How do you go about doing a research study (in psychology and in many of the other social sciences)?

You’ve been given an assignment to do a research study (not a research paper) in your research methods class. How do you start?

Step 1: Find a topic

Coming up with ideas for research questions or hypotheses is actually the easiest part – there are so many questions to investigate! Think about something you find interesting in your personal life, or in your courses, or sport or hobbies. For example, the brainwave that led to the research proposal of my current research study came from a semester of students texting in almost every class, even after the embarrassment of being asked not to, and working with several students’ tutorials and grad projects on the issue of dealing with tech distractions and their affect on grades.

Begin with a question – something you are wondering about – or a hypothesis, then develop your question into a research question, and your hypothesis into a research hypothesis. Both would be specific topics you could actually research, that you would have the resources, participants, and equipment to study, and topics that are possible to study. You can’t ask whether God exists, for example. This would be a good question for philosophy or theology, but it isn’t a question empirical social science research could answer! But you could ask if a specific sample of participants believes in God, or has thoughts or feelings or attitudes about God, or SES or cultural influences, or historical influences, or economic influences. I could go on, but won’t!

So a research question must be framed in a way that is possible to research, and must be clear and specific. Research questions are more common in qualitative research. Some examples:
What do students who attended a Field School through Capilano University feel about their experience?
How do primary school children interact with playground equipment?

Or – What strategies do students, and faculty, use to reduce distractions in class (or while studying) from texting or social media on the laptop.

These are all research questions in qualitative research  – you likely couldn’t generate a hypothesis, you don’t know what you will find until you have conducted the study.

Some questions could be research questions or research hypotheses.
Do Capilano students want a student residence?
Do Capilano students use their mobile phones in class?
How stressed are Capilano students during Midterms and Finals?

These are all research questions that would be possible to gather data on by surveys, observations, or interviews. And in fact each of these could also be hypotheses, if the researcher has reason to and wishes to predict a finding. (For example: Yes, Yes, and Very).

A research hypothesis is a prediction of a finding (Cozby & Rawn, 2012). While research questions are more common in qualitative research, research hypotheses occur in quantitative correlational and experimental research.

Some examples:
When mobile phones are turned on and visible to the student on their desk or table, students will be more likely to use their mobiles to respond or to text.
Student exam stress will be lessened by the instructor’s use of study questions.

Step 2: Finding previous research journal articles and texts on your topic

Before designing your study, you should become familiar with the previous empirical research on your topic. It will help you know what has been asked, and answered, already, and can give you an idea about an appropriate research design for your study. Research Journal articles will be very helpful, and texts on your topic, as long as they and the authors are credible (that is, an expert in the field, rather than a journalist).

  1. Begin with a keyword search of appropriate databases, such as PsycInfo, Academic Search Complete, Science Direct, Social Science Research Network, etc. A search of google scholar might be helpful, but in general google will access a great deal of information that is not credible or written by a credible source.
    1. For my study, I did several keyword searches of PsycInfo using terms such as texting, distraction, cell phone/mobile phone use, distraction, academic achievement, self-control, and college students. Limiters included young adults age ranges.
  2. Then compile a set of sources to read (include past research and theory on your topic)
  3. Critically read and analyze the articles and texts, making notes on each, to prepare for your Literature Review. I’ve blogged some of the notes I made from the journal articles on this site.

Step 3: Literature review

When you have read and analyzed each of the sources, write up your literature review. Your lit review is like a factual essay on your topic, summarizing the theory and the past research addressing your research question or hypothesis. Make sure you cite your sources in correct referencing format (such as APA or MLA). For a research report, the Lit Review portion is usually about two to three pages. (My report will be a lot longer than that! but I’ll have to condense it for the research journal article).

Step 4: The Research Proposal

Now it’s time to design your method – you probably got hints on possible methods from your review of the past research. And replicating a previous study is always possible – although do make sure to cite the study you are replicating.

In designing the Method of your study, consider:

  • Will it be qualitative (LBST 200) or quantitative (LBST 201)?
  • What method will you use – archival research? observation? survey? interview? experiment?
  • What participants will you have? How many are you proposing to include?
  • Review the ethics requirements for research with human participants and formulate your informed consent protocol (See the TCPS website)
  • What materials will you use (surveys, interviews, experimental equipment…)?
  • How will you carry out your research?

Then describe each step in your proposal, including the informed consent protocol and all the ways you are protecting the participant’s privacy and confidentiality. Also include the survey or interview questions.

  • Obtain approval for your study from your instructor or research supervisor. Professional researchers will always need approval from an REB (Research Ethics Board), but according to the TCPS policy for research with minimal impact (which yours should be), student course-based research can be reviewed and approved by instructors who have expertise and knowledge about research and research ethics.

Step 5: Carry out the research study

Fun, fun, fun! It really is, especially if you are in a good group of fellow conscientious students.

If you are designing an interview, survey, or an experiment, make sure to have the informed consent form and the final set of survey or interview questions pr the final design of the experiment checked out with the instructor. For ethical reasons – your reputation, and the reputation of the instructor, and the university, can be compromised by embarrassing or unethical questions – and practical ones. Your instructor can help you ask good questions that are likely to be understood by the respondent; lead to useful answers; and are objective and unbiased – not obviously suggesting a certain answer.

Step 6: Analyze your results (qualitative or quantitative analysis or both)

A course in statistics or in statistical methods in psychology (Psyc 213) will really help you tackle the analysis part. OR you can use MS Excel’s statistical analysis! I swear, once you have posted your results onto the Excel spreadsheet, you can calculate a mean, standard deviation, a correlation, or t-test, or ANOVA in less than 5 minutes!

Other useful stats software for more advanced statistics include R. Download it and give it a look.

Step 7: Write up your research report   Image result for creative commons photo of student research

Use the research report format:

  • Introduction: this is your literature review
  • Method: Participants, Materials, Procedure
  • Results:
  • Discussion:
  • References:
  • Appendices: Informed consent protocols, surveys or interview questions, stimuli for an experiment

Students must always submit their raw data sheets and signed consent forms to the instructor. Researchers will generally store the raw data and consent forms in confidential storage.

So now you know! Happy researching.