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How to start research at university

What are research methods?

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Research methods are the tools used to answer a research question. They can be broadly categorised under two headings: qualitative and quantitative. If you've ever used statistics you'll be familiar with some quantitative research methods. This type of research deals with things that can be measured - quantities, and it takes an objective, 'scientific' approach (although it's not restricted to scientific research). You can use quantitative research methods to do the following things...

The laboratory experiment is probably the best-known example of quantitative research, but any research that involves the analysis of numerical data is quantitative.

Qualitative research involves observing behaviour, and tends to be subjective and not generalisable to a whole population. You can use qualitative research methods to do the following things...

Qualitative research covers any type of research that doesn't involve statistics or the analysis of numerical data. Ethnographic research is a good example of a qualitative research method; this research method involves the researcher observing a social phenomena - like gang behaviour or the lives of the members of a remote tribe.

You could well use a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods. For example, you might use statistical methods to find out the percentage of prisoners from different ethnic groups serving life sentences (quantitative research), and then decide to interview some of these prisoners to find out about their backgrounds and life experiences (qualitative research).

Activity: qualitative or quantitative? - 5 minutes

Quantitative and qualitative research methods are used to collect different kinds of data to answer different kinds of research questions. This activity will get you thinking about the characteristics of both quantitative and qualitative research, so you start to understand what the different kinds of methods can achieve.

1. Decide whether the characteristics in the table below describe qualitative or quantitative research methods. We've done the first one for you.

Characteristics Qualitative Quantitative
Scientific  
tick
Always objective    
Can be subjective    
Offers interpretations    
Easy to repeat    
Would give the same results if repeated    
Not possible to achieve the same answers if repeated    
Interested only in facts    
Interested in opinions    
Uses statistics    
Explores meanings    
Possible to generalise from the results    
Not possible to generalise from the results    
Can be used to make predictions    
Tests theories or hypotheses    

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Recommended Further Reading

Don't worry if you didn't spot all the characteristics of each method - if you get the opportunity to do some original research at university, you'll explore research methods in more depth to make sure you know which methods can be used to answer which research questions.

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