Descriptive Research Design

The Purpose of Descriptive Rescarch

Research in its most basic form involves the description of natural or man-made phenomena— their form, actions, changes over time, and similarities with other phenomena. Scientists have made many important discoveries through their efforts to describe phenomena. for example, astronomers have used telescopes to develop descriptions of different parts of the universe. This research has provided the basis for many other discoveries, such as the structure of our solar system and the ability to predict such stellar events as lunar eclipses.

Descriptive reserch is similarly important in education. Descriptive research is a type of quantitative research that involves making careful descriptions of educational phenomena. As you shall see in Part V of the book. description—viewed as understanding what people or things mean—also is an important goal of qualitative research, Fur this reason. when planning a descriptive research study. you should be familiar with both the quantitative and qualitative approaches to description so that you choose the approach best suited to your purposes.

Descriptive studies are concerned primarily with determining "what is". Examples of questions that might be studied in a descriptive research study are: How many teachers in our state hold favorable attitudes toward whole-language instruction? What kinds of activities typically occur in sixth-grade art classes, and how frequently does each one occur? What have been the reactions of school administrators to innovations in teaching physical science? Have first-grade textbooks changed in readability over the last 50 years?

Most educational research has a strong inclination toward discovering cause-and- effect relationships and testing new instructional methods and programs. However, unless researchers first generate an accurate description of an educational phenomenon as it exists, they lack a firm basis for explaining or changing it. Some of the most influential call for reform of the educational system have used the findings of descriptive research, typically based on compelling observational data, to make their case. Books such as Life in  classrooms by Philip Jackson. The Good High School by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot and A Place Called School by John Goodlad report studies of this type.

Some descriptive studies involve primarily the administration of quesionnaires or interviews to samples of research participants. This type of research (sometimes called survey reseach) has yielded much valuable knowledge about opinions, attitudes, and practices. This knowledge has helped shape educational policy and initiatives to improve existing conditions.

Measurement in Descriptive Research
Descriptive studies are limited by the types and quaility of available measures. For this reason, many researchers work intensively on developing new measures or perfecting ones that already have been developed in order to describe precisely and accurately the phenomena of interest to them. These measures are of many types. including, for example. standardized achievement tests, classroom observation instruments, attitude scales, questionnaires. and interviews. If you are planning to do a descriptive study in the quantitative research tradition, you should be familiar with the various types of research measures discussed in Chapters 7 through 9. Statislics in Descriptive Research To describe a sample as a whole, a researcher typically will define variables, measure them. and for each measure compute one or more of the descriptive statistics mentioned in Chapter 5.—that is, measures of central tendency (the mean, median, and modus and measures of variability (standard deviation, variance, and range). The researcher also might calculate derived scores as an aid in interpreting the sample’s scores on the variables that were measured. Derived scores aid interpretation by providing a quantitative measure of each individuals performance relative to a comparison group, for example, a normative sample. Age equivalents, grade equivalents. percentiles, and standard scores are examples of derived scores that commonly are used in descriptive research.

Some descriptive research is intended to produce statistical information about aspects of education that interest policy makers and educators. The National Center for Education Statistics specializes in this type of research. Many of its findings are published in an annual volume called the Digest of Educaitional Statistics. This center also administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). which collects descriptive in formation about the performance of youth at various ages in the subject areas that are taught in public school, A typical NAEP publication that appears periodically is the Reading Report Card, which reports descriptive statistics about the reading achievement of students at several grade levels. On a large scale, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. (EEA) carries out descriptive studies of the academic achievement of students from many nations, including the United States. Two main types of descriptive research are found in the research literature, differing primarily in the time at which the variables of interest are measured. The first type involves measuring the characteristics of a sample at one point in time. The second type involves longitudinal research. In which a sample is followed over time. We discuss each of these types of descriptive research below.
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