Descriptive studies (and case studies and case reports) are a major form of study in the social and psychology sciences. Formal experiments are another form of scientific study, and the nature of the study types are given in this brief description.
One chooses the study form based on conditions to be considered/measured, type of research question, control or lack thereof that the investigator has over actual behavioral events, and whether dealing with contemporary or historical events/phenomena.
In a descriptive or case study one answers a “how” or “why” question, has little or no control over events, and focuses on contemporary, real-life situations.
The researcher begins with an idea and a thorough literature review. She then carefully formulates question(s) and determines the method for collecting data (observations). The project is designed to protect the integrity of the data by maintaining a chain of evidence, and including consideration and testing of rival explanations of findings. The scientist must be aware of and state the strengths and limitations of the research.
An example of a descriptive or case study is entitled “Facilitating Online Learning: A descriptive study.” It is a four-phase study of the influence of a facilitator and other factors on online learning.
Experiments are a more formal type of research. Indeed, descriptive studies often provide a background for formal experiments. Descriptive studies share in common with experiments the application of methods to record and observe data, and to interpret the information. However, compared to descriptive studies, experiments involve a more rigorous form of scientific investigation called “the scientific method”.
The scientific method is a means of gathering empirical and measurable evidence, systematic observation, measurement and experimentation, and formulation, testing and confirming or modifying a hypothesis.
In a formal experiment the scientist observes phenomena, perhaps performing an initial descriptive study, makes a hypothesis and then tests the hypothesis by an experiment consisting of a carefully controlled method, collection and interpretation of data. Important concepts adhered to include the following:
Objectivity (absence of bias)
Reproducibility (results can be confirmed by other scientists)
Sharing (publication) of data and results
Allow others to test reliability of conclusions
An example of a formal experiment would be testing the hypothesis that eating breakfast improves student performance on a mathematics test (see reference 3 for details of such an experiment).
The references are as follows:
1. A textbook on descriptive studies.
2. Definition and description of the “scientific method”.
3. Specific and detailed information on psychology experiments and research methods.