Research Design

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

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




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:


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


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.

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.

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:

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:

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.

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:


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