The three questions below will give you some ideas of the trade-offs of various types of social science research methods. Choosing an answer to each question should help you narrow down appropriate possibilities for methods.
a. What kind of research do you want to do? Explore an issue or problem? Test an idea/hypothesis?
Exploring an issue/problem. If you wrote a research question because there is not enough information to really nail down alternatives/levels of variables, then qualitative/open ended methods that do not require you to define all the potential aspects/variables of the issue are likely to be more useful.
Ex: I’m wondering why students don’t do the reading in my class – asking open ended questions or having them log the “reasons” why they didn’t do the reading over a course of a couple of weeks is likely to yield more usable information than a set of responses based on what you “think” is happening.
Check out qualitative methods such as:
Open ended surveys
Structured or unstructured interviews
Content analysis – thematic
Testing an idea/hypothesis. If you are testing a known solution/idea/hypothesis, then you can use qualitative methods or quantitative methods that will allow you to more precisely (numerically) represent the results and compare differences (i.e., between teaching methods; before and after)
Ex: Does lecture or cooperative learning yield deeper understanding of primary concepts?
Quantitative methods like:
Scales (tests) of understanding yielding “number correct”
Scales/surveys of perceived understanding
Experiments using above scales directly comparing the two methods
Qualitative methods such as:
Case studies of two classes (like an experiment but only one class in each “experimental” condition)
b. What is more important? Understanding the depth and complexity of a situation? Generalizing your results as widely as possible?
Understanding the depth and complexity of the situation. Are you interested in really digging "deep" into this phenomenon to understand all the potential variables that may influencing the outcome?
Qualitative methods generally allow you to ask open ended questions and to use follow up questions/methods thus getting more depth and/or complexity.
Ex.: Why are particular activities engaging to students?
Qualitative methods are often more appropriate for “why” questions. Such as:
Structured or unstructured interviews
Direct observations either in an artificial (laboratory) or naturalistic (classroom) environment
Content analysis (often a way to analyze focus group, interview or open ended survey data)
Generalizing the results as much as possible. Is it more important to be able to generalize the results beyond your sample?
Quantitative methods allow for easier data gathering and analysis which usually means a larger, more diverse sample, thus more ability to generalize beyond the sample.
Ex.: Which specific activities in an online class are related to students report of more engagement?
Experiments (often using a scale as the measurement of the key variables)
Content analysis of open ended survey questions
c. Which perspective matters most? Participants'/students' indirect perspective or a more direct perspective (grades, observation of behavior)? Here is where you make choices between issues such as measuring student learning outcomes directly or getting a perspective (i.e., students, colleagues) on the teaching/learning situation.
Participants' (i.e., students') perspective. Sometimes it’s more important to gain the view from participants than to try to gain a more direct view of outcomes.
Ex: Do students feel more confident about their learning when lecture is used or when whole class discussion is used?
Either quantitative or qualitative methods can be used to gain students’/participants’ perspectives
Outside “objective” perspective. Sometimes a more direct view of learning outcomes or student or teacher behavior is more important than perceptions.
Ex: Do students retain more information when lecture is used or when whole class discussion is used?
Either qualitative or quantitative methods can be used to gain the outsiders’ perspective although people often “trust” the numbers more than qualitative interpretations of data
Scale/test/survey of learning
Content analysis of activity/assignment based on the learning
Experiments – direct comparison of two methods using scale/test/survey of learning or grade based on activity/assignment