Overview of Descriptive Research

Overview of Descriptive Research

The following module provides a basic overview of descriptive research, including the uses and applications of this type of research.

Learning Objectives

  • Define and describe descriptive research
  • List and explain the three main types of descriptive methods
  • Discuss the uses and applications of descriptive methodology
  • Provide examples of research questions that could be answered using descriptive methods

Descriptive research is research used to “describe” a situation, subject, behavior, or phenomenon. It is used to answer questions of who, what, when, where, and how associated with a particular research question or problem. Descriptive studies are often described as studies that are concerned with finding out “what is”.   It attempts to gather quantifiable information that can be used to statistically analyze a target audience or a particular subject. Description research is used to observe and describe a research subject or problem without influencing or manipulating the variables in any way. Hence, these studies are really correlational or observational, and not truly experimental.  This type of research is conclusive in nature, rather than exploratory.  Therefore, descriptive research does not attempt to answer “why” and is not used to discover inferences, make predictions or establish causal relationships.

Descriptive research is used extensively in social science, psychology and educational research. It can provide a rich data set that often brings to light new knowledge or awareness that may have otherwise gone unnoticed or encountered.  It is particularly useful when it is important to gather information with disruption of the subjects or when it is not possible to test and measure large numbers of samples.  It allows researchers to observe natural behaviors without affecting them in any way. Following is a list of research questions or problems that may lend themselves to descriptive research:

  • Market researchers may want to observe the habits of consumers.
  • A company may be wanting to evaluate the morale of the staff.
  • A school district may research whether or not students are more likely to access online textbooks than to use printed copies.
  • A school district may wish to assess teachers’ attitudes about using technology in the classroom.
  • An educational software company may want to know what aspects of the software make it more likely to be used by students.
  • A researcher may wish to study the impact of hands-on activities and laboratory experiments on students’ perceptions of science.
  • A researcher could be studying whether or not the availability of hiking/biking trails increases the physical activity levels in a neighborhood.

In some types of descriptive research, the researcher does not interact with the subjects.  In other types, the researcher does interact with the subjects and collects information directly from them.  Some descriptive studies may be cross-sectional, whereby the researcher has a one-time interaction with the test subjects.  Other studies may be longitudinal, where the same test subjects are followed over time.  There are three main methods that may be used in descriptive research:

  • Observational Method – Used to review and record the actions and behaviors of a group of test subjects in their natural environment. The research typically does not have interaction with the test subject.
  • Case Study Method – This is a much more in-depth student of an individual or small group of individuals. It may or may not involve interaction with the test subjects.
  • Survey Method – Researchers interact with individual test subjects by collecting information through the use of surveys or interviews.

The data collected from descriptive research may be quantitative, qualitative or both.  The quantitative data is typically presented in the form of descriptive statistics that provide basic information such as the mean, median, and mode of a data set.  Quantitative date may also be tabulated along a continuum in numerical form, such as scores on a test.  It can also be used to describe categories of information or patterns of interactions.  Such quantitative data is typically represented in tables, graphs, and charts which makes it user-friendly and easy to interpret.  Qualitative data, such as the type of narrative data collected in a case study, may be organized into patterns that emerge or it may be classified in some way, but requires more detailed analysis.

The remaining modules in this series will take a more in-depth look at each method and will delve further into the advantages and disadvantages associated with descriptive research.  The following video, Research Methods: Overview and Descriptive Methods, provides a brief overview of research methods in general and includes a recap of descriptive research and its uses.


Suggested Readings

Bernard, H. R., & Bernard, H. R. (2012). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage.
Burt, C. (1922). Research in education.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.
Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., & Gall, J. P. (1996). Educational research: An introduction . Longman Publishing.
Knupfer, N. N., & McLellan, H. (1996). Descriptive research methodologies. Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 1196-1212.
Mertens, D. M. (1998). Research methods in education and psychology: Integrating diversity with quantitative & qualitative approaches.
Neuman, W. L., & Neuman, W. L. (2006). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Punch, K. F. (2013). Introduction to social research: Quantitative and qualitative approaches. Sage.
Rosenthal, R., & Rosnow, R. L. (1991). Essentials of behavioral research: Methods and data analysis. McGraw-Hill Humanities Social.
Svensson, L. (1984). Three Approaches to Descriptive Research.

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