AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

41: Descriptive Research Methodologies

41.1 What Is Descriptive research?
41.2 Descriptive Research Methodology
41.3 The Impact and Future Role of Descriptive Research
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41. Descriptive Research Methodologies

Nancy Nelson Knupfer
Kansas State Eniversity
Hilary McLellan
McLellan Wyatt Digital

Descriptive statistics play an important role in educational research, and thus it is essential to understand the nature and function of such research. As researchers consider possible study designs, statistical analysis, and final reports about any particular topic, it is critical that they maintain focus on the questions to be answered by the research. Those questions will determine the appropriate approach to the investigation and its resulting methodology. The research questions will position the analysis into one of two areas: that which describes data according to a particular organization, and that which draws inferences about cause and effect.

The former, descriptive research, holds a valuable place within education, because in contrast to laboratory experiments, the human nature of educational research is critical to the result. Educational environments and experiences inherently contain many extraneous variables that cannot be controlled in a realistic situation, often call for careful observation of specific life situations, and can require the collection of data from a large number of people-spread throughout a wide geographic region.

While writing this chapter, we discussed the topic of descriptive research with several people and discovered that some people were confused about the definition and purpose of descriptive research. As we discussed the possibilities of descriptive research and compared it to other types of research methodologies, we had to conclude that all research contains some degree of description, and thus the term itself could be confusing to the reader. The research discussions that one typically encounters are "quantitative" versus "qualitative" methodology, designs labeled "experimental," "quasi-experimental," "case study," and so on. It is rare to find a research methods class or even a chapter that focuses strictly on descriptive research. Indeed, the term is often given a paragraph or two of importance or ignored altogether. Yet a review of the leading journals related to the field of educational technology shows that descriptive research holds an important place in the study of human interaction and learning (see 39.1,, 40.1, 40.1.1, 42.1). Indeed, the descriptive component is critical to educational research, because educational events cannot be reduced to a controlled laboratory environment. The types of questions generated in educational research, particularly with respect to the constructivist paradigm and social implications, require descriptions that help to explain the data and direct emergent prescriptions for educational events.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
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