Research Design

This course teaches you the fundamentals of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods approaches to psychological research. You'll understand the primary strengths and limitations of each approach, and how each can be applied to a research topic. The concepts of research ethics, scholarly research writing, and developing a research proposal will also be explored and practiced.

Section 1: Introduction to Research Methods and Design


Welcome to the exciting world of research methods and designs!


In this course, you will learn about research methods by designing a study that seeks to answer research questions and address a research problem in order to contribute to knowledge and theory in an area of study. You may recognize this as a description of doing science.

You may not see yourself as a scientist, but if you want to be successful in a PhD program, you must adopt the identity of a scientist. You may also be a therapist, a helper, someone who wants to solve problems and improve lives. . . but as a PhD student you are being trained to be a scientist. Whether you do a qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods dissertation study, you are doing science.

Dissertation Research

The goal of dissertation research, by definition, is to make an original contribution to knowledge and theory in a topic area. In order to understand the place of research methods in a study that accomplishes this goal, it is important to first understand the key elements of the process of developing a proposal for a research study:

Topic Identification: A research topic area or topic is a specific area of interest in the field of psychology. There are thousands and thousands of topics in psychology. For example: blame attribution and rape; causes of depression; parenting skills and emotional development; leadership styles and employee motivation; emotional intelligence and job performance. The list is endless. Topics are usually carved out by the collective interests of researchers and theorists.

Literature Review: A literature review is a critical review of research and theory in a topic area leading to one or more conclusions. A literature review for a dissertation serves the primary purpose of arguing for the existence of a research problem. A thorough, properly-focused literature review is necessary to successfully completing a dissertation and to accomplishing one of the essential goals of PhD work—being an expert in the scholarly and scientific literature on a topic. Before you can identify your dissertation research problem, you must be well on your way to becoming an expert in a topic area.

Research Problem identification: A research problem for a dissertation is a gap in the research and theory in a topic area that you can address with a study that contributes to knowledge and theory in the topic area.

Research Purpose identification: The purpose of a study is to address a research problem. The statement of purpose in your Dissertation Proposal describes how your study will address the gap you have identified.

Research Question identification: Your research questions are the specific questions your study attempts to answer in order to address your problem and serve your purpose.

Research Design choice: Your research design is how you will conduct your research in a way that convincingly addresses your research problem and answers your research questions.

Research Methods choice: Your research methods are the specific means of collecting the data you analyze to answer your research questions. The three categories of methods are quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods.

These elements are listed in their logical order, but the actual process of developing a Proposal is recursive. For example, an extensive literature review may lead you to change your topic; new learning about research methods may lead you to change your Purpose; a change in Purpose may lead to new Research Questions; learning about statistical techniques may lead you to change your design.

Indeed, the order of activities in this course does not follow this logic! In the first assignment, you learn about the role of research design in a study and then you learn more about doing a literature review. The reason for this is that in order to do a literature review necessary to defining a problem, you must first have skill in critiquing research. A literature review for a dissertation, indeed for any scholarly work in psychology, involves critiquing research. As you will learn, every study has shortcomings, and you must be able to evaluate studies in order to judge their contribution to knowledge and help define your contribution to your topic area. Article critiques focus primarily on the quality of a study’s research design and the implementation of the design. You will do article critiques in many of your PhD courses.


This course requires your greatest focus and attention. The reading load is heavy, but close, careful, thoughtful, and critical reading will pay off later when you formally work on your dissertation. The concepts and skills addressed in this course are key to writing an acceptable dissertation! Be sure to ask your Mentor any questions you have about the course material.

More Advice

See the Dissertation Handbook, Dissertation Review Form (DRF), the Concept Paper, Dissertation Proposal, and Dissertation Manuscript templates, and readings in this and later courses for more information on the research process and key elements of the Dissertation Proposal.
And now on to. . .

Section I Introduction

Research Design

The design of a research study is the primary means of ensuring that a study yields findings that address a research problem and answers research questions “in a convincing way” (de Vaus, 2001, p. 9). Conceptual problems (e.g., What is freedom?) can be addressed by reading and thinking as you sit in an easy chair. Empirical problems are addressed by setting events in motion, by acting on the world. Single subject phenomenological investigations, surveys of hundreds of people, and true experiments in a laboratory all involve setting events into motion. Your research design is how you will set specific events in motion—select participants, intervene, assess and measure, and so forth (see de Vaus, 2001, pp. 47-48)—in a way that limits the number of plausible interpretations of the outcome of the events. This last point is key!

A well-designed and well-implemented study is necessary in order for you to be able to make a convincing argument about the meaning and significance of your findings. If your design is flawed, your findings may be interpreted or explained in multiple plausible ways, limiting the value of your study to your field. A poor design results, for example, in findings that can be as well explained by differences between two groups at the beginning of a study as by the effect of the treatment you set up the study to investigate. This is not good!

Doing research in a way that lets you make a convincing contribution to your field of study takes considerable thought and planning. You are well-advised to keep your study as simple as you can, ensure your fundamentals are right (“Well begun is half done,” Aristotle reminds us!), and look forward to what might happen as you implement and conduct your study and plan your study to deal with plausible contingencies and validity threats (see Activity 3).

Special Note:
Notice that the authors of the readings in this course see research design and use key terms differently. For example, according to de Vaus (2001), a research design precedes a research plan. He believes the purpose of a research design is to specify the evidence needed to convincingly answer a research question: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed research methods are part of answers on to how to do this, and there is no necessary relationship between design types and methods of collecting data (e.g., it is possible to do a quantitative grounded theory study or a qualitative survey). Creswell (2009) refers to qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods designs and sees research designs as plans for conducting research and analyzing data.

It is your job to attend to what authors mean by terms they use and to form your own coherent and justified views on how to do your research. Your Mentor in this course and, later, your PSY7106, 7109, and 7109 Mentors, your Chair, Committee, and OAR reviewers will evaluate the quality of the arguments you make in support of your design and method choices, not your degree of adherence to a textbook method. As the Concept Paper template, which you will follow for your Signature Assignment in this course, says: “Avoid introductory research design and analyses descriptions as well as excessive reference to textbook authors such as Creswell and Trochim.” (Actually, it’s best to avoid all references to textbook authors.) The first and best place to look for guidance on research design is studies in your topic area similar to the study you envision.

Required Reading:
The following resources and specific resources identified within each activity.
Creswell, J. W. (2009) Chapters 1, 2; Pages 79-87, 98, 102-110
Meltzoff, J. (2008) Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (begin reading these chapters in Meltzoff now; continue reading and rereading them throughout the course; use them as a reference)
 de Vaus, D. (2001) Chapters 1, 2, 3
Trochim, W., & Donnelly, J. (2008) Chapters 1, 2, 3.1, 5, 7, 11.1a, 12.1
Broaders, S. and Goldin-Meadow, S (2010)
Lovaas, O. (1987). (An example of a study that explicitly addresses validity threats)
Morse, J. M., Barrett, M., Mayan, M., Olson, K., & Spiers, J. (2002)
Russano, M., Meissner, C., Narchet, F. and Kassin, S. (2005)
Schulz , R. (1976)
Internal validity tutorial
Litmann, Todd. (2009, December 30)
Little, J.W. & Parker, R. (2009)
Northcentral University: Research Process for the Northcentral Learner
Packer, M. (2004). Overview of Threats to the Validity of Research Findings
Trochim, William. (2006) Introduction to Validity
Validity Typology and Validity Threats
Wadsworth Cengage Learning Center: Getting Ideas for a Study Research Methods Workshop 

The purpose of research design

A research design choice involves a wide range of considerations, from ethical beliefs and philosophical positions on the nature of reality and knowledge to “mundane” matters, such as the number of groups in a study. Choosing a design is not a simple matter of deciding on a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed method. You develop your design by answering this question:

Given your research problem and the standards of scholarship in your field, what evidence do you need to collect in order to make a worthy contribution to theory and knowledge in your field?

Your research problem is the gap in the topic area your study addresses (more on this important concept in Section 2). Your evidence is your data (and how you collected it and analyzed it). The reason for developing and implementing a good design is so that you can say something convincing about how your findings address your problem, answer your Research Questions, and contribute to theory. A concern for having a good research design is what makes your study a part of a scientific enterprise and not a matter of mere opinion or “journalism” (studies that do not allow for inferences about causation and not generalize or suggest phenomena or relationships that apply beyond the participants in the study).


Assignment 1

Examine the Purpose of Research Design
For this activity, write a paper in which you:

  1. Articulate your understanding of research design and its relationship to a research problem, research questions, research methods, and other aspects of conducting research (see, for example, de Vaus’s Chapter 2 focusing questions).
  2. Ask your Mentor any questions you have about research design and research methods.
Length: 2-5 pages (app. 350 words per page)

Your paper should demonstrate thoughtful consideration of the ideas and concepts that are presented in the course and provide new thoughts and insights relating directly to this topic. Your response should reflect scholarly writing and current APA standards. Be sure to adhere to Northcentral University's Academic Integrity Policy.

The Purpose of Research Design

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