Feb 2005 Index

Home Page

Editor’s Note
: An important goal of a Doctoral Dissertation is to make a significant contribution to knowledge in the discipline of choice. That requires in-depth knowledge of related research and assurance for the doctoral committee that the topic and issue to be studied is indeed significant.  The authors of this paper address the cart-before-the-horse problem where doctoral candidates decide the research method prior to research of the literature and development of the research question.

The Right Horse and Harness to Pull the Carriage:

Teaching Online Doctorate Students about Literature Reviews,
Qualitative, and Quantitative Methods that Drive the Problem

Kim Blum and Brent Muirhead


Doctoral students often declare that the choice of a qualitative design is preferred because students fear statistics. The authors of this article have heard this statement from online doctoral students many times. A student’s position about statistics often changes when he or she discovers that the only way to resolve to a pressing dissertation problem may be quantitative or a mixed method that requires descriptive statistics; all good qualitative designs have some quantitative aspects (Yin, 2004).

Once a student understands that the dissertation question or problem drives the choice of methodology, he can focus on choosing an appropriate design for his research. The student must know different qualitative and quantitative designs in order to choose and defend his chosen methodology. His choice should prevail over past biases, fear, or concerns about adaptation for an online medium. He must become expert in methodology that answers or solves the research problem. Furthermore, he must understand the importance of the literature review. That is the purpose of this article.

The Challenge of Doctoral Dissertations

The doctoral dissertation is one of the most intense academic experiences that individuals encounter in their lives. One of the tragic interpersonal moments in the academic community is when individuals share that they were not able to complete their dissertation. The initial ABD –All But Dissertation that signifies this academic state is a reminder of the difficult journey to earn the coveted doctoral degree. Curran-Downey (1998) related “being in graduate school and making it all the way through the classes, the exams and the defense of the dissertation is ---take your pick--- marathon, wasteland, jungle, rat race” (para 6). The high attrition rate for students in American doctoral programs is a dark aspect of doctoral education that continues to plague the higher education community. It reflects a degree of failure at the institutional level to assist talented individuals in what is often considered the ultimate academic challenge and represents a tremendous waste of human resources that often undermines career plans.

An important step in developing a research plan is facing the fears associated with writing. A major issue for some students is a negative mindset concerning research writing. Some view the dissertation project as a near impossible task because they doubt their abilities and are fearful of having their proposal rejected. Severe emotional turmoil may diminish a student’s ability to work through the more difficult phases of his dissertation. It can halt the writing process and some individuals are tempted to abandon their degree program. Jensen (2005, para 5) encourages a student to identify when what she calls the Inner Critic is attacking by being alert to negative signs:

  • Mental signs: self-criticism, procrastination, excessive worry, negative thoughts about your options, black and white thinking, confusion, feeling stuck.

  • Emotional signs: loss of motivation, discouragement, feelings of failure, depression, low self-esteem, fear, feeling powerless.

  • Physical signs: lack of energy, fatigue, sickness or injury.

It is crucial to implement strategies to overcome mental or psychological barriers to keep the dissertation process moving steadily forward towards completion. The key is to be proactive, dedicated, and create a realistic study plan that breaks the dissertation into manageable parts. Maxwell (1999) recommends measuring personal commitment by examining how much time and energy is devoted to research and writing. A good question to ask yourself, do your daily activities support your goals? The next step is to affirm that certain goals are worth great personal sacrifices. Morris (1994, p. 286) developed seven principles of success that help individuals to formulate goals for their personal and professional lives.

  • We need a clear conception of what we want, a vivid vision, a goal or set of goals powerfully imagined.

  • We need a strong confidence that we can attain our goals.

  • We need a focused concentration on what it takes to reach our goal.

  • We need a stubborn consistency in pursuing our vision, a determined persistence in thought and action.

  • We need emotional commitment to the importance of what we're doing, and to the people with whom we're doing it.

  • We need a good character to guide us and keep us on a proper course.

  • We need a capacity to enjoy the process along the way.

Research Skills

Tremendous expansion of electronic information resources has exponentially increased research opportunities. This fact makes it important that students are properly prepared to use the new technologies. Hart (1998, p. 5) has identified two basic types of skills required for researchers:

  1. Core skills and abilities- while the differences make subject disciplines distinctive, there exists a common core of skills and attitudes that all researchers should possess and should be able to apply in different situations with different topics and problems.

  2. Ability to integrate theory and method- research for all disciplines involves an understanding of the interrelationship between theory, method and research design, practical skills and particular methods, the knowledge base of the subject and methodological foundations (Hart, 1998, p. 5).

Graduate degree programs are an excellent place to develop and refine research skills. Hart (1998) states, "it is important that research education and training does produce researchers who are competent and confident in a range of skills and capabilities and who have an appropriate knowledge base" (p. 6). Students create projects that demand having effective skills in conducting a literature review, developing a research design, writing and presenting their study. Therefore, it is vital that students must have a sound knowledge of the entire research process to produce research that demonstrates quality work.

The concept of scholarship should include competent investigations and it should transcend multiple activities while involving a diversity of skills and activities. The process requires knowing how use one's imagination and creativity to read and interpret arguments, organize ideas, make connections between academic disciplines and effectively write and present ideas. The scholar must maintain a mindset that is open to new and innovative research methods and they should be willing to experiment with information and ideas. The skill of integration is a vital element in scholarly work. According to Hart (1998), "integration is about making connections between ideas, theories, and experience. It is about applying a method or methodology from one area to another; about placing some episode into a larger theoretical framework, thereby providing a new way of looking at the phenomenon" (p. 8). Integration demands individuals be systematic and reflective in their investigation endeavors. It requires being patient while re-examining and interpreting knowledge and being open to new perspectives on existing theories.

Graduate students should develop a research plan that helps them focus on developing skills that foster integration in their work. They should realize this might take time and substantial effort. It is encouraging to realize that studies on those who are associated with being a genius reported that they were very hard working individuals. Howe (1999) observes, “like ordinary men and women, major authors have had to invest large amounts of time and effort in order to become unusually skilled. Their heavy dependence on training and preparation is one of the many aspects of the human experience that creative geniuses share with other people.” (p. 175)

The Literature Review Process

Reviews vary greatly in the scope and depth of material examined. The selection of study topic is a key factor and students should be avoid selecting topics that transcend the requirements of their degree programs. A primary reason for studying the literature is to demonstrate familiarity with research in the field and establish credibility for the individual's current investigation. The literature review should reflectively build upon the work conducted by other researchers who are part of a larger intellectual community (Neuman, 1997).

A metaphor that helps drive home the importance of the literature review process is a good horse without a harness. The horse symbolizes the problem, but without a solid harness the horse cannot pull the weight of the carriage. A literature review that is well designed and thorough gives the problem weight. Everything that has been done before is pulled with the problem and the researcher makes it clear that despite the heavy carriage of literature, the horse can accomplish the task because the harness is strong. The harness is a solid literature review.

The dissertation committee expects students to produce literature reviews that uphold high academic standards. Neuman (1997) described four major literature review objectives:

  1. To demonstrate a familiarity with a body of knowledge and establish credibility.
    A review tells a reader that the researcher knows the research in an area and knows the major issues. A good review increases the reader's confidence in the researcher's professional competence, ability, and background.

  2. To show the path of prior research and how a current project is linked to it.
    A review outlines the direction of research on a question and shows the development of knowledge. A good review places a research project in a context and demonstrates its relevance by making connections to a body of knowledge.

  3. To integrate and summarize what is known in an area.
    A review pulls together and synthesizes different results. A good review points out areas where prior studies agree, where they disagree, and where major questions remain. It collects what is known up to a point in time and indicates the direction for future research.

  4. To learn from others and stimulate new ideas.
    A review tells what others have found so that a researcher can benefit from the efforts of others. A good review identifies blind alleys and suggests hypotheses for replication. It divulges procedures, techniques, and research designs worth copying so that a researcher can better focus hypotheses and gain new insights (p. 89).

The literature review helps the student to understand the historical context of their subject while focusing on current research efforts (Hart, 1998). Literature reviews help students learn how to identify areas of concern and become aware of any neglected issues.

Literature reviews can stimulate student to make changes to their topic choice because, during the literature review process, individuals sometimes discover a more important topic to address in their doctoral research. Also, the literature review can help a student to develop a framework for his own study by noting what others have done with their particular research design such as the data-collection techniques. Reading the literature provides an overview of the major theories and ideas that guided previous researchers. Students must have a good working knowledge of the key concepts in their field of study to develop an appropriate vocabulary and database for writing and communication of ideas (Hart, 1998).

Literature reviews should cover the material related to the research problem. The wise researcher will conduct a review including the following sequential steps:

  • analyze the problem statement.

  • search and read secondary literature.

  • select the appropriate index for a reference service or database.

  • transform the problem statement into search language.

  • conduct a manual and/or computer search.

  • read the pertinent primary literature.

  • organize notes.

  • write the review (Introduction to educational research, 2003, p. 73).

Students must systematically investigate the literature and cover both electronic and print sources of information. One part of the plan should contain a basic record keeping system that will help organize work accomplished to develop leads for future research and avoid loosing valuable data. For instance, students can save links to Internet articles as favorites or bookmarks in their web browser. This makes it much easier to locate the article for future use. Students can improve their ability to recall important ideas and concepts by creating a basic set of questions prior to reading an article (Locke, Silverman & Spirduso, 1998).

A review of the literature requires a systematic analysis and appraisal of each research article. Begin the process by creating a descriptive summary of the study. Next, analyze the article to understand the author’s purpose and decisions. Hart (1998) notes "you are aiming to make explicit the nature of the connections between the methodology choices an author has made and the data they have collected through to the interpretations they have made of their data" (p. 56).

Identify the style and structure of the author's reasoning. Explore issues such as methodological assumptions, aims, and purposes of the research and evidence presented. The critical analysis of articles is one of the more demanding aspects of the literature review but it helps the student discern the quality of work produced within the field (Hart, 1998).

Students should strive to demonstrate their careful and reflective investigation of research studies and vital information resources. Their discussion should reflect a vivid awareness of theories and arguments and acknowledge both their strengths and weaknesses. A balanced review will affirm the usefulness and merits of a theory and at the same time explore areas that need improvement. Research criticism must be based on understandable arguments that identify inadequate or flawed evidence or reasoning. Students may be able to use aspects of different writers work to develop their own synthesis of ideas and offer new perspectives on their subject matter.

The following criteria are useful to evaluate information (Lawlor & Gorham, 2004, p.17):

  • Authority—who is the author of the material?

  • Date of publication—when was the information published?

  • Type of publication—is the material published in an academic article, a newspaper or a textbook?

  • Relevance of content—how relevant is the material to your research?

  • Hypotheses/Purpose—what led the author(s) to their hypotheses? What is overall purpose?

  • Methods employed—what methods were utilized by the author(s) and why?

  • Results—what results were obtained?

  • Support for hypotheses—were hypotheses supported?

  • Conclusions/Recommendations—what were the author(s) conclusions/recommendations?

  • References—does the author provide a detailed list of references/bibliography?

  • Cited or reviewed—has the article, book or website been cited or referred to by other authors?

Literature reviews require patience and diligence to carefully select and examine research studies. Gall, Borg and Gall (1996) highlight seven common mistakes that people can make during the review process:

  • Does not clearly relate the findings of the literature review to the researcher's own study.

  • Does not take sufficient time to define the best descriptors and identify the best sources to use in reviewing the literature related to one's topic.

  • Relies on secondary sources rather than on primary sources in reviewing the literature.

  • Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis.

  • Does not report the search procedures that were used in the literature review.

  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them by chi-square or meta-analysis methods.

  • Does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations in synthesizing qualitative literature (pp. 161-162).

Graduate students sometimes err in their approach to studying the literature by striving to read everything that is remotely related to their topic. The result is to waste time on trivial articles and materials. A good literature review will focus on the most important and relevant documents. Students can spend so much time reading that they fail to write about their project. People tend to choose reading over writing because it is less demanding than writing. The writing process is another way to reflect upon ideas and foster a better understanding of information relationships (Language Center, 2004).

Literature reviews build upon established knowledge. Researchers read other studies to glean insights from the academic community that provide direction for their own work by noting any gaps or weaknesses in previous investigations. Contemporary literature reviews can be quite diverse in their scope and depth of knowledge due to the intent of the reviewer. Dissertation reviews must transcend being merely familiar with the material. The literature review is a scholarly essay that establishes credibility for the entire research project. Therefore, it is vital to create a specific review focus that offers the best perspectives on significant studies related to the research problem. Neuman (1997, p. 90) highlights six review types:

  • Self-study reviews increase the reader’s confidence.

  • Context reviews place a specific project in the big picture.

  • Historical reviews trace the development of an issue over time.

  • Theoretical reviews compare how different theories address an issue.

  • Methodological reviews point out how methodology varies by study.

  • Integrative reviews summarize what is known at a point in time.

The six review types reflect different approaches and research goals in the literature review process. Self-studies are considered to be personal investigations and lack the depth of coverage of a formal review. Students must devote adequate time to studying primary and secondary sources to avoid missing significant information related to their research problem. It is wise to be patient and open-minded when evaluating the material to avoid hasty interpretations or generalizations about previous studies. The authors encourage students to use the following literature review checklist to improve the quality of their work:

  • show a clear understanding of the topic

  • cite and discuss all key landmark studies

  • develops, through gradual refinement, a clear research problem

  • states clear conclusions about previous research using appropriate evidence

  • shows the variety of definitions and approaches to the topic area

  • reaches sound recommendations using coherent argument that is based on evidence

  • shows a gap in existing knowledge

(Hart, 1998, p.198)

The Problem Drives the Design

The research problem always drives the choice of the initial methodology (Creswell, 2004; Simon & Francis, 2004; Yin, 2004). A solid research plan defends how the research question or hypothesis is going to be answered using the best method available – the methodology the student chooses to solve or answer the problem.

A metaphor to elaborate on how the problem drives the choice of methodology design is appropriate….

The author of this article once bought a book on how to train a horse to pull a carriage with the desire to ride in a horse-drawn carriage for Christmas; in the country children are taken on yearly caroling hay rides to annoy the neighbors once a year. Up to this point, a tractor and a long trailer loaded with hay was employed.

The instructions in the carriage book said to locate a particular type of horse-drawn carriage. After extensive researching, a place was located that sold Amish furniture that had a carriage outside. Inquires were made to order an appropriate carriage from the Amish Country in Ohio. After considerable expense, a gorgeous two-seater carriage arrived complete with velvet seats.

Now at this point, a carriage was purchased -- think of the carriage as the problem statement. It was a problem, sitting in the yard, with no way to solve it (to make it move). Neither a harness nor a trained carriage horse trained to pull the carriage was available. Knowledge of what type of harness or design needed to solve this problem was missing. After considerable reading and interviewing experts to gain design knowledge on harnesses, a harness was purchased that would pull the carriage.

One of the authors of this article reflected that, with a little work, a previously purchased horse could be trained to pull the carriage by following the instructions in the carriage book.

Unfortunately, the horse rolled her eyes when the little thing over her tail that is critical to pulling a carriage was installed. The horse tolerated the uncomfortable heavy harness around her neck. The horse allowed the trainer to lead her to the corral in the stiff harness without the carriage. Nevertheless, when the driver tried to make the horse walk in a straight line, the horse, a 25-year-old ex-cutting (cow cutting) horse translated long reins into directions with a driver yelling -- walk in circles -- called lunging. Subsequent attempts to hook the horse up to the carriage using the harness resulted in circles.

Similar to this metaphor, if the design is chosen without knowledge of how to apply it, the research problem is difficult to solve. The problem (horse) goes around in circles; some students wind up with an all but dissertations (ABD), and like the fancy carriage, the dissertation rests unpublished, in the field.

Statistics are only one of the straps on the harness attached to the horse. Without proper training on how to pull the carriage or write the research plan, the strap will break. If the methodology will not pull the cart or solve the problem, the entire process will not move forward.

Learning about different research design choices is the first step to writing a solid research proposal and dissertation.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Methods: Which Design to Choose?

Abusabha and Woelfel (2003) argued that “researchers in sociology, psychology, nutrition, public health, and many other related fields have been engaged in a long-standing debate about the use of qualitative vs. quantitative approaches to research” (p. 1). Qualitative research is often labeled as soft, subjective research (Creswell, 2004), while quantitative methods are classified as rigid because quantitative methods puts human behavior, and thus the data, into unrelenting categories (Yin, 2004). Creswell (2002; 2004) posits that qualitative research goes hand-in-hand with literature searches because the researcher first looks for major ideas in previously done studies, as well as recycling through original data several times to spot themes and patterns. Regardless of the method design chosen to solve the problem, researchers must be prepared to defend the choice – how will the methodology give the researcher the answer or test the data to obtain valid results that are reliable and answer or solve the problem? There are two general types of methodology called qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative research methods are designs that explore information (Yin, 2004). Qualitative research methods are designs chosen when the problem is focused on what is or was occurring, inquiring about processes, views, and detailed information. Qualitative methods can generate theories based on the data, where no preconceived models exist. Qualitative methods attempt to describe and interpret data with the goal of detailed and well-rounded information, identifying researcher biases and assumptions.

Because qualitative methods results do not use statistically significant tests, findings are more reliable if the or data are triangulated (Creswell, 2004; Yin, 1991). Triangulation means that different methods with the same data. Triangulation also means that the data came from many sources such as archival files, interviews, articles, observations, and patterns are noted using the parameters chosen by the researcher supported by major theories and measured by a validated unit of measurement deemed critical to solving the problem (Yin, 2004) are explained. For example, one online doctorate student used leadership placement practices as the unit of measurement to analyze data in foster care children files. The parameters were housing practices, biological visits, and mental health services – these were the initial variables used to explore patterns; data could discover new patterns and will be explained by the researcher. Pilot studies on a sub-set of the same population are a means to test the methodology in qualitative studies and further triangulates the data.

Qualitative method results can rarely be generalized for a larger population because qualitative data cannot be tested for statistical significance (Creswell, 2004; Sproull, 2004). Another potential problem with qualitative designs is that the researcher must present the literature theories as a basis for the data analysis, and make the entire procedure very logical and clear to the reader (Creswell, 2004).

A key advantage of qualitative methods is the researcher excitement when a new paradigm based on solid trends in data is one of the results of the data analysis. A researcher never knows what data patterns will reveal; entire assumptions made by literature searches could be discovered as invalid, and it is wonderful to discover new patterns so that new practices can be developed in the field. For example, one of the authors of this lecture was part of a study to find out if an online faculty refresher course was effective. Faculty performance practices of a control group who were coached were compared to another faculty group who had coaching plus the online training workshop.

Faculty performance records of before and after the workshop were analyzed patterns for three months; the patterns based on key areas were identified as crucial being materials, facilitation, and practices; these were the parameters. The unit of measurement was a measurement tool used to evaluate faculty. Patterns found in online faculty classrooms within the areas of materials, facilitation, and best practices showed there were no differences in faculty performances in either group. Both groups improved for the first month but three months later were going back to the same initial problems in all three critical areas. The result of this study was a drastic online faculty training revision that was data driven and supported by positive outcomes. It was quite fun to be a part of this study and helped create a new framework of successful online faculty coaching and training with measurable outcomes.

Major Qualitative Designs

There are many types of qualitative designs. Simon and Frances (1998, 2004) developed a useful organization of research designs into past, present, and future perspectives. Analyze the problem and determine if it based past, present, or future data. Major general designs are outlined in the next section.

Past Perspectives

If the researcher is primarily interested in solving a problem that requires looking into past events or factors that have contributed to the problem being researched, then consider past perspectives (Simon & Francis, 2004). General past perspectives are explained below; please refer to the reference list for books on each area for detailed instructions on implementing each type of design.

Driven by the question: What and why?
Historical Design
Type: Qualitative

Historical designs typically analyze documents in relation to a theory or concept, describing what occurred by interpreting facts and events of archival documents in a critical manner. This design is useful when interviewing or observing is not possible but the problem can be solved with historical documents (Simon & Francis, 2004).

Driven by the question: What are the trends or patterns? Grounded theory develops new theories from raw data (creates a theory where none existed before).
Content Analysis and Grounded Theory
Type: Qualitative but with quantitative counts, averages, and methods of describing data

Content analysis is used to analyze any written document for patterns. Data is coded and analyzed with statistics or patterns can be grounded into theory (in this case the content analysis is really grounded theory). Grounded theory is developed from the raw data with a general theory or theories guiding the initial pattern analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Grounded theory can be past or futures based depending on the nature of the design. For example, one student is studying leadership decisions based on theories of the best practices in national safety and security by analyzing historical decisions made by President Bush and Clinton. The parameters are grounded in theory; and this design is a past perspective but could generate new theories for the future as a framework for leaders in national security and safety. In contrast, if previous data is analyzed for patterns without being grounded in theory, then the design is content analysis (Simon & Frances, 2004).

Present Perspectives

What if the problem must deal with present information solve the problem? According to Simon and Francis (2004), present research design examines a phenomenon, as it occurs to understand the nature of the problem.

Driven by the Question: How, why, and when certain phenomena are considered with very specific case situations, people, organizations, or industries.
Case Study
Type of design: Qualitative

Case study findings are valid only for the case being studied with some generalizations possible but the researcher should triangulate the methods, data, and incorporates the use of a pilot study to test the findings and allows modification of methodology before the final study is completed. Every effort to explain patterns in an unbiased manner to discover the reality behind the data being studied (Feagin, Orum & Sjoberg, 1991; Simon & Francis, 2004; Yin, 1991; 2004).

Driven by the question: What is the meaning of people’s experiences, culture, environment, and perspectives with a problem?
Type of Design: Qualitative

The researcher must have access to the sample or case to interview and gain information about the person’s innermost feelings. Access to interview more than once to re-clarify and obtain detailed information in an interactive manner with the sample members. Observations can triangulate the data. A comparison with basic theories is applied to the answers to create a theoretical basis of understanding the context. Examples of the meanings are presented using quotes from the samples (Simon & Frances, 2004; Yin, 2004).

Futures Perspectives

If the research problem is concerned about the future, with the purpose of studying a problem to change it, then the research design could be future based (Creswell, 2004).

Caution: Applied and Action research are grey areas that deal with day-to-day problems and are not considered qualitative or quantitative at some universities for the doctorate dissertation so a good tip is to check before going down this road.

Answers the question: How has your experience been meaningful using personal communication?
Heuristics research
Type: Qualitative

Subjects using the heuristics design are studied with no speculation. Instead, open-ended questions using personal communication in relation to the universe, working to find meanings within the context of personal experiences. Patterns in responses are the outcome of heuristics research (Simon & Francis, 2004).

Answers the question: How or why is something occurring using multiple methods of inquiry including literature with many standpoints?
Holistic Research
Type: Qualitative

Researchers use holistic methods to undercover all data in a holistic manner using people, social views, and relationships. Holistic research is a non-traditional method and triangulation of the patterns in the results is critical (Simon & Francis, 2004).

Answers the question: How can theories be developed for a new set of data or a new situation where none exists before based on expert opinion? What do the experts say can be applied to a new area that works well?
Delphi Research
Type: Qualitative

Delphi research is an excellent method when experts in a certain field are located and the problem is solved in a more effective manner based on subjective conclusions. The researcher inquires the experts with open-ended questions, gathers data, and then based on a consensus of the answers, re-interviews the same experts for more opinions. With the advent of emails, this method is becoming easier to achieve. Exploratory information and theories are developed using this method (Simon & Francis, 2004).

Answers the question: How do cultural meanings interpret meanings of experiences?
Ethnographic Research
Type: Qualitative

Most students who have studied the bible are familiar with the ethnographic design. Understanding the meaning of the bible relies on the context of the time the bible was written based on the culture at the time. Research studies that use this design examine the culture in perspective to the problem at the time it is studied. An understanding of the samples view at the time of existence is the goal of this method over a long-term period usually months or years (Creswell, 2004; Simon & Francis, 2004).

Answers the question: How can one generate a theory from the data itself?
Grounded Theory Research
Type: Qualitative

Initial theories on variables start exploring patterns in new data of a new population. Few theories are generated based on the patterns within the data; thus, the data is generating new theories. Patterns show how theory is developed, and multiple data sources triangulate the data. Pilot studies are a good way to test methods for analyzing data to develop grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

Quantitative Research Methods

In contrast to qualitative methods that discover themes and explore patterns, quantitative methods to describes a problem, or predict an outcome. Quantitative methods are not used to explore a problem. The problem has occurred and a quantitative method is used when the researcher wants know what or when something has occurred but does not understand why and can use a estimate (a sample) of the proportion of a population “discovering associations between variables” (Cooper & Schindler, 2004, p. 161). Certain assumptions are present if in quantitative designs for example, an assumption is that the data is black or white (no grey); a data item belongs to certain class or it does not.

In contrast to a qualitative design where the researcher would ask open-ended questions, a quantitative design makes educated guesses derived from induction or deduction of the problem called hypothesis (Sproull, 1995, 2004). The study proves the null hypotheses (Creswell, 2004; Sproull, 1995, 2004). The researcher is trying to prove the null is false.

Major Quantitative Designs: Present Perspectives

What if the problem must have current information to solve the problem? According to Simon and Francis (2004), present research design examines a phenomenon, as it occurs to understand the nature of the problem. Most quantitative designs use present perspectives.

Driven by the question: What IS occurring (not past) in detail to generate new improvements?
Descriptive Research
Type: Quantitative

When a detailed and accurate picture of phenomenon is required to generate hypothesis to pinpoint needed areas of improvement, descriptive research is useful. Variables are not manipulated and there is no cause and effect. Content is analyzed to determine what others may be doing or in an effort to develop a better framework (Creswell, 2004; Simon & Francis, 2004).

Driven by the question: What correlation if any exists between X and Y?
Correlation Design
Type: Quantitative

From data that is after the fact that has occurred naturally (no interference from the researcher), a hypothesis of possible future correlation is drawn. Correlation studies are not cause and effect, they simply prove a correlation or not Sproull, 2004).

Driven by the question: What is the cause or relationship of a variable or variables comparing one sample group to another?
Type: Quantitative

Most casual-comparative research is used on groups when the research is studying a comparison of one group with another, for example, comparing the economic level of third-world countries with developed countries using pre-determined variables of comparison to determine which one influences a higher level of economic performance (Simon & Frances, 2004).

The researcher is not determining why this occurred, but is focusing on what has occurred for the more successful group in order to gain information on the relationship between the variables, often to make predictions or develop future frameworks (Creswell, 2004; Simon & Francis, 2004).

Pure Basic Experimental Design
Type: Quantitative

This type of research was first type of formal research design (Creswell, 2004) where the researcher has full control of all variables with a control, manipulation, and uses randomization on different populations (Simon & Francis, 2004). It is very difficult to obtain true control so this research requires extensive reading of this type of design and gain knowledge on how to manipulate variables.

Quasi-Experimental Design
Type: Quantitative

This type of research was adapted to provide experiments where at least one of the variables cannot be controlled as in the case of a pure basic experimental design (Burns & Grove, 1993; Sproull, 2004). Statistical methods account for the inability to control certain variables (Sproull, 2004).

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Designs: Key Terminology Differences

Some research plans are vague and it is hard to tell design methodology at a glance. Online doctoral students find this chart helpful to make sure the design has consistent design terms stated in a clear manner without mixing quantitative and qualitative common terms.

Table 1
Qualitative and Quantitative Design Terminology





Case Study


Grounded theory

Relationship between variable and variable


Correlation between one variable and one variable










Investigate degrees of variations







Observed phenomenon


Generating a theory





Which Methodology is Appropriate?

The answer of course, is that it depends. It depends on the problem the researcher is trying to solve. It depends on the data the researcher has access and the resources at dispersal. Some helpful steps designed to assist online doctorate student to select a significant problem topic and design are included below.

  • Determine the academic passion. Students will be studying the research problem a long time, so make sure it is something students can maintain interest over time. If students select a research problem in an area that they something that you do not care deeply about, students will be bored by the time the dissertation is finished.

  • Define the Problem. Write it out in bottom line ONE line format: The problem is....

  • Reflect on the purpose. Does the problem need exploring or explaining?

  • What data does the researcher need to solve the problem? Does the researcher have access to this type of data? Can permission \be obtained to gather data?

  • Analyze the design types; which design best matches the problem? Read more about this design and compare it against a second choice – which designs solves the problem in a significant, doable, timely manner? Do not choose methods that will take decades to complete; narrow it down to a doable, yet important problem that can be accomplished in the time allotted to finish a dissertation.

  • Choice of a research methodology design depends on the problem, the questions, the researcher’s own unique style (Simon & Frances, 1998), the data available, and the access rights. There is no concrete model to follow on what design to choose when, the researcher must use a general guideline to make a choice and defend that choice as being valid to answer the question(s) conclusively. The chart below should help narrow down what is available to match the research problem and questions.

Table 2

Problems and Type of Research Design Choices




Qualitative or Quantitative Design

Explores WHAT is happening?






Exploring common experiences of individual to develop a theory


Exploring the shared culture of a group of people


Exploring individual stories to describe the lives of people.

Qualitative: Grounded theory.





What is happening is clear but there is no explanation.


Explaining whether an intervention influences an outcome for one group as opposed to another group.


Research called Experimental Research.

Is based on finding out why something is occurring?


Predicting it.



Describing trends for a population of people.


Associating or relating variables in a predictable pattern for one group of individuals.

Non-Intervention Research:
Survey Research.


Non-Intervention Research:
Correlation Research.

Is exploring both WHAT and WHY?

Mixed method using Qualitative and Quantitative Methods.


Used to study education problems in a setting.

To best understand a research problem.


To change practices

Mixed Method.


Action Research. (careful with this for UOPhx)


This article is an introduction to the literature review process and the two main different types of research design, demonstrating how the choice of a horse is critical to driving the carriage, the problem is the horse that always drives the choice of research design. The harness – a literature review – must bear the weight of past studies so that the need to answer the problem is clear. This article is not a comprehensive how to explanation of each type within that design. When a solid literature review clearly demonstrates the distinct need for the study, the problem statement will successfully pull the horse to the end goal of a completed and approved dissertation that is ready to be published.


Introduction to educational research (2003). Custom electronic text for the University of Phoenix. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Abusabha, R., & Woelfel, M. L. (2003). User-centered design goal setting. The interplay between user research and innovation. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, May (103). Retrieved December 10, 2003, from Proquest database.

Cone, J. D., & Foster, S. L. (1993). Dissertations and theses from start to finish: Psychology and related fields. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Cooper, D. R., & Schindler, P. S. (2003). Business research methods (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Creswell, J. W. (2002). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Creswell, J. W. (2004). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (2nd ed.). Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Curran-Downey, M. (2000). O doctorate! Many strive, few attain it. San Diego Union Tribune. Available at: http://www.dissertationdoctor.com/endorse/utribune.html

Feagin, J. R., Orum, A. M., & Sjoberg, G. (1991). A case for the case study. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina.

Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., and Gall, J. P., (1996). Educational research: An introduction (6th ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.

Glasser, B. G, & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York: Adline de Gruyter.

Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Howe, M. J.A. (1999). Genius explained. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Jensen, S. (2005). Dissertation survival skills: Disarming the inner critic. Available at: http://www.dissertationdoctor.com/articles/critic.html

Language Center (2004). Writing up research: Using the literature. Asian Institute of Technology. Available: http://www.clet.ait.ac.th/EL21LIT.htm

Lawlor, J. & Gorham, G. (2004). Dublin Institute of Technology, Faculty of Tourism & Food: The Reference Handbook. Available: http://remus.dit.ie/DIT/tourismfood/hospitality/Reference.pdf

Locke, L. F., Silverman, S. J., and Spirduso, W. W., (1998). Reading and understanding research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Maxwell, J. (1999). The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Morris, T. (1994). True Success: A new philosophy of excellence. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons

Neuman, W. L. (1997). Social research methods: qualitative and quantitative approaches (3rd Ed). Allyn and Bacon, Boston.

Simon, M. K., & Francis, B. J. (1998). The dissertation cookbook: From soup to nuts a practical guide to start and complete your dissertation (2nd. Ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

Simon, M. K., & Francis, B. J. (2004). The dissertation cookbook: From soup to          nuts a practical guide to start and complete your dissertation (3rd. Ed.). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

Sproull, N. D. (1995). Handbook of research methods: A guide for practitioners and students in the social sciences (2nd. Ed.). New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press.

Sproull, N. D. (2004). Handbook of research methods: A guide for practitioners and students in the social sciences (3rd Ed.). New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press.

Yin, R.K. (1991). Applications of Case Study Research: Applied Social Research Methods Series (2nd. Ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Yin, R.K. (2004). Applications of Case Study Research: Applied Social Research Methods Series 4th. Ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Note: Content was included from a previously published article: Muirhead, B. (2004). Literature review advice. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 1 (2), 59-63. Available: http://www.itdl.org

About the Authors

Dr. Kimbery Blum Ph.D.

Dr. Kimberly Blum mentors online doctoral students and teaches doctoral research classes at the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced studies for the past four years, starting over six years ago in the IS&T Online department, as well as conducting quantitative and qualitative research studies. In addition, Dr. Blum trains online doctorate faculty telecommuting with virtual worldwide teams; previous experience includes international system installments and training. Dr. Blum holds a B.S. in Information Systems, Masters in Management of Organizational Management, and a Ph.D. in education researching for the final dissertation online distance education student communication patterns, learning styles, and barriers.

She may be reached via email at: kdblum@email.uophx.edu



Brent Muirhead Ph.D.

Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, administration and e-learning and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and Ph.D.).

Dr. Muirhead is the Lead Faculty and Area Chair for GBAM Business Communications in the graduate department at the University of Phoenix campus in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches a diversity of undergraduate and graduate level courses in Atlanta and online. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology and Society and he has worked as a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.

He may be reached via email at: bmuirhead@email.uophx.edu.


go top

Feb 2005 Index

Home Page