarise or comment on what is already known about a particular topic.
The researcher brings different sources together, synthesising and analysing
critically, thereby creating new knowledge (i.e. the studies together tell us
more than individual studies alone). High quality studies go to great lengths
to ensure that all relevant sources (whether published or not) have been
included. Details of the search strategies used and the criteria for inclusion
must be made clear. A systematic review will often make a quantitative
synthesis of the results of all the studies, for example by meta-analysis (i.e.
using statistical techniques to compile data from similar studies).
Survey: An empirical study that involves collecting information from a larger
number of cases, perhaps using questionnaires. A survey might also
make use of already available data, collected for another purpose. A
survey may be cross-sectional (data collected at one time) or
longitudinal (collected over a period). Because of the larger number of
cases, a survey will generally involve some quantitative analysis. Issues
of generalisablity are usually important in presenting survey results, so it
is vital to report how samples were chosen, what response rates were
achieved and to comment on the validity and reliability of any
instruments used.

References
Gay, L. & Airasian, P. (2000). Educational Research: Competencies for
Analysis and Application, Sixth Edition, Merrill/Prentice Hall
Mason, E. & Bramble. W. (1997). Research in Education and the Behavioral
Sciences. Madison, WI, Brown and Benchmark.
Sutter, W. N. (1998). Primer of Educational Research. Boston, MA. Allyn and
Bacon.