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Research Methods: Developing your research design

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RM2: Developing your research design

This MESHGuide is designed to provide you with practical strategies to help you develop interesting and relevant research questions and to formulate a research design to enable you to engage in research-informed practice in your school or setting. 


This MESHGuide draws on a range of key literature in the field of social science research. Also its design has been informed by lessons learned from my own research, which has focussed on the following areas:

  • Developing effective collaborative learning in science
  • Factors influencing learning through play in the early years
  • Student teachers’ engagement with research and its impact on their developing practice
  • Constructivist informed practice in science within initial teacher education
  • Creativity in learning and teaching 

About this guide

This guide aims to help you to:

  • understand the purpose of a research design
  • understand the significance of formulating a research question
  • develop the initial focus of your research by exploring different potential starting points for this
  • understand different ways of categorising research questions
  • identify the characteristics of good research questions and apply these in practice
  • develop and evaluate your own research questions
  • operationalize your research aim so that you can develop appropriate research tools to answer your research questions by developing question-method connections in your own research
  • improve your research data through understanding the nature of validity and reliability and exploration factors that could impact on these 


Bryman, A. (2008) Social Research Methods, 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2011) Research Methods in Education, 6th edn. London: Routledge.

Cresswell, J.W. (2011) Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Qualitative Research, 4th edn. London: Pearson.

Denscombe, M. (2014) (5th Ed) The Good Research Guide, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Kumar, R. (2011) Research Methodology: A step-by-step guide for beginners, 3rd edn, London: Sage.

Matthews , B. and Ross, L. (2010) Research Methods: A Practical Guide for the Social Sciences. London: Pearson.

Mason, J. (2002) Qualitative Researching, 2nd edn. London: Sage.

Menter, I., Elliot, D., Hulme, M., Lewoin, J. and Lowden, K. (2011) A Guide to Practitioner Research in Education. London: Sage.

McMillan, J.H. and Schumacher, S. (2010) Research in Education: Evidence Based Inquiry. New Jersey: Pearson.

Newby, P. (2014) Research Methods for Education. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

O'Leary, Z. (2010) The Essential Guide to Doing Your Research Project. London: Sage.

Punch, K. (2009) Introduction to Research Methods in Education. London: Sage.

Robson, C. (2002) Real World Research: A Resource for Social Scientists and Practitioner Research, 2nd edn, London: Blackwell.

Winter, G. (2000) A comparative discussion of the notion of 'validity' in qualitative and quantitative research. The Qualitative Report, 4 (3-4), pp.1-14.

Useful resources

Key texts

Denscombe, M. (2014) The Good Research Guide For Small-Scale Social Research Projects, 5th edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Newby, P. (2014) Research Methods for Education, 2nd edn. Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

To find resources related to different methodological approaches and methods click on the relevant sections in the MESHGuide

Partners: An invitation to contribute

We would value your views on how useful you have found this MESHGuide in supporting you in developing your own research. Some possible questions you might want to consider when framing your response are listed below, however comments in any form are welcome. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated and would be used to inform future developments.

1. How useful do you think the guide will be in helping you with your own research?

2. Which parts have you found particularly useful and why?

3. What do you think needs to be developed further?

To provide feedback please email:

Key concepts for Research Design

In order to be able to develop the design of your research project in an informed way it is necessary to engage with some basic theoretical constructs underpinning the social science research. This section will therefore briefly introduce ideas relating to:

  • the nature of knowledge
  • types of research evidence
  • the main approaches that can be used to gather this evidence i.e. a qualitative or quantitative approach
  • the factors or variables that may be interacting in the system which you are researching
  • an exploration of what might affect the validity and reliability of your data

Starting on the research journey: Ways of thinking about research

In order to help you to consider key ideas that will enable you to make informed decisions about your research design, here are some questions to think about as you start your own research journey:

  1. Your ontological perspective: What are your beliefs about the nature of social reality?  Engaging with your beliefs about your ontological position, i.e. what you consider to be valid and useful knowledge, is initially a difficult process, because these beliefs are deeply embedded and have grown and developed in response to your experiences of life in a way that is often not a conscious process. The beliefs that you hold about what is significant with regard to reality will ultimately influence your approach to research.

  2. Epistemology: What do you regard as credible evidence that provide insights into this social reality? Mason (2002: 16) gives a definition of how you can view your own epistemology: it can be regarded as ‘the principles and rules by which you decide whether and how social phenomena can be known, and how knowledge can be demonstrated.’ The practical implication of gaining insight into your own epistemological beliefs is that it helps you to decide on your methodology e.g. qualitative or quantitative in an informed way. Epistemology therefore suggests that ‘distinctive dimensions of the social world (for example, attitudes, actions, discourses) are knowable – that it is possible to generate knowledge about and evidence for them’ (p.17).

  3. What is your research focus and does this relate to your ontological and epistemological beliefs?The way you view reality will impact on the types of things you want to find out about. A useful way to understand this is through some examples: If your research focus is ‘the attitudes of pupils to different forms of grouping in class’ – this indicates that your ontological perspective is that people hold attitudes and that these are significant and meaningful components within the social world. An alternative research focus is ‘school level decision making regarding pupil grouping in class’ – this ontological perspective places emphasis on institutions and processes as meaningful, rather than on individuals and their views. These two ontological perspectives would have different implications with regard to epistemology and the resultant methodologies and methods selected. The significance of engaging with your own beliefs at this level is that it will enable you to make more informed decisions with regard to the planning of your research question and the decision making will be more coherent in relation to methodological design.

  4. What type of questions do you want to research?It is important to understand that research questions can be classified based on the way they lead you to look at a particular issue or process. This will then impact on the methods that you will use.

  5. What is the purpose of your research questions? With regard to the purpose of your research, it is important to be aware of what you want to achieve through the research process e.g. research which aims to gather evidence to direct change. This will have a significant impact on the development of your research questions and the way you subsequently choose to investigate these.

(Adapted from Mason, 2002)

An introduction to terminology used in qualitative and quantitative research

The two basic research approaches exist in social science research, termed qualitative and quantitative approaches and these differ in the way in which the research is carried out:

  • Qualitative research is based on identifying a central phenomenon which could take the form of a concept area or a process. The research is centred on a research question which is often open in nature, at least at the start of the research. Information is then collected by the researcher using qualitative approaches to explore this further. The nature of qualitative research is to explore a research theme to develop understanding of factors influencing this issue.

  • Quantitative research is centred on ‘explaining or predicting relations among variables’ (Cresswell 2011: 63). As the name implies, qualitative research involves the collection and analysis of numerical data. Also a hypothesis may be used, particularly in an experimental approach which is tested using statistical procedures.

In both types of research, the research question informs the choice of methods and the wording and structure of this question is therefore extremely important. Key differences between qualitative and quantitative research problems are outlined below:

  • Quantitative research is based on a specific and narrow research question which is closed-ended and static and focuses on exploring the relationships between variables.

  • Qualitative research focuses on concepts and ideas and is more open-ended and the question tends to develop as the research progresses. In qualitative research it is common for the question itself to change and develop. Creswell (2011) terms this an ‘emerging process’ which is shaped by the responses of the participants during the research process.

  • A mixed methods approach is also possible in which both qualitative and quantitative approaches are employed.

The use of terminology in social science research is often inconsistent, and it is important to be aware of this to avoid confusion when reading research texts. In this MESHGuide the following terms will be used:

  • research methodology (which you may also see termed research strategies)

  • research methods

  • research tools

Thinking about the reasoning underpinning your research approach: Deductive or Inductive?

It is important to consider the nature of the link between the research question and the process of reasoning that underpins the research approach you propose to use to answer it, as this will influence your research design. There are two main types of reasoning: deductive and inductive. A deductive approach is based on theory testing, where an idea or theory is developed into a hypothesis which is tested by gathering evidence from which logical conclusions are drawn (see An introduction to terminology: Qualitative / quantitative research) . Inductive reasoning is traditionally associated with qualitative studies. In a qualitative context an inductive approach is based on theory building, in which evidence is gathered and analysed to identify patterns and processes. This leads to the development of hypotheses which may lead to theory generation (Newby, 2014). However it is also possible for qualitative studies to include elements of deductive reasoning designed to explore theoretical statements, although not in the same way as in quantitative research (Newby, 2014). Similarly, inductive reasoning can also be used in quantitative research at the stage of formulating the problem. Cohen et al. (2011) term this an inductive/deductive approach, where elements from both approaches are combined, with the process of induction in the development of the initial hypothesis which is subsequently tested and its implications explored through a process of deduction.

An overview of some of the terminology used in social science research

Research methodology (research strategies)

Quantitative approaches:

  • surveys

  • experimental design

Qualitative approaches:

  • case studies

  • action research

  • ethnography

  • phenomenology

  • grounded theory

  • narrative

Research methods examples

Research tools


  • questionnaires with closed or structured questions / open or unstructured questions or a combination of both


e.g. in-depth interviews, think-aloud interviewing, cognitive interviews, interviews using visual prompts

  • structured/semi-structured or unstructured interview schedules (and may be carried out individually, in pairs or as a focus group)


  • observation schedules may be structured to record the occurrence of predetermined events / behaviours or semi-structured to record details of particular focus 


Understanding factors and variables

This section aims to help you think about the factors that are interacting within the area you want to research. Within quantitative research these factors are called variables, which are categorised depending on the way they function in the context being studied. Exploring ways in which different types of variable are categorised in quantitative research provides insight also into the factors that need to be considered when planning a qualitative research design.

Some variables considered in quantitative research

Independent variable

This is one of the variables specified in the central research question or purpose statement or hypothesis. To identify this variable look for the one influencing one or more of the other variables in the central question or purpose statement. The independent variable, as its name suggests, is not influenced by any of the other variables in the context being studied.

Dependent variable

This is the variable which is influenced by the other variables in the system and usually the aim of the research is to study the impact of the other variables on the dependent variable. Again this variable will be specified in the central question or purpose statement.

Mediating (intervening) variables

These variables ‘transmit (or mediate) the effects of the independent variable on the dependent variable’ (Cresswell, 2011: 118). These can be grouped into two


  • mediating variables which are associated with the independent variable and it is the influence or impact of these variables which is of interest and which the research aims to explore or measure

  • mediating variables which are associated with the sample or context of the study and which often make it difficult to establish the impact of the variables associated with the independent variable

Confounding (spurious) variables

These variables ‘are attributes or characteristics that the researcher cannot directly measure because their effects cannot be easily separated from those of other variables, even though they may influence the relation between the independent and the dependent variable’ (Cresswell, 2011: 119).



The concept of variables is well-established in quantitative research. Conversely in qualitative research there is often little explicit mention of the factors which are potentially influencing the research focus within the context being studied.

Question for discussion: Should more emphasis be placed on the concept of factors in qualitative research?

What are validity and reliability?

One of the main functions of the research design is to ensure the highest possible quality of the data and this involves considering validity and reliability. The design of the research tools impacts significantly on the extent to which the data is valid and reliable. There has been extensive debate over the extent to which the terms validity and reliability can be applied within a qualitative context. Consequently alternative terms have been suggested by some qualitative researchers:

  • credibility in place of validity

  • dependability in place of reliability.

However Newby (2014) advocates the use of the terms validity and reliability within qualitative research, where a process of triangulation enables validity and reliability to be achieved. This Guide will also use the terms validity and reliability within qualitative contexts.

Understanding validity

In order to understand the possible factors influencing the validity of your findings, it is necessary to consider the different types of validity. To help you with this some of main types of validity have been explored in this MESHGuide (adapted from Cohen, et al., 2011).

Internal validity

This is concerned with the extent to which the data can be considered to support the conclusions which have been drawn from the data i.e. its plausibility and credibility.

In qualitative research internal validity can be improved through:

  • reducing the degree of inference that has to be made by the subjects involved in the research

  • triangulation through using more than one researcher to implement the research or to scrutinise the data collected

  • using researchers who act as participants in the events being researched

  • recording the data mechanically

External validity

This relates to the extent of the generalizability of the data to other contexts. External validity within qualitative research are influenced by:

  • choice of sample e.g. if there are characteristics of the sample that are not common in the general population and which impact on the data collected in relation to the research focus

  • the context-dependence of the findings i.e. if the findings have been influenced by factors operating within a particular context which were not related to the research focus e.g. factors related to the setting which are not operational in similar settings or events that have taken place in that setting in the past which are not characteristic of other similar settings.

This type of validity relates to the researcher’s understanding of factors to be researched within the project, which are termed constructs. This will influence the way in which the researcher operationalizes these constructs and it is this which will impact on the validity of the findings.

Ecological validity

The nature of qualitative research requires that the setting in which the research is carried out should be as natural as possible. This contrasts with quantitative research, which relies on variables being identified and controlled in order to be able to investigate the impact that different variables have on one another.

Two aspects need to be considered in relation to ecological validity:

  • the approaches that need to be implemented to ensure that the research process is having as little impact as possible on the context being researched

  • that the research process captures and describes as faithfully as possible the interplay of as many factors as possible that are impacting on the research focus (however this creates tensions in relation to ethical considerations such as ensuring anonymity of the subjects which need to be resolved).

The importance of ecological validity is illustrated in a project designed to establish the levels of anxiety the children were experiencing when engaged in science activities. The first pilot was carried out in a classroom where the researcher was unknown to the children. In her evaluation of the pilot the researcher identified this as a factor which was in itself influencing the children’s reactions within the activities and could even have impacted on their anxiety levels. This type of researcher effect has been termed the Hawthorne effect, where the research process is having an impact on the reactions or responses of the participants.

Understanding reliability

In qualitative research, reliability can be thought of in terms of the extent to which the data collected actually represents what is happening in the context being studied. Conversely in quantitative research the emphasis is on dependability, replicability and accuracy of the data. The table below compares reliability within qualitative and quantitative research contexts (Cohen, et al., 2011):

Qualitative research

Quantitative research

Dependability, credibility and trustworthiness



Stability: consistency over time and samples (similar)

Applicability and transferability

Replicability (over time, instruments and groups of respondents)


Precision and accuracy


How can validity and reliability be improved?

How can validity be improved?

The validity of the research findings are influenced by a range of different factors including choice of sample, researcher bias and design of the research tools. The table below compares the factors influencing validity within qualitative and quantitative research contexts (Cohen, et al., 2011 and Winter, 2000):

Qualitative research

Quantitative research

Researcher bias / objectivity / honesty

Appropriate statistical analysis of the data

Design of research tools

Design of research tools

Sample selection

Sample selection

The use of triangulation

Sample size

Validity should be viewed as a continuum, at is possible to improve the validity of the findings within a study, however 100% validity can never be achieved. A wide range of different forms of validity have been identified, which is beyond the scope of this Guide to explore in depth (see Cohen, et. al. 2011 for more detail).

The chosen methodology needs to be appropriate for the research questions being investigated and this will then impact on your choice of research methods. The design of the instruments used for data collection is critical in ensuring a high level of validity. For example it is important to be aware of the potential for researcher bias to impact on the design of the instruments. It is necessary to consider how effective the instruments will be in collecting data which answers the research questions and is representative of the sample.

It is also necessary to consider validity at stages in the research after the research design stage. At the implementation stage, when you begin to carry out the research in practice, it is necessary to consider ways to reduce the impact of the Hawthorne effect. Finally at the data analysis stage it is important to avoid researcher bias and to be rigorous in the analysis of the data (either through application of appropriate statistical approaches for quantitative data or careful coding of qualitative data).

How can reliability be improved?

In qualitative research, reliability can be evaluated through:

  • respondent validation, which can involve the researcher taking their interpretation of the data back to the individuals involved in the research and ask them to evaluate the extent to which it represents their interpretations and views;

  • exploration of inter-rater reliability by getting different researchers to interpret the same data.

In quantitative research, the level of reliability can evaluated be through:

  • calculation of the level of inter-rater agreement;

  • calculation of internal consistency, for example through having two different questions that have the same focus.


Triangulation involves the use of two or more different approaches within your research and this can improve both the validity and reliability of the data being collected. There are several types of triangulation and the three forms commonly used in education research are summarised below (Denzin, 1970 cited in Cohen, et al., 2011):

  1. Methodological triangulation is the most commonly used and possibly provides the most benefits. There are two forms that methodological triangulation can take:
  • ‘between methods triangulation’, involves the use of different methods to investigate the research questions and provides a means of checking validity;
  • ‘within methods triangulation’ involves repeating the study at two or more different times and provides a check on reliability and the appropriateness of the theoretical constructs underpinning the research.
  1. Place triangulation involves carrying out the same study in different contexts e.g. two or more schools.
  2. Investigator triangulation requires different researchers to collect or scrutinise the data e.g. two different researchers may carry out observations at the same time or analyse the same video evidence.

Understanding research methodology

This guide is designed to introduce you to key themes related to methodology in social science research. To gain more in-depth understanding it would be beneficial to read more about these and the links included in each section can be used as a starting point. 

Overview of methodologies

The two basic research approaches exist in social science research, termed qualitative and quantitative approaches and these differ in the way in which the research is carried out:

  • Qualitative research is based on identifying a central phenomenon which could take the form of a concept area or a process. The research is centred on a research question which is often open in nature, at least at the start of the research. Information is then collected by the researcher using qualitative approaches to explore this further. The nature of qualitative research is to explore a research theme to develop understanding of factors influencing this issue.

  • Quantitative research is centred on ‘explaining or predicting relations among variables’ (Cresswell 2011: 63). As the name implies, qualitative research involves the collection and analysis of numerical data. Also a hypothesis may be used, particularly in an experimental approach which is tested using statistical procedures.

Sources of further information:

See links on the University of Warwick website that will provide insights into the nature of qualitative and quantitative research:

Qualitative and Quantitative approaches

An Introduction to Qualitative research




The use of surveys in social science research provides insight into a particular research question at one point in time. A common tool used in a survey approach is a questionnaire, however methods such as interview and observation can also be used to collect survey data. A key characteristic of surveys is that they aim to generate insights from a sample of a population to provide insights into the population as a whole. Surveys, particularly those based on questionnaires, are most often associated with a qualitative research approach as they lend themselves to the collection of large quantities of data that can be analysed using statistical methods.

Sources of further information:

Good practice in conducting and reporting survey research



Experimental design

The use of an experimental approach in social sciences has parallels to scientific research in that it centres on identification and exploration of causal factors in a particular system. Experiments involve changing some of these factors, whilst controlling others, and observing / measuring in detail the impact of this change within the system.

Sources of further information:

Experimental research

Experimental designs


Case studies

Case studies are used widely in educational research and are characterised by the fact that they focus on a small number (often just one) context / example of the research issue being studied. As a consequence of this narrow focus, it is possible to generate in-depth data that facilitates exploration of a range of inter-related factors, such as relationships and processes, which are interacting and influencing the research focus. Another strength of case studies is that they facilitate research being carried out in natural settings. Case studies lend themselves to the use of a range of methods for data collection such as observation, interview, document analysis etc.

Sources of further information:

Hamilton (2011) Case studies in educational research

Strengths and limitations of case study research

Action research

Action research is most commonly associated with the investigation of practical issues / problems that exist within real contexts. The aim of this type of research is to enable the researcher to develop a greater understanding of the factors impacting on these issues / problems in order to be able to develop new strategies for implementing change to bring about improvements for example in procedures or practice. Action research is often a cyclical process where ongoing evaluation of these new strategies becomes the focus of the next phase of the research. Action research of often carried out by practitioners themselves as they seek to actively bring about improvements in aspects of their own practice.

Sources of further information:

HEA (2018) Action Research: Practical Guide (click on the Download Resource link at the right of the page)


Ethnography and Autoethnography

Ethnography is characterised by extended periods of fieldwork, in which the researcher spends a considerable amount of time observing the events and interactions taking place in the normal everyday activities of the individuals within a particular community. The aim of researchers carrying engaged in an ethnographic approach is exploration of the links which exist between various social, cultural and psychological aspects of the community being studied. From their observations they interpret and construct meanings from what they observe.

Autoethnography involves reflection of the individual’s own personal experiences within a particular context, with the aim of critically examining the socio-cultural narratives within which their life is embedded. It is this critical analysis where personal experience is related to theoretical constructs that takes it to the level of a critical research method.

Sources of further information:

An overview of ethnography in healthcare and medical education research, Goodson, L. and Vassar, M.

Ethnography in qualitative educational research, Reeves, S. et al.

Autoethnography: An Overview, Ellis, C. Adams, T.E. & Arthur P. Bochner

Video: Autoethnography in Qualitative Inquiry - Professor Carolyn Ellis and Professor Arthur Buchner

Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject - Professor Carolyn Ellis and Professor Arthur Buchner

Writing the self into research: Using grounded theory analytic strategies in autoethnography, Pace, S.

Autoethnography in Health Research: Growing Pains? Chang, H.

Performing Autoethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis, Spry, T.

The Use of Autoethnography in Educational Research: Locating Who we are in what we Dd, Starr, L.J.

Some examples of autoethnographies: 

Boylorn, R. M. (2008). As seen on TV: An autoethnographic reflection on race and reality television. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25, 413–433.

Herrmann, A. F. (2012). “I know I’m unlovable”: Desperation, dislocation, despair, and discourse on the academic job hunt. Qualitative Inquiry, 18, 247–255.

Nick Trujillo, “In Search of Naunny’s History: Reproducing Gender Ideology in Family Stories.” Women’s Studies in Communication 25 (2002): 88–118.

Bochner, A. P. (2001). Narrative’s virtues. Qualitative Inquiry, 7, 131–157.




Phenomenology is an approach that explores a particular experience from the viewpoint of several individuals, for example student teachers’ accounts of school experience. A researcher engaged in this approach would describe the first hand experiences of individuals, their viewpoints and perceptions. The researcher then seeks to explore individual interpretations, attitudes, beliefs and emotions that were of significance to participants within the context of their experience.

Sources of further information:

Denscombe (2003) Chapter 7

Overview of phenomenology

Phenomenology as a research method

A phenomenological research design illustrated

Grounded theory

Grounded theory is an approach in which researchers seek to generate theories from the data which they collect from real life situations. Data can be collected using a range of methods within this approach, for example interviews, observations, questionnaires, documents etc. It is the way in which data is analysed, rather than how it is collected that characterises grounded theory, with the researcher seeking to find new themes and interpretations within the particular area of research that go beyond what has been found in previous related research in that field.

Sources of further information:

Grounded theory research: A design framework for novice researchers






Narrative research

Researchers engaged in narrative approaches seek to analyse the stories or accounts of individuals or groups. Different approaches can be used to analyse these accounts, for example structural analysis focuses on structure of narratives at both the text and cultural level.

Sources of further information:

Narrative approaches in qualitative research




An introduction to data analysis

When you have collected your data it is necessary to analyse it in order to draw out what the data tells you in relation to your research questions. The approach you use to analyse your data will depend on whether a qualitative or quantitative approach was used to gather the data, although there are overlaps such as the use of coding of survey data. To develop your understanding of different approaches for analysing data gathered using qualitative and quantitative approaches, it is recommended that you read about these and the links below will provide you with a starting point:

Sources of further information: Qualitative research approach

Coding qualitative data

Sources of further information: Quantitative research approach

Introduction to quantitative data analysis approaches




Developing your Research Design

Your research design is a plan for your research project and it enables you to identify the most appropriate research approach and methods to investigate your research focus. An overview of the stages involved in preparing a research design is included here:

  • converting your research focus into a purpose statement, research question or hypothesis

  • identifying the variables or factors you need to measure or explore (see the section on Developing indicators), which will impact on the type of data you collect

  • selecting the sample you want to study

  • identifying ethical focus that may arise during your study and action that needs to be taken to address these, especially with regard to safeguarding and other risks For further guidance, look at the MESH Guide: Considering Ethics in your Research).

  • deciding on the structure of your research (what you will do, the order in which you will do it and the timeframe you have to work within)

  • deciding on the methodology that would work best for your research question (e.g. a case study, a quantitative survey, an experiment) or in the case of a mixed methods approach the combination of methodologies you could use

  • considering what might impact on the validity and reliability of your research findings

  • deciding on the methods that you will use to collect your data

  • identifying challenges that may arise in the collection of your data and considering ways that you could overcome these e.g. low response rate from questionnaires; subjectivity in observations; bias in the design of research tools.

(Adapted from Cohen et al. 2011)

Stages in developing a research design

When deciding on your research design, the most effective approach is to start from the research focus that you want to investigate and for this to direct your decision making. First you will need to consider whether your research focus would best be investigated through a qualitative approach; a quantitative approach; an experimental approach; or a mixed methods approach. At this point in the design of your research it is also necessary to take into account your own skills and the available resources. For example if a quantitative approach is the most appropriate way of investigating a research question that you have identified, but you do not have a great deal of experience of statistical analysis or only have access to a limited sample, it may be unrealistic to attempt a quantitative approach and in this case you may need to consider rethinking your question.

Also you need to think about the degree of flexibility that you will build into your research design. A high level of pre-specification at an early stage is associated often with research questions in a quantitative research project, whereas qualitative research tends to have more general areas of focus that guide the research, but are open to change as initial data is gathered. The research design needs to be flexible in qualitative research to allow you to respond to the themes emerging from the data. Punch (2009) describes this process within qualitative research as the unfolding of the research question.

The diagram below summarises the stages in the process of deconstruction of the research focus which takes place as you develop your research design:

Identify your research focus and develop a central research question

Ideas from reading: Findings from research and theoretical perspectives

Develop sub-questions

Initial observations and personal reflections

Choose research methods [e.g. survey, interview, observation]

Design research tools [ e.g. questionnaire, unstructured / structured /semi-structured interview schedule, observation checklist]

Punch (2009) identifies a hierarchy showing the development of research questions within the research process:

  • research area

  • research topic

  • central research question

  • specific research questions (these are also termed sub questions)

  • data collection questions (questions used within data collection tools)

A simplified model of the research process (adapted from Punch, 2009):

  • develop research questions to articulate what you intend to research;

  • identify the data that will need to be collected to answer those questions;

  • create a research plan to enable you to collect and analyse this data by identifying the methods you will use;

  • use the data to answer your research questions.

Further reading:

See link on the University of Warwick website: Research design



Developing your central research focus

In order to identify a relevant and useful research question it is first necessary to define an initial research focus. It is essential to select an area of research that interests you as this will help to maintain your motivation, in what is a long and rigorous process. In addition the relevance of the research focus needs to be considered in relation to how it links to current policies, research and developments in education (Menter, Elliot, Hulme, Lewoin, and Lowden, 2011). The feasibility of the project relates to the timeline for the research and researcher expertise in developing and using the chosen methods. In addition it is necessary to consider the study population, i.e. where or from whom you plan to obtain your data to enable you to select the most appropriate groups or contexts for answering your research questions and to ensure that there is sufficient accessibility for you to carry out your research (Kumar 2011).

Key things to consider:

  • Which aspects of education would you be interested in researching? It is very important for you to select an area of research that you are interested in as the research process is very intensive and you will be far more motivated to research an area of interest.

  • Are there aspects of your own practice or of the educational setting in which you work which you would like to investigate as a precursor to implementing change? This can be a rewarding field as research as findings can directly influence practice, however it is necessary to ensure that any area you choose an area that where there is existing research for you to build on.

Some features which characterise the early stages of a successful research project are listed below (Campbell 1982, cited in Robson, 2000):

  • The research arises out of a real world problem.

  • The researcher develops a good understanding of relevant theoretical perspectives by reading literature focussing on theory and research in the area of interest.

  • Well-developed contacts are developed with professionals within that field of study.

A framework devised by Cresswell (2011) as a template for structuring the development of a research problem has been adapted below to help you identify areas that you need to consider when developing your central research focus:

  • Topic: general statement of the area to be researched

  • Research problem: an issue within that research area which could form the basis of research

  • Justification for the research problem: evidence of some form which identifies the issue as being one which would benefit from further exploration e.g. deficiencies in existing research; personal observations; research findings.

  • Relating the discussion to audiences: explicit identification of audiences who would benefit from the research or find it of interest.

You may find it helpful to use the questions below which are based on Cresswell’s framework to help you evaluate your ideas for possible central research questions:

  • How could you justify researching this issue?

  • What evidence do you have for your justification?

  • Who would be interested in / benefit from this research?

Often it is necessary to have some form of stimulus to help you develop your initial ideas about what you want to research. Different starting points for research from which it is possible to develop your research focus include:

  • published research which focuses on effective practice

  • reflections on personal practical experiences and observations

  • educational theories

  • contemporary issues of significance in development of policy, exploring the possible impact of policy decisions on practice

  • responding to stakeholder needs e.g. those of a particular group of pupils.

Identifying issues to research

Identify some issues within education and write three questions in relation to this that could be a starting point for research. You can get ideas from this from your educational setting or from current issues, for example see resources below:

  • Websites for organisations which fund research projects:

Economic and Social Research Council

The Nuffield Foundation

The Leverhulme Trust

  • The Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education Supplement

Evaluate the questions you have identified and choose a question to develop further and carry out some reading on related research. Rework your question based on the ideas from your readings. How has your initial question changed?

Why develop research questions?

Prior to starting your research it is essential that you go through a process of developing a clear and useful research question. This process may take some considerable time and effort on your part, however it is well worth it, as without a clearly defined research question you can waste a great deal of time carrying out research that you ultimately find is not particularly useful. The central research question or purpose statement is the foundation of the research, and if the research is built on a strong foundation i.e. a well thought out research question, the quality of the research that follows is also likely to be effective. The wording used in the central research question or purpose statement needs to be carefully thought out as the way it is worded impacts on the research design that follows and will determine the research approach.

Developing a central research question or purpose statement requires engagement with and clearer identification of the beliefs and types of knowledge underpinning your research. The central research question or purpose statement is the key to directing the progress of your research will help you to identify the information you will need to collect and the approaches that could be used to achieve this.

A useful overview of the purpose of central research questions is provided by O’Leary (2010):

  • Define an investigation – The wording of research questions indicates the nature of the research in terms of how it will be designed to find out about a phenomenon or process i.e. whether it is to explore, describe, explain or evaluate.

  • Establish boundaries for the research – As your research progresses you will come across views or data that could take your research in a different direction. By referring back to your research question you will be able to evaluate whether this is a relevant and useful tangent or merely a diversion. Often research questions will change and develop during the research process in response to your findings, particularly in qualitative research.

  • Provide direction – The research question enables you to identify what theories are relevant to your research and directs your literature search. Also it directs the methodological design and choice of methods.

  • Facilitates evaluation – The impact of your decisions as the research progresses can be evaluated using the research questions as a frame of reference as to whether the data you are collecting is useful in enabling you to find answers to your research questions.

Therefore it is important to constantly refer back to the central research question or purpose statement throughout the research process to ensure that:

  • the methods you select are appropriate for type of question being asked

  • the design of the research tools (the questions asked) provide relevant information to help you answer the research question – it is very easy to go off at a tangent and design tools that do not address the issues identified in the research question.

More specific research questions (sub questions) can then be developed from this central research question or purpose statement, going from general to more specific and concrete. It is important to note that not all types of research can fit into this model. However it is a useful way of viewing the research process for many research projects as it enables the researcher to see how the different stages are linked together in terms of levels of abstraction in the questions, developing into their most concrete form at the data collection stage. Having this overview will help you to develop useful questions at different stages of the process and facilitate revisiting the more abstract and general starting points during reformulation of questions as the research process develops.

The structure of research questions, purpose statements or hypotheses is based on exploring the way in which different factors interact and influence one another within the particular context that you want to research. Thinking explicitly about the variables or factors that might be having an effect within your area of research will help in the design of research tools by ensuring that the tools explore the factors that are relevant to your research questions. This stage of developing your research design is the process of deconstructing the research focus to identify these factors. These factors will inform the development of your sub-questions and ultimately direct the design of your research tools.


Reading to develop research questions

reading to develop RQs

Carrying out reading of related research and theory on your question can result in:

  • questions becoming more specific

  • change of focus for your research

After preliminary ideas have been identified, it is necessary to search published literature to identify key themes and research findings that relate to these ideas. This will help support the development of the initial ideas. Reading other published research is also useful in providing ideas of possible strategies for carrying out the research. The role of reading within your research will become a cyclical process in which the reading will initially inform the development of the questions, which will then impact on the direction your reading takes. Continuing to search and read the literature will help at each stage of the process of developing the question. For further guidance, look at the MESH Guide: Doing a Literature Review.

It is important to realise that the research process is not necessarily linear, and you need to be ready to adapt your question in response to findings.



Developing a central research question or statement

After identifying an initial focus the development of an overarching questinon to direct the research can be viewed as a process consisting of the following elements (adapted from O’Leary, 2004):

  • Stage 1 - Developing an overarching question or statement from the initial focus requires identifying the distinct themes that arise from this focus. Carrying out reading of related research and theory is useful at this stage as it helps you understand the different aspects of the area you want to research. The emerging themes can be organised in the form of a mind map or a list.

  • Stage 2 - Narrowing the question by making it more focussed is an important next step as if the research question is too broad it will be difficult to plan the research and the findings will be difficult to interpret. Alternatively it should not be so narrow that it will not make a contribution that is of significance.

  • Stage 3 – Defining and clarifying the use of terminology.

Ways of categorising your central research question

Different ways exist for categorising research questions and you will see different terminology as you read more widely. One form of categorisation is shown below (adapted from used by Matthews and Ross, 2010 and Robson, 2002) with examples within the educational theme of motivation:

Classification of the purpose of enquiry

Example questions                           


To find out what is happening through an initial exploration of a social process or phenomenon, and to generate questions for further research.

What factors contribute to the development of intrinsic motivation in the primary age phase?


To provide a profile of individuals, events or situations.

What are the feelings of pupils who demonstrate low levels of intrinsic motivation in academic work?

What are teachers’ views about the significance of intrinsic motivation in teaching and learning?


To explain what is happening in a situation or problem - seeks to find out about causes and effects i.e. why events take place; why things happen as they do; how things happen; and what are the processes involved.

Why do some pupils develop low levels of intrinsic motivation?

Does intrinsic motivation contribute to pupil achievement?


To facilitate social action through making judgements, for example on the effectiveness of a particular practice.

Which aspects of teachers’ practice contribute to the development of pupils’ intrinsic motivation?

Another way of classifying central research questions was devised by Mason (2002) which focussed on the type of ‘puzzle’ being investigated. The following table gives examples of questions in the context of behaviour management. Questions that could be research using a qualitative or quantitative approaches are possible within these forms of categorisation.

Classification of the type of ‘puzzle’ being investigated

Example questions

Developmental puzzle

Exploration of how a process or system has developed.

What stages did a particular school go through in developing its approach to behaviour management?

Mechanical puzzle

How something works and why it works in this way.

How does a behaviour management system in a particular school work?


What are the factors that have contributed to the development of this approach?

Comparative puzzle

Comparison of similarities and differences between processes or educational contexts

What are the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to behaviour management?


How do the behaviour management strategies differ in the schools in a local authority?

Causal / predictive puzzle

Exploration of the influence of a particular factor on another factor or exploration of causes underlying an observed phenomenon or process – this type of question usually leads to quantitative research

Is poor teacher subject knowledge associated with difficulties in behaviour management?


How significant is the use of positive reinforcement within a behaviour management strategy?

Categorisation of questions in quantitative research

The following categorisation is specifically for questions that are quantitative in nature (McMillan and Schumacher, 2010):

Descriptive questions

This type of question does not involve comparisons or correlations, rather it describes using indicators of frequency of events or quantities using frequencies, percentages and graphs etc. In most research the question requires more than description, rather exploring relationships among variables.

Nonexperimental relationship questions

In this type of research the relationship between variables is explored

  • Relationship between groups e.g. Do higher attaining pupils have greater motivation than lower attaining pupils?

  • Correlation between two variables measured using a correlation coefficient e.g. Does the use of open questions by teachers facilitate more effective question generation by pupils in primary science?

Experimental difference questions

Experiments normally involve comparison of two or more groups to find out whether an intervention has resulted in significant differences in pre-test and post-test results e.g. Does the use of concept mapping facilitate improvement of pupils’ concept understanding in primary science?

Developing a focussed central question

The central question should not be too narrow as this will limit the scope of the research. The sub questions (specific research questions) are where you should do this, breaking the central research question down into different areas. Also if the central question is too closed it will make it difficult to adapt in response to findings during the course of the data collection – this is particularly important for qualitative research (McMillan and Schumacher, 2010). Conversely, the question should not focus on too broad a research area as this will make it difficult to design tools and to interpret findings in a way that will enable you to answer the question, as there will be too many aspects to look at.

Here are some questions that have not got a clear focus.

Question wording


How do mixed age classes affect children’s learning in science?

Which aspect of science?

What are the effects of mixed age classes on children’s development in science enquiry?

Which aspect of children’s development?

Do mixed age classes have a negative impact on children’s confidence in science enquiry?

Reworked question which has a clearer and more specific focus

Developing a hypothesis

The decision as to whether to include a hypothesis relates to the underpinning school of thought on which the research is based, so there is no right or wrong, but rather a matter of belief relating to the nature of the research process. Hypotheses are more often used in quantitative research as developing a hypotheses (or testable statement) involves predicting ‘the nature of the relationships between two or more variables’ (O’Leary, 2004: 36), which can be helpful in helping you to develop your ideas.

A hypothesis is (in most cases) a statement which predicts the relationship between two or more variables. Hypotheses are traditionally associated with quantitative research, however it is often possible to develop a hypothesis in a qualitative project and it can be beneficial to develop a hypothesis as part of the research design. One key difference between a hypothesis in a qualitative study compared with one in a quantitative study is the way it is phrased (Newby, 2014). Another key difference between a hypothesis in a qualitative study compared with one in a quantitative study is the way it is tested. In both qualitative and quantitative studies the steps would include developing the hypothesis, followed by data collection and analysis. However in addition, in a quantitative study, statistical tests would be carried out to establish proof. In a qualitative project the parallel to the process of establishing proof is the use of evidence to develop and present a convincing argument.

Some of the benefits of developing a hypothesis are that it:

  • helps you to identify and focus on specific aspects within your research problem

  • provides insights into the type of data that needs to be collected

  • enhances the level of researcher objectivity

(Adapted from Kumar, 2011).

Wording your research questions

Comparing wording of questions used in qualitative and quantitative research

For research questions in qualitative research, the use of open words such as “how” or “what” allow for greater exploration of issues, as opposed to words such as “why” which imply exploration of cause and effect, which is more characteristic of quantitative research. Suggested verbs to use in qualitative research questions are: discover, understand, describe, explore. Suggested verbs to use in quantitative research questions are those which convey the idea of cause and effect i.e. they indicate the link between variables: compare, relate, cause and influence. However it should be noted that this is only a guide and there are many examples of research questions that do not fit these ‘rules’.

Making your questions researchable

Research questions should be researchable, that is, they should allow you to do research in relation to them (Cresswell 2011). That means that they should not be formulated in terms that are so abstract that they cannot be translated into practice (Bryman 2008). Also the wording of research questions should be as simple as possible so that it can be easily understood. There should be no terms that are ambiguous, therefore it is important to think through the terminology used and ensure that the best possible choice of wording has been selected.

This example research question illustrates the need to change an ambiguous term:

Do children with behaviour problems benefit from the use of concrete materials in mathematics?

The term ‘benefit’ needs to be more specific as it is not possible to take the research forward without first considering what type of benefit is to be investigated, for example:

Do children with behaviour problems show increased levels of engagement when concrete materials are used in mathematics?

Questions that are too ‘wordy’

Also it is important that research questions should be written as concisely as possible. The next example shows how by rewording a research question to make it more concise, the meaning can be made clearer:

Do children learn more effectively in science in practical sessions compared to lessons using worksheets and textbooks?

This question is too wordy and as a consequence of this the main focus of the research is not clear. Below the reworked research question carries the same meaning, but is more concise and easier to understand:

Possible reworked question:

Does scientific enquiry improve children’s learning in science?

Avoiding bias and assumptions

The way a question is worded can reflect biased views or assumptions held by the researcher. It is often very difficult for you to identify your own bias or assumptions that you have made and it is necessary to consider your wording carefully. Also it may be helpful to run questions by a colleague to identify these. It is important to realise that an operational definition of a concept is context –specific and that if you were to research the same issue in a different context e.g. psychology rather than education, the definition may be need to change (Punch, 1998, cited in Robson, 2002).

Below is an example of a question which illustrates how researcher bias can impact on the research design

Do teachers use worksheets in science more than practical activities because they lack confidence in performing investigations in a classroom?

The wording of this question indicates that the researcher strongly believes that lack of teacher confidence is the root cause of a high incidence of use of worksheets rather than carrying out practical activities in science. If this is not addressed at an early stage it will impact on all aspects of the research design including how questions are phrased in the research tools, which will impact on the validity of the research. Also it could limit the potential findings because the researcher does not ask questions that could identify other issues contributing to lack of practical activities.

Key points to consider when developing research questions:

  • The process of developing your research questions is the foundation of all your subsequent research.

  • The wording of the central research question needs to be particularly carefully thought through as it will directly influence your choice of methods.

  • Throughout the early stages of planning your research, reading will form an integral part of the process as it will inform your thinking and help direct the development of your research questions and research design.  

Developing sub-questions that can be researched: Operationalization

Operationalization is the process of translating a research idea, (which may focus on an abstract theme), into something that can actually be researched in practice (Cohen, et al. 2011). This process can be subdivided into five stages:

This process of operationalisation can be subdivided into five stages:

  • Stage 1: starting from your central research focus, identify the factors that could have an impact on the focus you want to study within your education context.

  • Stage 2: begin to frame research questions to explore these factors.

  • Stage 3: develop an operational definition or indicator for each of the factors you want to study to enable you to identify this practically (Newby, 2014) (particularly useful for factors that represent abstract concepts).

  • Stage 4: identify the kind of evidence you need to answer your research questions and select most appropriate research methods that will enable you to collect this evidence.

  • Stage 5: design the research tools that you will use to collect this evidence.

Creating operational definitions for the factors that are influencing your research focus involves identifying indicators that enable you to research these factors (Matthews and Ross, 2010). Creating an operational definition for each of the factors which are important in your research enables the research question to be translated into a form that can be researched i.e. it becomes operational. Therefore the purpose of operational definitions is to create indicators which enable you “to tell when the thing you are researching happens” (Matthews and Ross, 2010: 61). Also where terms in research questions describe complex ideas or processes or there is the possibility that different people may interpret terms differently, it is important to establish a working definition of key terms (Kumar, 2011). Factors that are based on abstract concepts for which operational definitions need to be developed include: attitude to learnin’; creatitvity; resilience; curiosity. These abstract concepts need to operational definitions which provide indicators that translate them into a form which can be studied. Collecting data about these indicators will enable you to explore the impact of variables / factors within the context that you are researching. These indicators are measured or explored through the use of research tools such as questionnaires or interview schedules.

The development of indicators for the variables or factors you want to research is particularly important where these are not easy to represent. In the example below possible indicators have been identified for variables exploring differences in questions that can be investigated through a quantitative or qualitative approach:

Variable / Factor to be investigated 

Possible indicator for quantitative research (can be quantified)

Possible indicator for qualitative research 

Attitudes to learning

Amount of on-task behaviour determined through observation (time-sampling)

Enthusiasm observed during a task


Attitudes expressed for aspects of learning during semi-structured interview

Effectiveness of teacher questioning

Incidence of the use of open or closed questions (counting)

Types of pupil response generated by open and closed questions


Pupils’ perceptions of the teacher’s use of questioning explored during interview

The level of cognitive demand in talk episodes


Framework for the analysis of talk based on indicators for three levels of talk:

Disputational talk

Cumulative talk

Exploratory talk

(Mercer, 1995)



Willingness to try out new things

Engagement in risk taking

Perseverance in response to challenges


Application of ideas: Developing sub-questions and operational definitions in practice

Identifying the factors that are important in the system you want to research will inform the development of your sub-questions and for this you will need to establish operational definitions for the factors to be researched.

Examples to show how sub questions can be developed from a central question

Example 1

Central research question: To what extent does Enterprise Education in secondary schools contribute to the development of entrepreneurs of the future?

Possible sub-questions:

  • What are the main skills required to be an entrepreneur?

  • Do pupils learn the main skills required to be an entrepreneur during Enterprise Education?

  • Does current Enterprise Education provision change pupils’ perceptions with regard to their desire to run/set up a business?

Example 2

Central research question: Are written assessment methods limiting primary children’s ability to show understanding of scientific concepts?

Possible sub-questions:

  • What are teachers’ views and practices of written and verbal assessment in science?

  • Do pupils achieve more highly in written or verbal assessments in science?

Examples of the development of operational definitions for factors

Example 1

Consider what operational definitions are needed in the following question:

‘Do children with behaviour problems show a higher level of engagement in mathematics when using concrete materials?’

It is necessary to establish what we mean by ‘behaviour problems’ and our definition could focus on either:

- the nature of the difficulties:

e.g. difficulties encountered by a pupil in specific areas such as interpersonal skills.

- or the observed behaviours resulting from these difficulties:

e.g. pupils who demonstrate disruptive behaviour in lessons.

In practice in order to be able to determine whether a child demonstrates behaviour problems it is necessary to decide on the nature of observed behaviours that need to occur before classifying them as problem behaviours. These would be the indicators (operational definitions) of ‘behaviour problems.’

Example 2

Consider what operational definitions are needed in the following question:

Is there more on task behaviour when children are grouped in mixed ability groups, rather than same ability groups during scientific enquiry?

It is necessary to consider:

  • What constitutes on task behaviours? A checklist needs to be prepared of what the researcher is going to class as on task and off task behaviours.

  • How is ability going to be defined? Possibly change the term ‘ability’ to ‘attainment’ and focus on a particular area of attainment e.g. literacy.

Example 3

The following table provides examples of factors that could impact on the effectiveness of learning taking place through play in early years settings.

Factors can take the form of:

  • aspects of the physical environment

  • behaviours or actions of individuals interacting in that environment

  • attitudes or beliefs of these individuals

  • attainment of individuals (this might focus on knowledge, understanding, skills)

  • social and emotional aspects

Consider what indicators (operational definitions) could be developed for each of these factors. The table provides some suggestions. 


Possible indicators (operational definitions)

physical environment

resources available, layout of the room

behaviours or actions of adults

verbal interactions - questioning / clarification / suggestion, encouragement; non-verbal – body language

behaviours or actions of children

engagement and interest, verbal interactions

attitudes or beliefs

practitioner beliefs about the role of play in learning


evidence of learning taking place through play

social and emotional aspects 

interactions taking place between children during play


Visual approaches to help develop research questions

Using visual representation to develop research questions: Conceptual Frameworks

You may find it helpful to develop a two dimensional representation, or conceptual framework, of the key ideas and research findings within the area you aim to research. The ideas in a conceptual framework are organised around the central focus and key themes are then arranged in a mind map format around this central focus. Here is an example exploring factors that may be significant in the development of children’s motivation for reading.

Example Conceptual Framework

Using a linear approach to develop research questions

If you prefer a more linear approach to help you generate research questions you could use a checklist:

  1. What is your research area?

  2. In what context will your research take place? e.g. primary school, early years setting etc

  3. What is the nature of your research? e.g. to describe, to explore, to explain etc.

  4. What type of question is your central question? i.e. what, where, how, when, why etc.

  5. Do you want to explore any relationships? e.g. look for correlations / explore cause and effect.

(adapted from O’Leary, 2010)


Application of ideas: Developing useful research questions

Use the checklist for developing useful research questions to help you

analyse question below to make it into a useful research question:

  • Identify a clear and specific focus

  • Be specific in your use of terminology

  • Develop operational definitions

  • Avoid bias and assumptions

  • Think out wording for questions carefully

Do children work better if they plan their own investigations?

Possible analysis points:

Criteria for a good research question

Analysis of the research question:

Clear and specific focus

To make the question less broad focus on a particular curriculum area e.g. science or mathematics

Specific use of terminology: operational definitions

Define ‘investigation’ to ensure that specific criteria are identified to classify an activity as an investigation

Avoiding bias and assumptions

‘work better’ implies that the researcher believes that enabling children to plan their own investigations will have a positive impact – develop more neutral wording

Carefully thought out wording

‘work better’ is ambiguous and needs to be clarified

Possible reworked questions:

What is the impact on levels of motivation of enabling children to plan their own investigations in science?

How does allowing children to plan their own investigations in science affect engagement in the learning process?

Some practical points to consider when planning your research

When planning your research project it is important to consider whether what you are planning is achievable within the constraints of time and resources available to you. If not then you will need to modify your research question so that you are able to achieve what you plan. The following checklist will help you evaluate whether your planned research design is achievable within the real life constraints of time and resources:

  • How much time do you have available? The scale of the planned research is dependant on the research question you ask, therefore it is important not to ask a question which will require research on too large a scale.

  • What costs will be incurred and is there a budget available for this? If not you may need to modify your question so that a different form of data collection is used.

  • Do you have all of the necessary skills or will you require help e.g. for statistical analysis? If so how will you access this?

  • Have you negotiated access to the setting or subjects required for data collection? How will you decide on the sample you are going to work with?

It is advisable to carry out a pilot to test out your research tools. A pilot enables you to evaluate:

  • how effective your research tools are for collecting data that is useful for answering your research questions (validity)

  • Whether they are collecting data that represents what is actually taking place in the context being studied (reliability)

Following the pilot you can implement improvements in the design before carrying your main research project. 

Developing your research tools

It is beyond the scope of this MESHGuide to provide detailed guidance on the design of research tools and how to implement research methods. It does however provide a brief overview of key aspects you may find helpful to consider when designing research tools most commonly utilised in researching educational contexts, together with resources to enable you to select appropriate research methods. To gain more in-depth understanding it would be beneficial to read more about these and the links below can be used as a starting point. An important point to consider is that research methods can be combined in different ways in your research study. For example you may begin by administering a questionnaire to gain a broad picture of the factors that may be of significance in the context you want to study, subsequently you may follow up with interviews to gain more detailed insights into the significance of these factors to the individuals involved and how the factors are inter-related.


Themes explored in this section are adapted from Newby (2014) and Cohen et al. (2011).


Questionnaires are one of the most commonly used tools in social science research, however they are often poorly constructed, for example questions may be difficult to interpret and result in misunderstanding or the structure may not allow respondents to say what they want to. Another challenge associated with use of questionnaires is low response rate, which may be compounded by the type of questions being asked or the length of the questionnaire. The following checklist will help you to identify the key features of questionnaire design you will need to learn about to enable you to design effective tools:

  • Question content: how to ensure the data you collect is useful and enables respondents to tell you about what is important to them

  • Question wording: how to construct clear questions that are not misleading or biased (e.g. leading respondents to give a particular response)

  • Question forms: structured / unstructured / open / closed / multiple choice / rank ordering / rating scales

  • Questionnaire design: layout and sequence of questions

  • How the questionnaire will be administered

  • Analysing the data from questionnaires

Sources of further information:

Designing questionnaires

Ordering of questions

Questionnaire piloting




Using interviews in your research will enable you to explore key themes in more depth and to follow up interesting themes that arise in your discussions.

The following checklist will help you to identify the key features you need to consider when designing your interview questions:

  • Implementation of the interview: face-to-face / telephone / Skype; individual / paired / focus group

  • Structure of the interview questions: semi structured with open questions / structured with closed (qualitative) questions

  • Types of initial question: descriptive / experience / behaviour / knowledge / engaging with feelings / sensory / background

  • Types of follow-up question: prompting (to support interviewees who are struggling to interpret a question or to think of a relevant response) / probing (to explore an response in more depth to clarify or follow up an interesting theme)

  • Interview technique

  • Transcribing and coding the data from interviews

Sources of further information:

Introduction to interviews

Overview of semi-structured interviews

Practical ideas for carrying out semi-structured interviews


Observation is a particularly important research method as it gives the researcher a direct window into the issue being researched, that does not rely on the perceptions of the participants. However observation has its own challenges, as it is particularly prone to the findings being influenced by observer bias.

The following checklist will help you to identify the key features you need to consider when planning your observations:

  • Carrying out observations: you will need to consider the impact of the observer in the events taking place in the setting and whether the observer will be participant or non-participant

  • Structure of the observations: semi structured with flexibility in the focus of the observation/ structured taking the form of a checklist (for example time sampling, interval recording, rating scales, duration of behaviours) / critical incidents

  • The use of technology in recording observations

  • Coding data from observations

Sources of further information:

Types of observation

Advantages and disadvantages of observation

Non participant structured observation checklists

Taking field notes

 Observation and critical incidents

 Ethical guidelines for observational studies







Document analysis

Document analysis enables you to gain insights into historical events, the process of change in a context or relating to a particular issue and the inter-relationships between structures, roles and relationships in a particular context. Types of document you may analyse include:

  • published reports

  • proceedings of meetings

  • policies

  • newsletters

  • personal documents such as diaries and letters



Using visual images in research

Images are a particularly powerful form of evidence in educational research. In addition to the researcher recording still images or videos of events as a primary source of data, the images themselves can also be used as a stimulus or starting point for discussion in interviews that will enable the researcher to gain insights into a particular issue that they otherwise may not have been able to explore.

Types of visual image that may be useful in social science research include:

still images such as photographs / artistic interpretations

Deciding on the type of data you will need to collect

Your beliefs in relation to the methodology on which your research is based should ultimately inform the logic behind the decision-making process in your choice of research methods. Mason (2002: 32) advocates that ‘the process of identifying a methodological strategy should not be about finding a philosophical label for your approach, so much as finding a coherent and consistent approach to answering your research questions.’ At this early stage in your research it is beneficial to explore the range of methods that could be used and to think creatively about the possibilities (Mason, 2002). An effective way of identifying which approaches used is by reading journal articles of research studies that have explored related areas to your own research focus. This will also give you insights into the advantages and limitations of the use of different methods and of the different possible data sources within a context similar to the one you want to study. Your aim at this stage is therefore to make a list of all of the possible methods and data sources that could be used, before deciding on which of these to include in your research design.

To help you to decide on the most appropriate research methods to use for your project consider creating a table to facilitate critical reflection on the types of data that would be generated if different methods were used in your study. This approach helps you to think about the types of data you could collect and to decide on which would be the most useful. Also it will help you to think about the factors which might impact on your ability to implement each of these methods in practice.

Research questions

Possible research methods

Why choose these research methods?







What are the benefits of each method in relation to providing useful data to answer the research question?


Why have you chosen that particular sample to focus on?


Questions to consider:

  • Do you have the necessary resources and skills needed to successfully implement these research methods and analyse the data produced?
  • Can you gain sufficient access to the data sources you will need?
  • What are the ethical implications of your study?

(Adapted from Mason, 2002)

The following completed example of this chart based on questions from a dissertation at MAEd level which explores the way in which technology can support pupils’ creativity when composing music in Key Stage 4.

Case Study: Deciding on appropriate research methods – KS4 Music Example

Reference: Cole, T.D. and Patterson, E.W. (2014) ‘How does technology support pupils' creativity when composing music in Key Stage 4?’ British Educational Research Association Conference: Institute of Education, University of London, September 2014

Selecting your sample

The sample is the set of individuals you focus on in your research. The data you collect from your sample then needs to be considered in relation to the rest of the target population with regard to how representative your findings are of that population. The target population describes individuals in a particular set of related contexts e.g. primary schools or a group of individuals linked by a common characteristic e.g. early years practitioners.

Probability sampling

When carrying out probability sampling the aim is that all elements of the sample have an equal probability of being selected and therefore the findings of your research are likely to be representative of the sample. This form of sampling is usually associated with large scale studies. An example of probability sampling is systematic sampling, which is a way of achieving similar findings to using a much larger random sample.

Non-probability or purposive sampling

In this approach to sampling you would not aim for a sample that is representative of the population. Purposive sampling is used for a particular purpose e.g. to study an issue in a particular school and the findings of your research could not be generalised to the rest of the population. One of the most common forms of sampling in practitioner research is case study, where the study draws on a small sample from a particular context such as a school. Although findings from a case study cannot be generalised to the population, they can be used to identify particular themes within a particular research focus which may have relevance to the wider population or to illustrate what can be achieved in practice (for example through action research) (adapted from Newby, 2014).

Further reading:

Overview of sampling

Systematic sampling

Non-probability sampling


The following checklist will help you to identify the different stages you need to consider when constructing your research design (adapted from Newby, 2014):

  1. Use your own observations and reading to help you identify a research focus.

  2. Develop a specific research question, purpose statement, or hypothesis

  3. Develop a model to represent factors (variables) impacting on the outcomes which you are interested in researching.

  4. Consider what data you need to collect and the most appropriate approach to enable you to achieve this.

  5. Think carefully about the size and composition of the sample and the ethical issues that need to be addressed, especially with regard to safeguarding and other risks

  6. Identify methods and research instruments that will enable the research question to be answered or the hypothesis to be tested.

  7. Identify the approaches you will use to process and analyse your data and consider how the data needs to be presented to enable you to provide convincing evidence.