Descriptive Research Methodologies
41.1 What Is Descriptive Research?
Descriptive research does not fit neatly into the definition of either quantitative or qualitative research methodologies, but instead it can utilize elements of both, often within the same study. The term descriptive research refers to the type of research question, design, and data analysis that will be applied to a given topic. Descriptive statistics tell what is, while inferential statistics try to determine cause and effect.
The type of question asked by the researcher will ultimately determine
the type of approach necessary to complete an accurate assessment of the
topic at hand. Descriptive studies, primarily concerned with finding out
"what is," might be applied to investigate the following questions:
Do teachers hold favorable attitudes toward using computers in schools?
What kinds of activities that involve technology occur in sixth-grade
classrooms and how frequently do they occur? What have been the reactions
of school administrators to technological innovations in teaching the
social sciences? How have high school computing courses changed over the
last 10 years? How do the new multimediated textbooks compare to the print-based
textbooks? How are decisions being made about using Channel One in schools,
and for those schools that choose to use it, how is Channel One being
implemented? What is the best way to provide access to computer equipment
in schools? How should instructional designers improve software design
to make the software more appealing to students? To what degree are special-education
teachers well versed concerning assistive technology? Is there a relationship
between experience with multimedia computers and problem-solving skills?
How successful is a certain satellite-delivered Spanish course in terms
of motivational value and academic achievement? Do teachers actually implement
technology in the way they perceive? How many people use the AECT gopher
server, and what do they use if for?
Descriptive research can be either quantitative or qualitative. It can
involve collections of quantitative information that can be tabulated
along a continuum in numerical form, such as scores on a test or the number
of times a person chooses to use a-certain feature of a multimedia program,
or it can describe categories of information such as gender or patterns
of interaction when using technology in a group situation. Descriptive
research involves gathering data that describe events and then organizes,
tabulates, depicts, and describes the data collection (Glass & Hopkins,
1984). It often uses visual aids such as graphs and charts to aid the
reader in understanding the data distribution. Because the human mind
cannot extract the full import of a large mass of raw data, descriptive
statistics are very important in reducing the data to manageable form.
When in-depth, narrative descriptions of small numbers of cases are involved,
the research uses description as a tool to organize data into patterns
that emerge during analysis. Those patterns aid the mind in comprehending
a qualitative study and its implications.
Most quantitative research falls into two areas: studies that describe
events and studies aimed at discovering inferences or causal relationships.
Descriptive studies are aimed at finding out "what is," so observational
and survey methods are frequently used to collect descriptive data (Borg
& Gall, 1989). Studies of this type might describe the current state
of multimedia usage in schools or patterns of activity resulting from
group work at the computer. An example of this is Cochenour, Hakes, and
Neal's (1994) study of trends in compressed video applications with education
and the private sector.
Descriptive studies report summary data such as measures of central tendency
including the mean, median, mode, deviance from the mean, variation, percentage,
and correlation between variables. Survey research commonly includes that
type of measurement, but often goes beyond the descriptive statistics
in order to draw inferences. See, for example, Signer's (1991) survey
of computer-assisted instruction and at-risk students, or Nolan, McKinnon,
and Soler's (1992) research on achieving equitable access to school computers.
Thick, rich descriptions of phenomena can also emerge from qualitative
studies, case studies, observational studies, interviews, and portfolio
assessments. Robinson's (1994) case study of a televised news program
in classrooms and Lee's (1994) case study about identifying values concerning
school restructuring are excellent examples of case studies.
Descriptive research is unique in the number of variables employed. Like
other types of research, descriptive research can include multiple variables
for analysis, yet unlike other methods, it requires only one variable
(Borg & Gall, 1989). For example, a descriptive study might employ
methods of analyzing correlations between multiple variables by using
tests such as Pearson's Product Moment correlation, regression, or multiple
regression analysis. Good examples of this are the Knupfer and Hayes (1994)
study about the effects of the Channel One broadcast on knowledge of current
events, Manaev's (1991) study about mass media effectiveness, McKenna's
(1993) study of the relationship between attributes of a radio program
and it's appeal to listeners, Orey and Nelson's (1994) examination of
learner interactions with hypermedia environments, and Shapiro's (1991)
study of memory and decision processes.
On the other hand, descriptive research might simply report the percentage
summary on a single variable. Examples of this are the tally of reference
citations in selected instructional design and technology journals by
Anglin and Towers (1992); Barry's (1994) investigation of the controversy
surrounding advertising and Channel One; Lu, Morlan, Lerchlorlarn, Lee,
and Dike's (1993) investigation of the international utilization of media
in education (1993); and Pettersson, Metallinos, Muffoletto, Shaw, and
Takakuwa's (1993) analysis of the use of verbo-visual information in teaching
geography in various countries.
Descriptive statistics utilize data collection and analysis techniques
that yield reports concerning the measures of central tendency, variation,
and correlation. The combination of its characteristic summary and correlational
statistics, along with its focus on specific types of research questions,
methods, and outcomes is what distinguishes descriptive research from
other research types.
Three main purposes of research are to describe, explain, and validate
findings. Description emerges following creative exploration, and serves
to organize the findings in order to fit them with explanations, and then
test or validate those explanations (Krathwohl, 1993). Many research studies
call for the description of natural or man-made phenomena such as their
form, structure, activity, change over time, relation to other phenomena,
and so on. The description often illuminates knowledge that we might not
otherwise notice or even encounter. Several important scientific discoveries
as well as anthropological information about events outside of our common
experiences have resulted from making such descriptions. For example,
astronomers use their telescopes to develop descriptions of different
parts of the universe, anthropologists describe life events of socially
atypical situations or cultures uniquely different from our own, and educational
researchers describe activities within classrooms concerning the implementation
of technology. This process sometimes results in the discovery of stars
and stellar events, new knowledge about value systems or practices of
other cultures, or even the reality of classroom life as new technologies
are implemented within schools.
Educational researchers might use observational, survey, and interview
techniques to collect data about group dynamics during computer-based
activities. These data could then be used to recommend specific strategies
for implementing computers or improving teaching strategies. Two excellent
studies concerning the role of collaborative groups were conducted by
Webb (1982), and Rysavy and Sales (1991). Noreen Webb's landmark study
used descriptive research techniques to investigate collaborative groups
as they worked within classrooms. Rysavy and Sales also apply a descriptive
approach to study the role of group collaboration for working at computers.
The Rysavy and Sales approach did not observe students in classrooms,
but reported certain common findings that emerged through a literature
Descriptive studies have an important role in educational research. They
have greatly increased our knowledge about what happens in schools. Some
of the important books in education have reported studies of this type:
Life in Classrooms, by Philip Jackson; The Good High School, by Sara Lawrence
Lightfoot; Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since
1920, by Larry Cuban; A Place Called School, by John Goodlad; Visual Literacy:
A Spectrum of Learning, by D. M. Moore and Dwyer; Computers in Education:
Social, Political, and Historical Perspectives, by Muffoletto and Knupfer;
and Contemporary Issues in American Distance Education, by M. G. Moore.
Henry J. Becker's (1986) series of survey reports concerning the implementation of computers into schools across the United States as well as Nancy Nelson Knupfer's (1988) reports about teacher's opinions and patterns of computer usage also fit partially within the realm of descriptive research. Both studies describe categories of data and use statistical analysis to examine correlations between specific variables. Both also go beyond the bounds of descriptive research and conduct further statistical procedures appropriate to their research questions, thus enabling them to make further recommendations about implementing computing technology in ways to support grassroots change and equitable practices within the schools. Finally, Knupfer's study extended the analysis and conclusions in order to yield suggestions for instructional designers involved with educational computing.
41.1.1 The Nature of Descriptive Research
The descriptive function of research is heavily dependent on instrumentation
for measurement and observation (Borg & Gall, 1989). Researchers may
work for many years to perfect such instrumentation so that the resulting
measurement will be accurate, reliable, and generalizable. Instruments
such as the electron microscope, standardized tests for various purposes,
the United States census, Michael Simonson's questionnaires about computer
usage, and scores of thoroughly validated questionnaires are examples
of some instruments that yield valuable descriptive data. Once the instruments
are developed, they can be used to describe phenomena of interest to the
The intent of some descriptive research is to produce statistical information about aspects of education that interests policy makers and educators. The National Center for Education Statistics specializes in this kind of research. Many of its findings are published in an annual volume
called Digest of Educational Statistics. The center also administers
the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which collects
descriptive information about how well the nation's youth are doing in
various subject areas. A typical NAEP publication is The Reading Report
Card, which provides descriptive information about the reading achievement
of junior high and high school students during the past 2 decades.
On a larger scale, the International Association for the Evaluation of
Education Achievement (IEA) has done major descriptive studies comparing
the academic achievement levels of students in many different nations,
including the United States (Borg & Gall, 1989). Within the United
States, huge amounts of information are being gathered continuously by
the Office of Technology Assessment, which influences policy concerning
technology in education. As a way of offering guidance about the potential
of technologies for distance education, that office has published a book
called Linking for Learning: A New Course for Education, which offers
descriptions of distance education and its potential.
There has been an ongoing debate among researchers about the value of
quantitative (see 40.1.2) versus qualitative research, and certain remarks
have targeted descriptive research as being less pure than traditional
experimental, quantitative designs. Rumors abound that young researchers
must conduct quantitative research in order to get published in Educational
Technology Research and Development and other prestigious journals in
the field. One camp argues the benefits of a scientific approach to educational
research, thus preferring the experimental, quantitative approach, while
the other camp posits the need to recognize the unique human side of educational
research questions and thus prefers to use qualitative research methodology.
Because descriptive research spans both quantitative and qualitative methodologies,
it brings the ability to describe events in greater or less depth as needed,
to focus on various elements of different research techniques, and to
engage quantitative statistics to organize information in meaningful ways.
The citations within this chapter provide ample evidence that descriptive
research can indeed be published in prestigious journals.
Descriptive studies can yield rich data that lead to important recommendations.
For example, Galloway (1992) bases recommendations for teaching with computer
analogies on descriptive data, and Wehrs (1992) draws reasonable conclusions
about using expert systems to support academic advising. On the other
hand, descriptive research can be misused by those who do not understand
its purpose and limitations. For example, one cannot try to draw conclusions
that show cause and effect, because that is beyond the bounds of the statistics
Borg and Gall (1989) classify the outcomes of educational research into
the four categories of description, prediction, improvement, and explanation.
They say that descriptive research describes natural or man-made educational
phenomena that is of interest to policy makers and educators. Predictions
of educational phenomenon seek to determine whether certain students are
at risk and if teachers should use different techniques to instruct them.
Research about improvement asks whether a certain technique does something
to help students learn better and whether certain interventions can improve
student learning by applying causal-comparative, correlational, and experimental
methods. The final category of explanation posits that research is able
to explain a set of phenomena that leads to our ability to describe, predict,
and control the phenomena with a high level of certainty and accuracy.
This usually takes the form of theories.
The methods of collecting data for descriptive research can be employed
singly or in various combinations, depending on the research questions
at hand. Descriptive research often calls upon quasi-experimental research
design (Campbell & Stanley, 1963). Some of the common data collection
methods applied to questions within the realm of descriptive research
include surveys, interviews, observations, and portfolios.