Understanding Research Design

Understanding Research Design

This lesson will address types of research design and the key elements that must be considered when choosing an appropriate design.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the difference between qualitative and quantitative research designs
  • Identify the factors that should be considered when choosing an appropriate research design
  • Identify commonly used research designs and their appropriate application

Selecting a Research Design

Once the research question has been formulated, it is critical that the researcher select the appropriate research methodology to answer the question.   The type of research question will typically dictate the methodology that will be employed.  The reliability and validity of the results depends upon proper selection of the research approach and design.  

There are two main approaches to a research problem - quantitative and qualitative methods.  Quantitative methods are used to examine the relationship between variables with the primary goal being to analyze and represent that relationship mathematically through statistical analysis.  This is the type of research approach most commonly used in scientific research problems.  Qualitative methods are chosen when the goal of the research problem is to examine, understand and describe a phenomenon.  These methods are a common choice in social science research problems and are often used to study ideas, beliefs, human behaviors and other research questions that do not involve studying the relationship between variables.  The following chart provides a simple breakdown of the main types of research design. 


 Getting Started

To get started designing your own research study, you need to ask yourself three key questions:

  • Is the data you plan to collect quantitative or qualitative (descriptive) in nature?
  • Do the variables you want to measure answer your research question?
  • Can your data be analyzed to answer the question?

Key Considerations

There are a number of factors that will guide your choices regarding study design. One must consider:

  • How easily can you obtain the necessary data?
  • Is there a limit to the number of participants available to you if your study involves use of participants?
  • How many variables can you collect, manage and interpret?
  • Can you complete the entire study with one data collection session? Will participants need a break between sessions?
  • What money and/or resources are necessary to complete your study?

The resources linked from Extra Introduction Links will provide more detailed information about each of the basic research design and how to choose the appropriate design for your project. The following YouTube video uses psychological research questions as examples to discuss possible experimental designs.  

The following table lists and describes the most common research designs used at Grand Canyon University.  Different research books will use different terms for similar types of research.  However, the research designs identified in this document are fairly common in terms of their use and their terminology.

 Types of Research Designs

Quantitative Designs

Qualitative Designs






Explore the relationship between two or more variables through a correlational analysis. The intent is to determine if and to what degree the variables are related.  It does not imply one causes the other.

Case Study

And Historical

Intent is to study and understand a single situation, which could be a leader, a classroom, a process, program, activity. Collect a variety of material in a specific and bounded time period.  This is also used for historical studies, when collecting historical data to understand and learn from the past.

Causal Comparative

Compare two groups with the intent of understanding the reasons or causes for the two groups being different.


Describe the lives of individual(s) to get meaning from them.


Test an idea, treatment, program to see if it makes a difference. There is a control group and a test group. Individuals are randomly assigned to the two groups.  One group gets the treatment (test group) and the other group (control group) does not get the treatment. There is a pre and post-test for both groups in a traditional experimental design.

Grounded Theory

The focus is to develop an understanding of a phenomenon or situation in order to be able to develop a theory/model for items such as factors, a form of interaction, or a process.


It is the same as experiment in that there is a control and test group. However, current groups are used as is rather than randomly assigning people to the two groups. Both groups receive the pre and post- test in a traditional design.


Studies a human experience at an experiential level such as understanding what it means for a woman to lose a child. It is about understanding the essence or meaning of the experience. 





Mixed Methods Research

A mixed research design involves having both a quantitative design and qualitative design. Mixed methods is the best approach if the study requires both quantitative and qualitative designs to address the problem statement. 

 Mixed methods studies take significantly more time, more resources, and require the researcher to develop expertise in qualitative analysis techniques and quantitative analysis techniques. Qualitative studies can use numbers, counts and even descriptive statistics.  Using numbers does not mean the study has to be quantitative or mixed methods.

Version: May 2, 2012

Suggested Readings

Bryman, A. (2012).Social research methods. Oxford university press.
Creswell, J. W. (2012).Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Sage.
Creswell, J. W. (2013).Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage Publications, Incorporated.
Creswell, J. W., & Clark, V. L. P. (2007).Designing and conducting mixed methods research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage publications.
Isaac, S., & Michael, W. B. (1971). Handbook in research and evaluation.
Kerlinger, F. N., & Lee, H. B. (1999). Foundations of behavioral research.
Kothari, C. R. (2004).Research methodology: methods and techniques. New Age International.
Patton, M. Q. (1990).Qualitative evaluation and research methods. SAGE Publications, inc.
Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research.

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