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Step 1
Step 1: Who I am as Faculty SoTL-Researcher 

Although many researchers new to SoTL are eager to dive straight in to their research design, the first step in the process of generating a SoTL study design should involve reflection about who you are as a SoTL researcher. The basic set of beliefs that guides your action as both a teacher and a researcher (Berenson, 2018; Haigh & Withell, 2020) will inform the decisions you make about your SoTL study.

SoTL researchers bring to their studies their particular teaching perspective as well as their way of understanding how things work in our world, and the way knowledge is constructed (worldview). The worldview of the SoTL researcher as well as their adscription to a particular Interpretive Community (i.e., disability theory; critical race theory; queer theory, etc.) have a deep impact on the decisions and inquiry procedures they will put in practice.

Worldview as a SoTL researcher

Guba (1990) describes a paradigm or worldview as "a basic set of beliefs that guide action.” That basic set of beliefs of the researcher is based on his ontological (What is the nature of reality?) and epistemological assumptions (What is the nature of knowledge and the relationship between the knower and the would-be known?). Therefore, how one views the constructs of social reality and knowledge affects how they will go about uncovering knowledge of relationships among phenomena and social behavior. Your ontological assumptions inform your epistemological assumptions which inform your methodology and these all give rise to your methods employed to collect data.

From an ontological point of view, post-positivism understands that there is one reality which is knowable within a specific level of probability, while constructivism understands that the nature of reality is multiple and socially constructed. Pragmatism asserts that there is a single reality and that all individuals have their own unique interpretation of reality. Finally, those following a transformative worldview reject cultural relativism and recognize that various versions of reality are based on social positioning.

From an epistemological point of view, post-positivists believe that objectivity is key and the researcher manipulates and observes in a dispassionate objective manner. Constructivists, on the contrary believe that there should be an interactive link between researcher and participants, and that since knowledge is socially and historically situated, it needs to address issues of power and trust. Pragmatism, on its side understands that relationships in research are determined by what the researcher deems as appropriate to a particular given study. Finally, a transformative worldview acknowledges that since there is an interactive link between researcher and participants, and knowledge is socially and historically situated, there is a clear need to address issues of power and trust.

These ontological and epistemological assumptions have a direct impact in the methodology used in a given study. Post-positivism calls for interventionist quantitative studies, while constructivism is associated with qualitative hermeneutical studies, and pragmatism matches methods to specific questions and purposes of research by using mixed methods. In the case of researchers following a transformative worldview, qualitative methods deeply grounded in critical theories, are most commonly used. For examples of how these paradigms are expressed within a SoTL context, see Haigh and Withell (2020)
Your disciplinary traditions may also inform your paradigmatic positioning (Poole, 2013). For example, SoTL practitioners in the sciences typically approach research from a post-positivist perspective, whereas perspectives from the humanities may align more with constructivism. Before thinking about your research question and design, spend some time reflecting about your own worldview and any disciplinary traditions that may influence your perspective. 

Please watch the following clip to clarify the previous concepts:

  • This tradition comes from 19th-century (Comte, Mill, Durkheim, Newton, and Locke).
  • It represents the traditional form of research (scientific method).
  • Called post-positivism since it represents the thinking after positivism, challenging the traditional notion of the absolute truth of knowledge (Phillips & Burbules, 2000).
  • Postpositivists hold a deterministic philosophy in which causes (probably) determine effects or outcomes.
  • It is reductionistic in that the intent is to reduce the ideas into a small, discrete set to test, such as the variables that comprise hypotheses and research questions. Its purpose is to test theories.
  • The knowledge that develops through a postpositivist lens is based on empirical observation and measurement of the objective reality that exists “out there” in the world.

  • Based on the ideas of Mannheim and from works such as Berger and Luekmann’s (1967). The Social Construction of Reality and Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) Naturalistic Inquiry.
  • There is not one objective truth. Truth is socially constructed.
  • Social constructivists believe that individuals seek understanding of the world in which they live and work, developing subjective meanings of their experiences.
  • These meanings are varied and multiple, leading the researcher to look for the complexity of views rather than narrowing meanings into a few categories or ideas.
  • The goal of the research is to rely as much as possible on the participants’ views of the situation being studied.
  • The researcher’s intent is to make sense of (or interpret) the meanings others have about the world.
  • Rather than starting with a theory (as in postpositivism), inquirers inductively develop a theory.

  • This position arose during the 1980´s and 1990´s.
  • It came from individuals who felt postpositivist assumptions imposed structural laws and theories that did not fit marginalized individuals.
  •  In the main, these inquirers felt that the constructivist stance did not go far enough in advocating for an action agenda to help marginalized peoples.
  • It focuses on the needs of groups and individuals in our society that may be marginalized.
  • Historically, the transformative writers have drawn on the works of Marx, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and Freire.
  • No uniform body of literature characterizing this worldview: Includes groups of researchers that are critical theorists; participatory action researchers; Marxists; feminists; racial and ethnic minorities; persons with disabilities; indigenous and postcolonial peoples; and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-sexual, and queer communities.
  • This worldview holds that research inquiry needs to be intertwined with politics and a political change agenda to confront social oppression at whatever levels it occurs (Mertens, 2010).

  • Pragmatism derives from the work of Peirce, James, Mead, and Dewey.
  • There are many forms of this philosophy, but for many, pragmatism as a worldview arises out of actions, situations, and consequences rather than antecedent conditions (as in postpositivism).
  • Instead of focusing on methods, researchers emphasize the research problem and use all approaches available to understand the problem.
  • Individual researchers have a freedom of choice. In this way, researchers are free to choose the methods, techniques, and procedures of research that best meet their needs and purposes.
  • As a philosophical underpinning for mixed methods studies, Morgan (2007), Patton (1990), and Tashakkori and Teddlie (2010) convey its importance for focusing attention on the research problem in social science research and then using pluralistic approaches to derive knowledge about the problem.


Resources & Suggestions


  • Haigh, N., & Withell, A. J. (2020). The Place of Research Paradigms in SoTL Practice: An Inquiry. Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 8(2), 17–31. (check)
  • Hutchings, P. (2000).Opening lines: approaches to the scholarship of teaching and learning. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.(check)
  • Maxwell, J. A. (2008). Designing a qualitative study. In L. Bickman & D. J. Rog (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of applied social research methods (Vol. 2, pp. 214–253). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (check)
Critical Friends
  • Baskerville, D., & Goldblatt, H. (2009). Learning to be a critical friend: from professional indifference through challenge to unguarded conversations. Cambridge Journal of Education, 39(2), 205–221. (check)





Step 2
Step 2: What is the problem/need I want to study in my classroom

The second step in the process of generating a design for your SoTL study has to do with reflecting on what aspect of learning or teaching you would like to study and the goals that will be driving your inquiry. We propose that you think about the following key areas: 

Defining what you would like to study
Goals driving your study
Interest in studying this particular topic 

SoTL projects often arise from our anecdotal experiences, our intuition, and our observations (Poole, 2018). As curious teacher-researchers, we can draw from these sources to select a personally relevant topic of inquiry.

Although many SoTL studies begin with a problem that requires investigation, others are motivated by the need to thoroughly describe a situation. In her Introduction to the book Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (2000), Pat Hutchings, one of the early leaders in the SoTL field, describes SoTL questions that answer “What works?,” for example, an investigation of a new teaching method, and questions that answer “What is?,” which helps us better understand what’s already happening in our classrooms.

Many of us immediately jump to a “What works” question, especially those whose disciplines emphasize hypothesis testing and a post-positivist paradigm. A “What Works” question focuses on establishing evidence of our teaching effectiveness on student learning. But sometimes we simply need to dive deeper into a particular classroom phenomenon—describing “What Is”—in order to understand it. Bill Cerbin (2018) describes a problem he had in his classroom where students were continually submitting low quality group assignments. After trying several different types of group work assignments with the same result, Cerbin realized he needed to better understand what was happening during the time students were working on their group assignments. He designed an observational, qualitative SoTL study to describe and interpret his students’ group work experience. What he found surprised him—what was actually happening during group work wasn’t at all what he thought was happening, and he was able to revise his assignments accordingly.

As you begin to think about your SoTL topic, the following questions might guide your reflection: 

    • What pervasive questions about teaching continue to puzzle you? 
    • Where are the bottlenecks in student learning in your course?  
    • Are you curious about whether a popular technique would work in your particular classroom context? 
    • Who is learning, and who is being left out?

Questions such as the previous can be uncomfortable to ask. They may produce even more discomforting answers. But, unless and until faculty grapple with the hard questions, we will remain powerless to do very much to improve life in classrooms. 

Maxwell (2008) states that goals for a study include motives, desires, and purposes—anything that leads you to do the study or that you hope to accomplish by doing it. These goals, which can be personal, practical, or intellectual, help guide your other design decisions to ensure that your study is worth doing, and are essential to justifying your study, a key task of a funding or dissertation proposal. In a SoTL manuscript, goals are often discussed in a “Rationale” section early in the paper. Some questions that could help you better define the goals of your SoTL study are:   

    • Why is your study worth doing?
    • What issues do you want it to clarify, and what practices and policies do you want it to influence?
    • Why do you want to conduct this study, and why should we care about the results?

Although the improvement of teaching and learning might be considered a “wicked problem” (Bass, 2020)—complex and multilayered, with no definable solution—SoTL can help address it in meaningful, small ways that lead to larger discoveries and theory-building.  
Spending time to reflect on your own topic of inquiry can contribute to a well-crafted research question, which is essential to designing your SoTL study.

In order to reinforce the aspects addressed above, we recommend you reflect on the interest you have in studying your topic. As a SoTL -researcher, your personal connection to the study is an important part of the study’s context, which you will thoroughly describe for your readers.  Samaras (2001) provides the following examples as an illustration: 

  • Why are you interested in studying this particular problem, issue, innovation, need? This question is important to me because of my background as a Hispanic and the fact that I was an ESOL [English as a Second Language] student for a brief period of time. 
  • Who would benefit from addressing/studying the previous particular problem, issue, innovation, need? Many would benefit from addressing this question: ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages]teachers, students, parents, and other teachers. I want to work to improve ESOL students’ weak performance in school. 


Resources & Suggestions


  • Bass, R. (2020). What’s the problem now? To Improve the Academy, 38 (1). (check)
  • Huber, M.T., & Hutchings, P. (2005) The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Maxwell, J. A. (2008). Designing a qualitative study. In L. Bickman & D. J. Rog (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of applied social research methods (Vol. 2, pp. 214–253). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (check)
  • Poole, G. (2018) Using intuition, anecdote, and observation: Rich sources of SoTL projects. In N. Chick (Ed.), SoTL in Action: Illuminating Critical Moments of Practice. Stylus
Step 3
Step 3: Evidence supporting the problem/need I want to study in my classroom 

The third step in the process of generating a SoTL design has to do with reflecting on your topic of interest and its relationship with what others have already studied. It is important to explore the literature early in the process of designing your SoTL study; however, you should also expect to return to it later as your study evolves. For helpful suggestions on searching and reviewing the SoTL literature, see these excellent articles by Healey & Healey (2023a, 2023b)

Good quality SoTL is grounded in context (Felten 2013), both in the literature it references and the classroom scenario it describes. To adequately frame the situational context, a SoTL study might draw on three bodies of literature: 1) scholarship from the discipline, or from higher education in general if the study is intended for an interdisciplinary audience; 2) scholarship on specific pedagogical topics; and 3) more general teaching and learning theory (i.e., the science of learning). To illustrate these three areas, we will consider the study by Wynn, Mosholder, & Larsen (2014) that investigated the effects of problem-based learning on the thinking skills of first-year history students in a learning community.

Scholarship from the Discipline
Scholarship on Specific Pedagogical Topics
Scholarship on General Teaching and Learning Theory
Questions to consider

Because SoTL studies are conducted by practicing instructors, they are often situated within the context of that instructor’s discipline. Citing scholarship about the unique challenges of, or approaches to, teaching a particular course provides a helpful connection for readers who are in the same discipline. For example, in the study by Wynn et al (2014), the authors situated the study within the context of documented challenges in teaching a general education history course that was a gateway to upper-level courses in the major.

Other SoTL studies written for an interdisciplinary audience might draw from general literature on higher education that discusses, for example, the obstacles that first-generation college students face during their first semester of college.

As you begin thinking about your SoTL study, it is important to read examples of disciplinary and interdisciplinary SoTL studies, returning to these studies later when you are ready to dive deeper into your review of the literature. Kennesaw State University maintains a directory of SoTL journals that is searchable by discipline

Once you have identified your topic of interest, you can begin to explore specific literature on your topic. A great place to start is the SoTL Annotations Database, a crowdsourced website providing examples of SoTL studies on more than one hundred different topics. Another suggested site is the What Works Clearinghouse, which reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education. Although primarily focused on K-12 research, users may filter their selection to include only postsecondary resources.

In the study by Wynn et al. (2014), the authors provide a brief review of the literature on problem-based learning and the benefits of student learning communities, two areas of focus in their study.

Finally, we recommend you frame your study by drawing upon general literature on teaching and learning. The breadth and depth of this literature often causes anxiety for novice SoTL practitioners, but it is not necessary to become an expert in educational psychology before beginning a SoTL study. Steiner and Hakala (2021) discuss several entry points to this literature that are accessible to those outside of the education and psychology disciplines.

Wynn et al. (2014) frame their study with a discussion of metacognition and neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development, which provides readers a better understanding of how their student participants changed as a result of their educational intervention.


We recommend you consider the following questions during this step of your study:

  • Would my study be of interest to an interdisciplinary audience, or is it more discipline-specific?
  • What elements of my topic of interest are unique to my own context?
  • What studies on my topic of interest have already been conducted, and would it make sense to replicate their design in my context? Because SoTL is heavily contextualized, replication of earlier studies can provide a valuable contribution to the field and is encouraged by many publication outlets.
  • How might I frame my study for my readers?

Resources & Suggestions
Search Engines and Databases:
This guide to databases, indexes, electronic collections and publishers' platforms in the field of education and relevant disciplines has been generated by Olga Koz, graduate librarian in the Bagwell College of Education at Kennesaw State University. It might be a good resource to help build the literature review for your SoTL study.
Generate a visual representation of your Review of Literature

This tool will help you learn how to conduct a solid review of literature. To do so, you will have to answer the questions posed in the form you will find on the lower left side, while checking the resources provided on the right side.


Step 4
Step 4: How I will study the problem/need

The fourth step in the process of generating a SoTL design has to do with deciding on the research design you will use in the study. Almost any quantitative, qualitative or mixed-methods research design could be used in a SoTL project; however, there are some special considerations that set SoTL studies apart from other research studies.   

SoTL has blurry boundaries with related concepts like research on the science of learning and Disciplinary-Based Educational Research (DBER), which can cause some confusion among those new to educational research. All are focused on teaching and learning, but each can differ from the others in aims, scope, and methodology. 

Faculty in fields like Psychology and Education may conduct research on teaching and learning as part of their disciplinary research agendas, with an aim toward building theory about how people learn. This large body of literature, collectively known as the “science of learning,” informs and is informed by SoTL, but it is not SoTL in the way most scholars define it. Rather than being focused inward on the researcher's own context--an important attribute of SoTL--theoretical research on the science of learning is focused outward, with a goal of producing generalizable theory (Larsson, et al., 2020). 

The fact that SoTL is conducted in the classroom gives the researcher less control over some aspects of the design (for example, students cannot typically be randomly placed into course sections), but it gives the research more ecological validity because the data is being collected in the authentic environment where the learning takes place. SoTL, then, can serve as the proving ground for theories built by research on the science of learning (Daniel, 2012) 

Review the following research designs to decide which fits with your topic of interest, theoretical perspective, and personal paradigm. Post-positivists are often drawn to quantitative designs, constructivists to qualitative designs, and pragmatists to mixed method designs.

Qualitative Research Traditions

Action Research
Narrative Inquiry
Grounded Theory
Case Study

In action research, the essential purpose of the research is not the accumulation of knowledge about teaching-learning, or the understanding of the educational reality, but, fundamentally, to provide information that guides a decision-making process and the innovation and change processes for the improvement of a given reality or issue. Therefore, the main goal of action research is to improve the practice instead of generating knowledge about it (Elliott, 1993).

Berg (2001) raises the existence of three fundamental types of action research: a) Technical Action Research; b) Practical Action Research, and e; c) Emancipatory Action Research. Each of them presents a different goal and it is based on a different worldview. Technical Action Research aims to "prove a particular intervention / innovation based on a specific theoretical framework" (p.186). Supported therefore in post-positivist explanatory positions. Practical Research-Action, on the other hand, "seeks to improve practice" (p.186), thus sustaining itself in an interpretive position that allows the discovery of social meanings. Finally, the emancipatory or critical Action Research has as the essential objective of social, political or personal change; its roots can be found in a transformative paradigmatic position. Currently, practical and emancipatory A-R predominate, thus framing a large percentage of the studies supported by this research tradition in the interpretative and critical paradigms (transformative Cosmovision).

However, and from our point of view, the emancipatory / critical A-R constitutes the approach that we understand should govern the studies carried out by and for teachers. We believe that a teacher should not only face a practical problem in the classroom, but should face the study of that problem from a social perspective that might help him to better understand its origins and structure, thus favoring a social change in the end.

Within the emancipatory/critical A-R, we also found participatory A-R (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2005). It is a form of Action Research that differs from conventional research in three ways. First, it focuses on research whose objective is to allow and promote action. This is achieved through a reflection cycle, through which participants collect and analyze the data, to later decide what action should be followed to improve the practice. The resulting action is then re-investigated in an iterative reflective cycle that perpetuates data collection, reflection and action. Second, participatory A-R pays close attention to power relations, advocating that power be shared deliberately between the researcher and the researched. Third, participatory A-R contrasts with less dynamic approaches and argues that those being investigated should actively participate in the process. Kemmis and McTaggart (2005) specify some of the characteristics of this particular form of A-R:

a) It constitutes a social process: participative A-R studies the relationship between the individual and the social sphere of any phenomenon under study. As we mentioned earlier, when a teacher investigates his own practice, he does it by understanding it as an educational process that has close relationships with the prevailing social model.

b) It is participatory: participatory A-R promotes that people examine their knowledge and the way in which they interpret themselves and their actionS in the surrounding social context. It is therefore participative since we can only conduct A-R about ourselves, as individuals or as a collective.

c) It is practical and collaborative: participatory A-R encourages people to examine social practices (communication, production and social organization) that relate them to other people in social interactions.

d) It is emancipatory: participatory A-R allows people to free themselves from the constraints imposed by social structures that limit their self-development and self-determination.

e) It is critical: participatory A-R helps people to free themselves from the constraints generated by social media, through which they interact.

f) It is reflexive: participatory A-R investigates the reality to change it, and changes the reality to investigate it. That is, it proposes a constant cyclical process of questioning and transforming people's practices through a cycle of critical and self-critical analysis, action and reflection.

g) It transforms theory and practice: participatory A-R aims to articulate and develop both theory and practice through a process of reflection and criticism about them. Therefore, it involves addressing daily practice from the people involved in it, to "explore the potential of different perspectives, theories and discourses that help illuminate particular practices and practical situations, as a basis for the development of critical understandings and ideas on how Things must be transformed. " (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2005, p.568).


The following clip summarizes in a visual manner what Action Research is:


You can generate a visual representation of your Action Research study using this tool.  It will help you create a visual like the one you can find below.

Narrative Inquiry is a form of qualitative research that deals with the analysis of human experience, more specifically "it studies the lives of individuals and asks one or more individuals to provide stories about their lives. This information is then retold or restoried by the researcher into a narrative chronology" (Clandinin & Connellly, 2000).
It can be understood as "the transdisciplinary study of the activities involved in the generation and analysis of stories of life experiences (for example, life stories, narrative interviews, magazines, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, biographies) and the presentation of reports adapted to this type of research" (Schwandt, 2007, p.204).

Other authors such as Creswell (2013) also define it as "a research tradition in which the narrative is understood as a spoken or written text that accounts for an event, action or a series of events and / or actions, connect-two in chronological order." It is convenient at this point to clarify that although the use of narrative texts, stories and vignettes is a fundamental strategy for most research traditions, in this case we refer to narrative research as a particular form of research with characteristics and own procedures. In this way and despite the fact that "narratives can be both a method of study and the phenomenon of study itself" (Pinnegar & Daynes, 2007), we will only focus on the first ones. Narrative Inquiry emerged in the decade of the nineties of the last century and has its roots in literature, history, anthropology, sociology, sociolinguistics, and education; different fields of study that have also adopted their own approaches within this tradition of naturalistic research (Chase, 2005).

This type of research has been supported by the turn towards narrative and autobiography that has taken place in the social sciences, the result of postmodernist thinking and the lack of faith in the traditional discourses of the positivist paradigm. This new paradigmatic situation, described as the era of "blurred genres" (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994), arose as a response in the 70s and 80s to a variety of paradigms, theories, methods and research strategies, that from a criticism of faith to positivism advocated more interpretative-naturalist approaches for the study of social phenomena.

In narrative inquiry stories constitute the fundamental data for the researcher, which have come to be called "field texts." Usually these are collected through interviews and conversations that are then used to generate detailed portraits of the informants, in order to document their voices in a certain social and cultural framework.

Generally, the researcher compiles the stories of his informants, between one and five, and then "re-story" them (Creswell, 2013, p.74) according to a series of themes that emerge from them. The new story/narrative generated by the researcher can be structured around a chronology of events that describe the person's past, present and future experiences, always located within a specific socio-cultural context or context.

When putting into practice a narrative study it is convenient to follow a series of steps that under our point of view are masterfully summarized by John Creswell (2013) in the following way:

1. Determine if the research problem fits the characteristics of narrative research: it is advisable to use this research tradition when we intend to capture the detailed stories or life experiences of a single person or the experiences of a small number of individuals.

2. Review of the literature: Narrative researcher place in the foreground the experiences of the participants and relegate to the background the academic literature related to the research topic. They generally find the underlying direction and structure of their research reports in the participants' history rather than through a formal review of the literature.

3. Select between one and five informants with interesting stories and life experiences around the topic of research: Narrative researchers usually spend extended periods with their informants in order to capture their stories in their own words. For this they collect information in multiple formats (field texts, field notes, letters, photographs, videos, artifacts created by informants, etc.).

4. Collect information about the context of the informants' stories: It is vitally important to situate the stories within the personal experiences of the participants in their work, family, cultural, political and historical environment.

5. Analyze the stories of the informants in depth: The narrative researcher must generate a process of detailed analysis of the stories of their informants to later be able to "chronicle" them around a set of topics that make sense within the proposed study.

6. Verify the accuracy of the narrative report generated: Although John Creswell does not include this last step among his specific recommendations for the implementation of narrative research, we have considered it appropriate to include it as a final stage since it is of vital importance for the credibility of a study of these characteristics. The triangulation of data and the processes of checking with the informants (member checking) the consistency of the information shared with the researcher, are crucial to adequately represent the voices and life experiences of the informants.


The following clip summarizes in a visual manner what Narrative Inquiry is:


You can generate a visual representation of your narrative study using this tool.  It will help you create a visual like the one you can find below.

A phenomenological study describes the meaning of the experiences lived by a person or group of individuals regarding a certain concept or phenomenon. For example, a research study focused on how a group of young people have experienced "Bullying" in secondary education, could be phenomenological if we focus our attention in the analysis of the common aspects experienced by them. Like the rest of the research traditions within the qualitative approach, phenomenology is not ultimately interested in explanation, but in reaching a deep understanding of a phenomenon from the eyes (frame of reference) of the person who has experienced it.

When designing a phenomenological (transcendental) qualitative study, the main steps to follow according to Moustakas (1994) are:

a) In the first place, the researcher must ask himself if his object of study really constitutes a phenomenon that can be investigated from this research tradition. As we anticipated earlier, this particular form of research focuses on understanding the way in which a group of individuals have experienced a certain phenomenon. The central thing will be, therefore, what their experiences have in common, not the personal history of each one as it would happen in a narrative investigation.

b) Secondly, the researcher must describe in depth the phenomenon that will focus the study.

c) Third, the researcher must submit his preconceptions about the phenomenon under study to a suspension process or "Bracketing" called "epoche." For this, the researcher must "suspend" his or her preconceived ideas about the phenomenon, to better understand it through the voices of the informants in his study.

d) In the data collection phase, the researcher generally develops in-depth interviews with a group of 7-12 participants who have experienced the phenomenon under. Usually the researcher opens the interview by asking two only questions to the interviewee: The first one related to their experience of the phenomenon; and the second related to the contexts and previous lived situations that he considers have affected him to experience the phenomenon under study, in the way he has done it.

e) In the data analysis phase, the researcher proceeds to the identification of dimensions or units of meaning that emerge from the in-depth interviews; these units are transformed into "clusters" of meanings, expressed in the form of psychological and phenomenological concepts. Finally, these transformations lead to a general description of the experience, the "textual description" of what the participants experienced and the "structural description" of how the phenomenon under study was experienced. Subsequently, starting from the "structural description," the researcher generates a composite description, called "essential" that brings together the essence of the phenomenon or invariant structure. This is derived from the common experiences described by the participants, making clear the underlying structure of the faith-phenomenon under study.


The following clip describes in a visual manner what phenomenological studies are:


You can generate a visual representation of your phenomenological study using this tool.  It will help you create a visual like the one you can find below.

Ethnography is a research tradition widely used in the social sciences that arises from cultural anthropology and qualitative sociology. We speak of ethnographic research or simply of ethnography, to allude both to the research process by which one inquires, learns and reflects on the way of life of a certain social group, as well as the final product (ethnographic portrait) of that research.

Hammersley and Atkinson (2007) define ethnography as the study of social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions that occur within social groups, teams, organizations, and communities. Therefore, the ultimate goal of this tradition is the analysis and detailed understanding of the particularities of a given social group. Due largely to this last aspect (the study of the particularities of a social group), we see that in some qualitative research manuals, the terms ethnography and case studies have been used indistinctly. From our point of view, there is a great conceptual difference between these two research traditions.

In ethnography, the researcher uses a macroscopic approach to study the social norms, rituals and perceptions of a particular social group; while in case studies the researcher uses a microscopic approach, based on the analysis of the singularity and uniqueness of the actions developed by the participants of a system with clearly defined limits.

A particular type of ethnography is the so-called school ethnography (Erickson, 1973). Although we can not directly apply all the approaches that govern traditional ethnography to school, we can establish certain parallelisms that allow us to use this tradition for the study of educational problems. Regardless of whether we want to conduct an ethnographic study on the performance of a group of teachers or students; or even a curriculum, we must understand the school context as a small social community with specific norms, rituals, values ​​and beliefs.

Although all ethnographic studies must evolve and adapt to the demands that emerge from the field, it is important to define the main steps we can take when developing an ethnographic study. Creswell (2013) establishes the following:

a) First we must determine if ethnography is the most appropriate research tradition to study our research topic. We can use an ethnographic design if, as we said before, we are interested in describing and understanding the culture of a certain social group, its beliefs, its language, the rituals of its members, their behaviors. In the specific case of school ethnography, we will refer, therefore, to studies in which we intend to analyze, for example, the reasons why an educational center is innovative, or even the impact that the collaboration culture of a school has that they can successfully develop a learning community.

b) In the second place we must identify a social group with a shared culture that allows us to study it in detail (i.e. an educational center, an association to help relatives of people with disabilities, a sports team, a neighborhood action group, etc.). The ethnographic study will be more feasible if the members of the social group have lived together for a prolonged period of time, so that their shared language, behavior patterns and attitudes are identifiable.

c) When planning our study following this tradition of research, we must select subjects that embrace the analysis of the culture shared by its members. Some examples of topics that could be analyzed under the umbrella of ethnography are: the study of enculturation processes, the socialization processes of children and young people, the way in which they learn, the analysis of inequality, etc.

d) Subsequently we must collect information in the places where the group develops as such. In the spaces where its members work, live and interact on a daily basis.

e) Finally, we must analyze the data collected in a holistic way, trying to identify defining features and cultural patterns that help us understand the functioning of the group under study.


The following clip summarizes in a visual manner what an ethnographical study  is:


You can generate a visual representation of your ethnographical study using this tool.  It will help you create a visual like the one you can find below.

Grounded Theory is a research tradition strongly influenced by symbolic interactionism, which was raised and developed by the sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). This, unlike those presented previously, offers the possibility for the researcher to generate theory through a systematic process of data collection and analysis. This tradition of research assumes that the behaviors that occur naturally in social contexts can be better analyzed from the generation of "bottom-up" categories and concepts. Glasser and Strauss (1967) define GT "as the discovery of theories from data systematically obtained from social research." Grounded Theory was initially developed in the nursing school of the University of California in San Francisco, when trying to develop theories in support of the awareness of the proximity of their death, that terminal patients had.

Glasser and Strauss proposed an innovative methodology that would help them investigate a topic that had not been previously investigated. As we mentioned earlier, his new methodological proposal was rooted in symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969).

According to symbolic interactionism, the meaning of a certain behavior is formed from social interaction. Therefore, this line of thought emphasizes the importance of meaning and interpretation as essential human processes. People create shared meanings through their social interactions, which will later define their reality. GT is very effective at exploring in a holistic way, both the relationships of a particular social group and the behavior of its members, insofar as they affect the life of the individual.

Grounded theory is especially recommended for the study of situations, phenomena and contexts that have not been studied enough, and on which there is not enough literature. Its essential characteristic is that theoretical propositions are not postulated as in other research traditions at the beginning of the study, but that generalizations emerge from the data themselves and not prior to the collection of them. Therefore, theories are constructed on the basis of interaction, fundamentally based on the actions, interactions and social processes that take place between people. Charmaz (2006) proposes the following phases for the implementation of the Grounded Theory:


1. Identification of our area of ​​substantive interest: As it happens in the research traditions previously shown, a study based on GT must also start from the identification of an area of ​​interest and research topic. In the case of this tradition, the selection of the area of ​​interest and the specific topic of research, as well as relying on the personal interests of the researcher, must be based on the identification of an area whose theoretical development has not been satisfactorily covered in the literature. The identification of a theoretical "gap" will provide us with the starting point for the definition of our research design. However, unlike what happens in the rest of the research traditions, at this time we should not conduct a formal review of literature, just an initial screening that allows us to identify the aforementioned lack of theoretical support of the topic that we wish to study.


2. Data collection: As established by (Charmaz, 2006, Strauss & Corbin, 1990) the fundamental techniques of data collection in GT are observations, interviews, document analysis, and in some cases, even the collection of quantitative data from, for example, the completion of questionnaires, the use of social networks or even formal techniques of discourse analysis. The decisions regarding the data collection techniques to be used will be strongly directed by the informants included in our study. Both the data collection techniques and the informants will determine the quality and completeness of the emerging theory of the process. Strauss and Corbin (1990) offer the following recommendations in this regard: a) The context, group and / or individuals to be studied should be chosen on the basis of the main research question; b) The types of data collection techniques that will be used should be chosen according to their convenience to capture the information that we seek to generate our theory; c) In the case of longitudinal studies, it is necessary to make a decision about whether to follow an individual throughout the process, or certain individuals at different points in the process.


3. Open coding and axial coding of data: As we mentioned before, when we carry out a GT study, the data collection and analysis happen simultaneously. The first step in the analysis is based on data coding. Holton (2007) identifies two fundamental types of coding; the substantive (substantive coding) and the theoretical (theoretical coding). The substantive coding aims to conceptualize the empirical substance of the studied topic, that is, to help us analyze the data in which the theory is submerged (grounded). On the other hand, the theoretical coding helps us conceptualize the way in which the substantive codes are related to each other and are integrated to form our emerging theory. Strauss & Corbin (1990) identify three fundamental types of substantive coding: open coding, axial coding and selective coding. Open coding consists of scrutinizing the data (usually texts) by separating them into units of content, or codes, in order to identify concepts, ideas and meanings contained therein. The meticulous examination of the data allows us to identify, and what is more important, to conceptualize meanings in the analyzed texts. To implement this coding strategy, we must examine, segment and compare the data in relation to their similarities and differences. For this, the researcher conscientiously reads the texts under analysis and identifies portions of them that point out ideas, concepts and / or meanings, relevant for the understanding and conceptualization of the topic subject of study. The codes generated from the researcher's interpretation are called "open," while those that come from textual phrases mentioned by our informants (in an interview, for example) are called "in vivo." At the end of an open coding process we will obtain a list, generally extensive, of codes that, when compared and reduced among them, will allow us to obtain a classification of the second degree, composed of the so-called analysis categories (San Martín, 2014). Once the process of open encoding of our data has been concluded, and having obtained a set of categories of analysis, we will proceed to the axial coding. Through axial coding, the researcher identifies possible relationships between the categories obtained in the open coding, grouping them and / or sub-dividing them into sub-categories, as appropriate.


4. Production of "memos": During the open coding and the axial coding of the data, the researcher must annotate in an organized way the decisions that he is taking, as well as the abstractions that he generates. The so-called "memos" are notes that researchers generate as they codify the data, which allows a written record of abstract thinking when creating codes and categories. Strauss and Corbin (1990, p.197) define them as "written records of analysis." The generation of memos is essential in GT because it constitutes a process of reflection by which researchers interpret the data in an analytical manner in order to discover emerging patterns that help develop the sought after substantive theory.


5. Selective coding of data: As mentioned previously, the third type of substantive coding is the so-called selective coding. It occurs as an extension of the axial coding, characterized by a higher level of abstraction. This third coding process is intended to help the researcher identify what the authors of the grounded theory call the "core category." This allows the researcher to express the phenomenon of research through the integration of the categories and sub-categories of open and axial coding. The central category that results from a selective coding process must group the categories in the axial coding phase, in order to explain the phenomenon or phenomena studied in our research.


6. Search for abstract theoretical codes: In parallel to the realization of axial and selective coding, the researcher must also begin to develop what is called "theoretical coding." Unlike the three procedures of substantive coding previously described, in the theoretical coding the researcher tries to identify a series of theoretical codes that allow him to develop an integrated and explanatory substantive theory of the phenomenon object of study. A theoretical code consists of the relational model through which all previously identified codes and substantive categories are related to the central category.


7. Review of the literature: Until now, it is not recommended to carry out an exhaustive review of the literature related to the phenomenon under study. This should be done around the category or central categories emanated from the previous phase. It is in this moment of the investigation when the existing literature in the field will allow us to generate our emergent or substantive theory.


8. Generation of the emerging theory and its integration with preexisting knowledge: GT focuses on the generation of what is called "substantive theory." This differs from formal theory, of a universal nature, in that the substantive theory deals with a type of theoretical construction of inductive order, which allows us to understand singular social realities. The substantive theory is generated from the dynamic analysis of data and therefore differs from the deductive and static nature involved in the processes of generation of formal theories. It is to this particular type of theory, to which we will refer in this eighth phase of the process of implementing a study supported by Grounded Theory.


The following clip summarizes in a visual manner what Grounded Theory is:


You can generate a visual representation of your Grounded Theory study using this tool.  It will help you create a visual like the one you can find below.

Case Study is a research tradition that allows the in-depth analysis of particular social realities, or as MacDonald and Walker (1975) indicate, for the study of well-defined systems in action. This is a tradition that has been used since we have historical records (Flyvbjerg, 2011). However, case studies as we understand them today have their origins at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, in interpretative studies carried out in anthropology, psychology, history and sociology (Simons, 2009).

The main definitions of this tradition reveal that a case study, as proposes by (Rodríguez Gómez et al., 1999), implies a process of inquiry characterized by detailed, comprehensive, systematic and in-depth examination of the case under study. However there are many approaches to this tradition of research.

Yazan (2016) states that the three most relevant case study approaches in the social sciences have been proposed by Robert Yin, Sharan Merriam and Robert Stake. The three approaches differ fundamentally in the worldview or paradigmatic position from which they were conceived, as well as in the practical procedures they propose. Yin makes his proposal from a positivist position, while Merriam and Stake propose their models from constructivistic conceptions that align better with qualitative studies. Therefore, from this moment we opted for the existentialist model proposed by Stake (1995) since we consider that it has had the greater impact in the social sciences, perhaps because of the refinement of its proposal and its recommendations of practical application .

For Stake (1995), a case study should allow us to understand in depth and holistically, empirically, empathically and interpretively the person, innovation or program object of study. To do so, the researcher should focus on the observable actions of the informants that are part of the case, instead of analyzing their perceptions of attitudes and beliefs. These research design follows a progressive approach (progressive in focus) so they are flexible and they adapt to the problems and tensions identified by the informants as the study evolves. Despite the widespread belief that this type of studies do not allow the researcher to generalize their results, it does facilitate a particular type of generalization called naturalistic (Stake, 1998). The in-depth study of particular situations clearly delimited, allows that third parties in similar contexts can learn from the conclusions obtained in a specific case study.
It is important to distinguish the typology of the case object of our study in order to design it properly, and always keep in mind the ultimate objective with which we study it. Stake (1995) identifies three types of case studies depending on the purpose of the study:


a) Intrinsic case study: The intrinsic case study is conducted to learn about a unique phenomenon which the study focuses on. The researcher needs to be able to define the uniqueness of this phenomenon which distinguishes it from all others; possibly based on a collection of features or the sequence of events.

b) Instrumental case study: The instrumental case study is done to provide a general understanding of a phenomenon using a particular case. The case chosen can be a typical case although an unusual case may help illustrate matters overlooked in a typical case because they are subtler there.

c) Multiple case study: The collective case study is done to provide a general understanding using a number of instrumental case studies that either occur on the same site or come from multiple sites.



The following clip summarizes in a visual manner what a Case Study is:


You can generate a visual representation of your Case Study study using this tool.  It will help you create a visual like the one you can find below.

Phenomenography denotes a research tradition aiming at describing the different ways a group of people understand a phenomenon (Marton, 1981), whereas phenomenology aims to clarify the structure and meaning of a phenomenon (Giorgi, 1999). Phenomenography aims to identify and interrogate the range of different ways in which people perceive or experience specific phenomena (typically learning, teaching or aspects thereof).


Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography-Describing Conceptions of the World Around Us. Instructional Science, 10, 177-200.

Giorgi, A. (1999). A phenomenological perspective on some phenomenographic results on learning. Journal of Phenomen- ological Psychology, 30(2), 68-93.

Online Resources:

Phenomenographic or phenomenological analysis: does it matter?

Making sense of ‘pure’ phenomenography in information and communication technology in education

The Concepts and Methods of Phenomenographic Research

The following clip summarizes what phenomenography is:


You can generate a visual representation of your phenomenography using this tool.  It will help you create a visual like the one you can find below.



Quantitative Research Traditions

Descriptive Designs
Correlational Designs
Pre-experimental Designs
Quasi-experimental Designs
Experimental Designs

Descriptive designs are intended to describe an educational situation or reality and/or classify it in a certain category. They are very frequent in education and in general in the field of social sciences. Most of the descriptive studies are carried out through questionnaires or observations. Hence, the types of descriptive designs that can be carried out are survey-research and observational.

An example of descriptive design tries to answer the following question: what is the use of mobile phones by teenagers throughout the day? It is interesting to know the following variables: the daily time dedicated and the differential frequency of use of Whatsapp, social networks, and calls.

Survey-research: The main objective of a survey-research design is to describe features or characteristics of a group or population through the responses provided by the participants to a questionnaire or interview administered by the researcher. They seek to collect information referring to the entire population, and in cases where this is not possible, a sample that represents it. The main instruments in this type of design are questionnaires and structured or semi-structured interviews. The information collected through the questionnaires is usually of two types: a) sociodemographic characteristics of the participants, such as gender, profession, age, etc., and b) attitudes, opinions, perceptions, behaviors, habits, experiences, etc.  Because the objective of these designs is to see the distribution of a certain variable, for example, the opinion of people over 65 years of age regarding the digitalization of the health system in Madrid- in the entire population -persons of 65 who live in Madrid-, it is vitally important that when this is not possible, a sample is selected through the probabilistic sampling procedures that allow to represent the population from which it has been extracted and thus generalize the results. In addition to the rigor in the selection of the sample, another of the decisive questions in this type of research is the validation of the instrument that will be used when it is prepared by the researcher.

Observational designs: Observation is defined by Martínez-González (2007) as the act of looking carefully at something without intervening in its natural course, with the intention of examining it, interpreting it and obtaining conclusions. The description may introduce some confusion with the observation used in qualitative research. In this case, we are referring to an intentional, planned, structured observation, registered in an objective manner, and seeking the explanation of the observed phenomenon. That is, what is observed is quantified by different criteria such as frequency, intensity, domain, etc. One of the most complicated aspects of an intentional observation is the work that needs to be done to define what needs to be observed.  For example, if we want to observe the attachment behavior of children with their teacher in early childhood education, we must explicitly and clearly specify which behaviors characterize each type of attachment in order to identify them when conducting an observation. It will also be necessary to determine if what matters is the appearance of the behavior, its frequency, or perhaps the registration of patterns of relationship between the teacher and the child. To carry out this process we have to be very sure that a certain behavior expresses what we want to measure. Hence the difficulty to observe internal aspects of the human being, which have a difficult manifestation sometimes to interpret, such as moods, thoughts or even emotions. As described in the case of survey-research studies, the measurements of an observational study can be carried out over time (longitudinal) or at a single moment (cross-sectional). The most frequently used observational designs can be found in the clinical field. The instruments for collecting observational information in a quantifiable way are observational codes, some of them already elaborated, validated and published for use in samples determined according to context and age. Control lists or estimation scales are also common.

You can use the following tool to generate a visual representation of a Descriptive non-experimental design:

A Correlational Design explores the relationship between variables using statistical analyses. However, it does not look for cause and effect and therefore, is mostly observational in terms of data collection. A correlational study determines whether or not two variables are correlated. This means to study whether an increase or decrease in one variable corresponds to an increase or decrease in the other variable.

There are three types of correlations that are identified:

Positive correlation: Positive correlation between two variables is when an increase in one variable leads to an increase in the other and a decrease in one leads to a decrease in the other. For example, the amount of money that a person possesses might correlate positively with the number of cars he owns.

Negative correlation: Negative correlation is when an increase in one variable leads to a decrease in another and vice versa. For example, the level of education might correlate negatively with crime. This means if by some way the education level is improved in a country, it can lead to lower crime. Note that this doesn't mean that a lack of education causes crime. It could be, for example, that both lack of education and crime have a common reason: poverty.

No correlation: Two variables are uncorrelated when a change in one doesn't lead to a change in the other and vice versa. For example, among millionaires, happiness is found to be uncorrelated to money. This means an increase in money doesn't lead to happiness.

There are essentially two reasons that researchers interested in statistical relationships between variables would choose to conduct a correlational study rather than an experiment. The first is that they do not believe that the statistical relationship is a causal one. The second reason that researchers would choose to use a correlational study rather than an experiment is that the statistical relationship of interest is thought to be causal, but the researcher cannot manipulate the independent variable because it is impossible, impractical, or unethical.

The two main types of correlational designs are:

Explanatory Correlational Design: An explanatory design seeks to determine to what extent two or more variablesco-vary. Co-vary simply means the strength of the relationship of one variable to another. In general, two or more variables can have a strong, weak, or no relationship. This is determined by the product moment correlation coefficient, which is usually referred to as r. The r is measured on a scale of -1 to 1. The higher the absolute value the stronger the relationship.

Prediction Correlational Design: Prediction design has most of the same functions as explanatory design with a few minor changes. In prediction design, we normally do not use the term explanatory and response variable. Rather we have predictor and outcome variable as terms. This is because we are trying to predict and not explain. In research, there are many terms for independent and dependent variable and this is because different designs often use different terms.


You can use the following tool to generate a visual representation of your Correlational Design:

Pre-experiments are the simplest form of research design. In a pre-experiment either a single group or multiple groups are observed subsequent to some agent or treatment presumed to cause change.

Types of Pre-Experimental Design

One-shot case study design: A single group is studied at a single point in time after some treatment that is presumed to have caused change. The carefully studied single instance is compared to general expectations of what the case would have looked like had the treatment not occurred and to other events casually observed. No control or comparison group is employed.

One-group pretest-posttest design: A single case is observed at two time points, one before the treatment and one after the treatment. Changes in the outcome of interest are presumed to be the result of the intervention or treatment. No control or comparison group is employed.

Advantages of pre-experimental designs: 

As exploratory approaches, pre-experiments can be a cost-effective way to discern whether a potential explanation is worthy of further investigation.

Disadvantages of pre-experimental designs: 

Pre-experiments offer few advantages since it is often difficult or impossible to rule out alternative explanations. The nearly insurmountable threats to their validity are clearly the most important disadvantage of pre-experimental research designs.


You can use the following tool to generate a visual representation of your Pre-Experimental Design


Quasi-experimental designs examine cause-and-effect relationships between or among independent and dependent variables. However, one of the characteristics of true-experimental design is missing, typically the random assignment of subjects to groups. Although quasi-experimental designs are useful in testing the effectiveness of an intervention and are considered closer to natural settings, these research designs are exposed to a greater number of threats of internal and external validity, which may decrease confidence and generalization of study's findings.

Nonequivalent control group designs: The most common subset of quasi-experimental research designs are the nonequivalent control group designs.  In one implementation of this design, subjects in the control group are intentionally matched by the researcher to subjects in the treatment group on characteristics which might be associated with the outcome of interest.  This matching can be done at the individual level, resulting in a one-to-one match of individuals in the two groups.  Another approach is aggregate matching, in which researchers select a control group with the same general composition of relevant characteristics (for example, the same proportion of females and the same age distribution) as the treatment group.  These approaches are considered quasi-experimental due to the fact that assignment of subjects to groups is intentional and not random.  Another common approach to this type of quasi-experimental research design is the use of existing groups.  For example, a comparison could be made between students in two classrooms, with the stimulus administered in only one classroom.

Time-series data Designs: Another quasi-experimental approach involves time-series data, in which researchers observe one group of subjects repeatedly both before and after the administration of the treatment.  This can be done in a controlled experimental setting, but this design also lends itself well to a more naturalistic setting in which data are commonly collected on a group of subjects and researchers are interested in the effects of some treatment or intervention which they did not experimentally apply.  For example, researchers might examine the yearly test scores of students at a given school for several years both before and after the implementation of an extended school day; in this situation the yearly tests scores represent the time-series data and the change to an extended school day is the naturally occurring, quasi-experimental treatment.  This approach is an improvement over the single pre-test/post-test design, which is unable to demonstrate long-term effects.  The time-series data design can be further improved by including a control group which is also examined over time but which does not experience the treatment; such a design is termed a multiple time-series design.

While quasi-experimental designs are often more practical to implement than true experiments, they are more susceptible to threats to internal validity.  Special care must be taken to address validity threats, and the use of additional data to rule out alternate explanations is advised.


You can use the following tool to generate a visual representation of your Quasi-experimental Design


An experiment is a study in which the researcher manipulates the level of some independent variable and then measures the outcome. Experiments are powerful techniques for evaluating cause-and-effect relationships. Many researchers consider experiments the "gold standard" against which all other research designs should be judged. Experiments are conducted both in the laboratory and in real life situations.

True experiments, in which all the important factors that might affect the phenomena of interest are completely controlled, are the preferred design. Often, however, it is not possible or practical to control all the key factors, so it becomes necessary to implement a quasi-experimental research design.

In an experiment, the researcher manipulates the factor that is hypothesized to affect the outcome of interest. The factor that is being manipulated is typically referred to as the treatment or intervention. The researcher may manipulate whether research subjects receive a treatment and the level of treatment.

Example of true experiment: Suppose, for example, a group of researchers was interested in the causes of maternal employment. They might hypothesize that the provision of government-subsidized child care would promote such employment. They could then design an experiment in which some subjects would be provided the option of government-funded child care subsidies and others would not. The researchers might also manipulate the value of the child care subsidies in order to determine if higher subsidy values might result in different levels of maternal employment.

Random Assignment

-Study participants are randomly assigned to different treatment groups
-All participants have the same chance of being in a given condition
-Participants are assigned to either the group that receives the treatment, known as the "experimental group" or "treatment group," or to the group which does not receive the treatment, referred to as the "control group"
-Random assignment neutralizes factors other than the independent and dependent variables, making it possible to directly infer cause and effect

Random Sampling

-Traditionally, experimental researchers have used convenience sampling to select study participants. However, as research methods have become more rigorous, and the problems with generalizing from a convenience sample to the larger population have become more apparent, experimental researchers are increasingly turning to random sampling. In experimental policy research studies, participants are often randomly selected from program administrative databases and randomly assigned to the control or treatment groups.

Advantages of Experimental Designs

The environment in which the research takes place can often be carefully controlled. Consequently, it is easier to estimate the true effect of the variable of interest on the outcome of interest.

Disadvantages of Experimental Designs

It is often difficult to assure the external validity of the experiment, due to the frequently nonrandom selection processes and the artificial nature of the experimental context.


You an use the following tool to create your Experimental Design

Mixed-methods Research Designs

Convergent parallel
Explanatory sequential
Exploratory sequential

Convergent parallel mixed methods is a form of mixed methods design in which the researcher converges or merges quantitative and qualitative data in order to provide a comprehensive analysis of the research problem. In this design, the investigator typically collects both forms of data at roughly the same time and then integrates the information in the interpretation of the overall results. Contradictions or incongruent findings are explained or further probed in this design.


The following tool will help you generate a visual representation of your Convergent parallel mixed methods


Explanatory sequential mixed methods is one in which the researcher first conducts quantitative research, analyzes the results and then builds on the results to explain them in more detail with qualitative research. It is considered explanatory because the initial quantitative data results are explained further with the qualitative data. It is considered sequential because the initial quantitative phase is followed by the qualitative phase. This type of design is popular in fields with a strong quantitative orientation (hence the project begins with quantitative research), but it presents challenges of identifying the quantitative results to further explore and the unequal sample sizes for each phase of the study.


The following tool will help you generate a visual representation of your Explanatory sequential mixed methods Design


Exploratory sequential mixed methods is the reverse sequence from the explanatory sequential design. In the exploratory sequential approach the researcher first begins with a qualitative research phase and explores the views of participants. The data are then analyzed, and the information used to build into a second, quantitative phase. The qualitative phase may be used to build an instrument that best fits the sample under study, to identify appropriate instruments to use in the follow-up quantitative phase, or to specify variables that need to go into a follow-up quantitative study. Particular challenges to this design reside in focusing in on the appropriate qualitative findings to use and the sample selection for both phases of research.


The following tool will help you generate a visual representation of your Exploratory sequential mixed

methods Design


An embedded mixed methods design involves as well either the convergent or sequential use of data, but the core idea is that either quantitative or qualitative data is embedded within a larger design (e.g., an experiment) and the data sources play a supporting role in the overall design. A multiphase mixed methods design is common in the fields of evaluation and program interventions. In this advanced design, concurrent or sequential strategies are used in tandem over time to best understand a long-term program goal.


The following tool will help you generate a visual representation of your embedded (quantitative) mixed methods design


The following tool will help you generate a visual representation of your embedded (qualitative) mixed methods design

Resources & Suggestions
Step 5
Step 5: What questions will be driving the study of the problem/need

What pervasive questions about teaching continue to puzzle you? Where are the bottlenecks in student learning in your course? Do you wonder whether a popular technique would work in your particular classroom context? As discussed in earlier Hopscotch steps, SoTL studies begin with these kinds of questions—questions that arise from our intuition or experience and drive us to seek an answer (Poole, 2018). 

Often our questions begin as areas of interest that may be quite broad. Therefore, your first goal in planning a SoTL study is to narrow your area of interest into a question that is testable (perhaps using quantitative methods) or can be explored further (perhaps using qualitative methods). Clearly defining your research question at the outset of your study will allow you to choose an appropriate research design. 

Research Questions in Quantitative SoTL Studies
Research Questions in Qualitative SoTL Studies
What to avoid when defining your Research Question
Questions to reflect upon when establishing your RQs

In most quantitative studies, the research question is very narrow and specific, allowing the researchers to test their hypothesis through the use of inferential statistics. Often, the operational definition of the variable of interest is included in the question. For example, a Psychology instructor might be interested in whether his students develop self-regulated learning skills after completing a semester-long project. A narrow and specific research question that reflects this theme might be: 

  • How do the self-regulated learning skills, as measured by the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire, of students in an introductory psychology class change after completing a strategy project assignment? 

Research questions in qualitative studies are not as well-defined at the outset of the study. Being more open-ended and in-depth than quantitative studies, qualitative studies allow for additional questions to emerge during the data collection process. For example, a researcher taking this approach might be interested in the different ways her students learn in her Calculus II course. Her research question might be: 

  • How do students who took an AP Calculus course in high school approach the study of Calculus II differently from those who took their first calculus course during college? 

Although she has established a broad question in order to drive the collection of qualitative data, interviews or focus groups, her question might evolve as she proceeds.

For example, early in the study if she notices that students who mention being taught metacognitive strategies in high school approach learning in a different way, she may decide to focus more carefully on this particular aspect. For additional guidance on developing qualitative research questions, see Agee (2009). 

The Center for Educational Innovation at the University of Minnesota, provides the following recommendations on what to avoid when generating your SoTL research questions:

    • Compound research questions. For example: "Do new learning spaces inspire faculty members to employ new active-learning techniques that enhance student motivation and learning?" This question contains several distinct strands that should be disentangled and listed as separate questions. 
    • Ambiguous terminology. Ambiguous terminology. For instance: “Are students more engaged after a service-learning experience than they were before?” Student engagement is a popular concept in current educational discourse, but its meaning is not entirely clear. Do we mean affective engagement (improved feelings or emotions)? Cognitive engagement (increased intellectual interest)? Social engagement (greater interaction with peers or instructors around class issues)? Specifying a way of measuring engagement will often lead to greater precision in terminology. 
    • Overly ambitious questions. For example: “Does using a problem-based approach to teaching evolutionary theory in introductory biology courses cause greater student acceptance of evolution?” Causal questions are among the most difficult questions to answer because an affirmative answer must not only document change over time, but also justify attributing that change to the putative causal factor. This can be challenging, particularly if circumstances do not permit you to use a comparative research design that controls for extraneous factors. 

We recommend reflecting on the following questions as you establish the research questions for your SoTL study: 

    • Does my question describe “what is,” or answer “what works?” (Hutchings, 2000)
    • How might the methodology I have chosen for my study influence the way I state my question? 
    • If I am using quantitative methodology, are my variables clearly defined? 
    • If I am using qualitative methodology, is my question open-ended enough to allow additional questions to emerge from the data?  
    • Have I avoided compound questions, ambiguous terminology, and implications of causality?


Resources & Suggestions
Resources to help you develop Research Questions in Quantitative Studies
Resources to help you develop Research Questions in Qualitative  Studies

Resources to help you develop Research Questions in Mixed-Methods Studies


Step 6
Step 6: What data I will collect 

The sixth step of the process has to do with defining the data collection methods that you will be using in your SoTL study. The following two questions might be of help in doing so: 

  • What evidence do you need to convince yourself that you’ve answered your question?
  • What tools do you use in your course everyday that would provide that evidence?

For example, if you are interested in measuring student learning, what evidence would convince you that students have learned? Their grades? Their scores on a standardized end-of-course assessment? Or might their evidence of learning come through in a term paper or other artifact? These will be the sources of your data.
Much of this data will already be available to you in your course. However, in most cases you must receive consent from your students (under the oversight of an Institutional Review Board) to use the data in research. This process will be discussed in Step 9 of the Hopscotch-SoTL model.

Below are some of the most common sources of data for SoTL projects:

Classroom Assessments
Learning Management System Tools
Interviews and Focus Groups
Observations & Reflections

A source of data for almost every SoTL study is the assignments that already exist in your course. You likely have a variety of ways you already assess student learning in your course. Depending on your research question, you may want to add additional assignments as an intervention. Assessments can include tests, quizzes, papers, projects, and informal “on-the-fly” assignments.

For a thorough discussion of classroom assessment techniques, see the classic book by Angelo and Cross (1993).

Most instructors, whether teaching online or face-to-face, use a learning management system (such as Canvas, Blackboard, or BrightSpace) in their courses. This system can be a rich source of data because many aspects of engagement are automatically captured, such as number of visits to particular pages, the amount of time a student spends looking at content, and comments on the discussion board.

Many institutions have a guide to obtaining data from a learning management system, such as this one from Portland Community College. 

Qualitative and mixed-method research designs may necessitate the more in-depth data that can be gained from interviews or student focus groups. These data collection approaches may afford a deeper understanding of our questions, but also require more time in the collection and analysis of data. Question protocols can range from more structured to open-ended and informal, but the questions will almost always need to be reviewed by an ethics board ahead of time. In addition, it often helps to have a colleague moderating the interview or focus group, so that students feel more comfortable in speaking freely.

When conducting an interview or focus group, carefully note the details of when and where the session is taking place, ensure you have proper recording equipment, and above all, be a good listener.

Surveys are a common source of data for SoTL studies, allowing the researcher to quickly collect quantitative and/or qualitative data. As with other data collection methods, your survey will usually require pre-approval from your institution’s ethics board before distribution.

If your study has well-defined variables that have been measured in previous studies (for example, “metacognition”), you may want to select a survey that has been empirically validated and published. Two good sources for SoTL surveys include A Compendium for Scales for use in SoTL Research and the Hub for Introductory Psychology and Pedagogical Research . They include scales that measure self-efficacy, critical thinking, mindset, student engagement, epistemological beliefs, and more.

If your study is very context-specific (for instance, you are gathering data on the student response to a particular assignment), you may want to create your own survey. If you create your own, in addition to considering the data needed to answer the research question, you should think about how to minimize potential bias and maximize the validity of the replies. The University of Toronto Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation has this guide for SoTL researchers who wish to create their own survey.

Observational approaches allow us to gather quantitative data (such as number of hands raised in response to a question) and qualitative data (such as student quotes or reactions to a topic) that is not easily measured in another way. As a participant-researcher, your observations can be key to uncovering the nuances that aren’t readily apparent in the data. An excellent example of this approach can be found in Visioli et al. (2009).

Your reflections on your teaching practice can be another source of data on their own, and can help situate your other data in context. We recommend keeping a notebook in which you write a brief daily reflection about what you notice in the classroom. You can decide later whether you want to include this data as part of your study.


Resources & Suggestions
Resources to help you define your data collection methods
Step 7
Step 7: How will I analyze the collected data?

The seventh step of the process has to do with organizing and making sense of the data that you will be using in your SoTL study. Frances Rust and Christopher Clark's guide to action research offers the following : "Analysis is the heart of making sense of your experience with action research. Analysis is fun and messy. It always begins with your data. Data never speak for themselves. Please remember this. Data never speak for themselves. Your mind is the most important analytical tool that you have. Analysis is a process of telling a convincing story about the sense that your data led you to make. As well, you must persuade a skeptical audience that the story that you tell and the sense that you make are supported by evidence."

There are two major sources of support for your evidence: 

  • The first is the data you have collected and the patterns that you see. 
  • The second is equally important. It is what others have learned about this topic. If you haven’t already read other research and theory on your topic, now is the time to do it. This is critical to situating your work. If, for example, you find that the action you took has results that are very similar to those of other researchers, then you know your analysis is in the ballpark. Essentially, you can borrow from the authority of others that have come before you to strengthen the claims that you will make for the action that you took. If, however, your results contradict prior research, then you are well on the way to forming a provocative new question about why your study yielded such different results. You have something interesting to talk about with colleagues and with other researchers. Either way, what you learn locally can become part of a larger conversation among educators and researchers. 

Your data analysis will look very different depending on the methods you use (for an in-depth look at the diversity of methods in SoTL studies, see Divan et al. (2017)). However, as a general rule, you should prepare to:

    • Describe the action(s) that you took.
    • Reflect on the evidence you have collected.
    • Count. Look for patterns.
    • Share the evidence with colleagues.
    • Examine what different explanations could explain the data
      (draw on prior research).
    • Revisit assumptions about the learning situation.
    • Formulate a trial explanation.
    • Develop an argument with evidence and claims.
    • Check if your evidence support your claims: Does the evidence support your claims?  Do your colleagues (critical friends) find your argument credible?; How does the argument fit into ongoing debates and conversations? What is unique about your setting or context? Will others find your argument useful?

In a quantitative study, you’ll be analyzing numbers. You may report some descriptive statistics, but you’ll likely be using inferential statistics, with the most common for SoTL studies being t-tests, analysis of variance (ANOVA), correlation, and multiple regression. Here are some things to consider when analyzing quantitative data: 

    • Because student data doesn’t usually fit a normal curve, you may decide to use non-parametric statistics. This is a conservative choice to make, because it increases your chances of making a Type II error (not seeing an effect when an effect is actually there); however, if your analysis reveals an effect when using non-parametric statistics, your claim is stronger.  
    • Many SoTL researchers are now choosing to report effect sizes, which give readers a better idea of the practical significance of the results. 
    • Commonly used software for quantitative data analysis includes SPSS and SAS, as well as R, which is freely available online. 
    • Contact your institution’s research center to identify resources and support for quantitative data analysis on your campus.  

The data analysis process is quite different for qualitative data, and may require several iterations of analysis before completion. Developing and assigning themes and codes to the data is one approach (for example, see Braun and Clarke (2006)). An important concept in qualitative data analysis triangulation—the inclusion of multiple sources of data in order to provide a richer, more accurate analysis.

Resources & Suggestions
Resources to help analyze data in your qualitative SoTL study
Resources to help analyze data in your quantitative SoTL study


Step 8
Step 8: How I will  ensure the trustworthiness of the process

Validity in Quantitative SoTL studies
Trustworthiness in Qualitative SoTL studies

In quantitative research we usually consider two general dimensions in evaluating a measurement method: reliability and validity.

Reliability is defined as the consistency of the measurements. To what level will the instrument produce the same results under the same conditions every time it is used? Reliability adds to the trustworthiness of the results because it is a testament to the methodology if the results are reproducible. The reliability is often examined by using a test and retest method where the measurement are taken twice at two different times. The reliability is critical for being able to reproduce the results, however, the validity must be confirmed first to ensure that the measurements are accurate. Consistent measurements will only be useful if they are accurate and valid.

The term validity refers to the strength of the conclusions that are drawn from the results. In other words, how accurate are the results? Do the results actually measure what was intended to be measured? There are several types of validity that are commonly examined and they are as follows: 

  • Conclusion validity looks at whether or not there is a relationship between the variable and the observed outcome. 
  • Internal validity considers whether or not that relationship may be causal in nature.
  • Construct validity refers to whether or not the operational definition of a variable actually reflects the meaning of the concept. In other words, it is an attempt to generalize the treatment and outcomes to a broader concept.
  • External validity is the ability to generalize the results to another setting. There are multiple factors that can threaten the validity in a study. They can be divided into single group threats, multiple group threats, and social interaction threats.

For more information regarding the control of the validity of a quantitative study please read chapter 6 in (Price, Jhangiani, & Chiang, 2015) 

In qualitative research Guba (1981) proposes four criteria that should be considered in pursuit of trustworthiness: 

a) Credibility (in preference to internal validity): One of the key criteria addressed by positivist researchers is that of internal validity, in which they seek to ensure that their study measures or tests what is actually intended. According to Merriam, the qualitative investigator’s equivalent concept, i.e. credibility, deals with the question,

“How congruent are the findings with reality?”

Some strategies to assure credibility are: 

- Adoption of appropriate, well recognized research methods

- Triangulation via use of different methods, different informants, different sites, and moments.

- Tactics to help ensure honesty in informants

- Debriefing sessions between researchers

- Description of background, qualifications and experience of the researcher

- Member checks of data collected and interpretations/theories formed

- Thick description of phenomenon under scrutiny

- Examination of previous research to frame findings


b) Transferability (in preference to external validity/generalizability): External validity “is concerned with the extent to which the findings of one study can be applied to other situations”. In positivist work, the concern often lies in demonstrating that the results of the work at hand can be applied to a wider population. Since the findings of a qualitative project are specific to a small number of particular environments and individuals, it is difficult to demonstrate that the findings and conclusions are applicable to othersituations and populations. Because of that we use “Naturalistic Generalization” (Stake, 2005). Naturalistic generalization is a process where readers gain insight by reflecting on the details and descriptions presented in case studies. As readers recognize similarities in case study details and find descriptions that resonate with their own experiences; they consider whether their situations are similar enough to warrant generalizations.

Naturalistic generalization invites readers to apply ideas from the natural and in-depth depictions presented in case studies to personal contexts.

Some strategies to assure Transferability are:

-Provision of background data to establish context of study and detailed description of phenomenon in question to allow comparisons to be made


c) Dependability (in preference to reliability): In addressing the issue of reliability, the positivist employs techniques to show that, if the work

were repeated, in the same context, with the same methods and with the same participants, similar results would be obtained.

In order to address dependability in Qualitative research, the processes within the study should be reported in detail, thereby enabling a future researcher to repeat the work, if not necessarily to gain the same results. Thus, the research design may be viewed as a detailed “prototype model”.

Some strategies to assure Dependability are:

-Employment of “overlapping methods”

-In-depth methodological description to allow study to be repeated


d) Confirmability (in preference to objectivity): Objectivity in science is associated with the use of instruments that are not dependent on human skill and perception.The concept of confirmability is the qualitative investigator’s comparable concern to objectivity. Here steps must be taken to help ensure as far as possible that the work’s findings are the result of the experiences and ideas of the informants, rather than the characteristics and

preferences of the researcher.

Some strategies to assure Confirmability are:

-Triangulation to reduce effect of investigator bias

-Admission of researcher’s beliefs and assumptions

-Recognition of defects in study’s methods and their potential effects

-In-depth methodological description to allow integrity of research results to be scrutinized

-Use of diagrams to demonstrate “audit trail”


Resources & Suggestions
Reliability and validity in quantitative studies
Trustworthiness in qualitative studies
Step 9
Step 9: What ethical principles will be guiding my study

As with any research study that involves human subjects, SoTL studies are often under the purview of a university’s ethics board, sometimes labeled the Institutional Review Board. We must protect the students who engage as participants in our study from unwanted breaches of privacy, coercion into participation, and potential psychological harm.
However, because SoTL studies often involve normal classroom procedures, the process for applying for ethics board approval for a SoTL study is typically less involved than it may be for other research studies. In fact, some institutions have an umbrella policy for SoTL studies that requires a very limited amount of work on part of the researcher.
For institutions without SoTL umbrella policies, you will prepare an application for ethics approval. This application will ask you to describe several aspects of your study, including those below. If this is the first time you have worked with human subjects in a research study, you may need to enroll in a training course, such as the one offered by CITI, first. Please see your institution’s guidelines for more information.

The term “ethics”  derives from the Greek word “ethos” which means character. To engage with the ethical dimension of your research requires asking yourself several important questions:

    • What moral principles guide your research?
    • How do ethical issues enter into your selection of a research problem?
    • How do ethical issues affect how you conduct your research—the design of your study, your sampling procedure, etc.?
    • What responsibility do you have toward your research subjects? For example, do you have their informed consent to participate in your project? 
    • What ethical issues/dilemmas might come into play in deciding what research findings you publish? 
    • Will your research directly benefit those who participated in the study?

The major principles associated with ethical conduct  are (Litchman, 2011):

  1. Do No Harm. This is the cornerstone of ethical conduct. There should be a reasonable expectation by those participating in a research study that they will not be involved in any situation in which they might be harmed. Although most SoTL studies involve typical classroom activities, participants may experience harm if the topic is psychologically triggering, or if study procedures cause public humiliation or embarrassment.  f you begin a study and you find that some of your participants seem to have adverse reactions, it is best to discontinue the study, even if it means foregoing your research plan. 
  2. Privacy and Anonymity: Any individual participating in a research study has a reasonable expectation that privacy will be guaranteed. Consequently, no identifying information about the individual should be revealed in written or other communication. Further, any group or organization participating in a research study has a reasonable expectation that its identity will not be revealed. Our recommendation is to remove identifying information from your records. Even when using pseudoynms, use caution in publishing long verbatim quotes, especially if they are damaging to the organization or people in it. Often, these quotes can be located on the Internet and traced to the speaker or author. 
  3. Confidentiality:  Any individual participating in a research study has a reasonable expectation that information provided to the researcher will be treated in a confidential manner. Consequently, the participant is entitled to expect that such information will not be given to anyone else. Your ethics board will require you to keep the information you learn confidential. If you sense that an individual is in an emergency situation, you might decide, in consultation with the board, that you can waive your promise for the good of the individual or of others. Remember to be more sensitive to information that you obtain from minors and others who might be in a vulnerable position. 
  4. Informed Consent: Individuals participating in a research study have a reasonable expectation that they will be informed of the nature of the study and may choose whether or not to participate. They also have a reasonable expectation that they will not be coerced into participation. Our responsibility is to make sure that participants are informed, to the extent possible, about the nature of your study. Even though it is not always possible to describe the direction your study might take, it is your responsibility to do the best you can to provide complete information. If participants decide to withdraw from the study, they should not feel penalized for doing so.
  5. Rapport: Once participants agree to be part of a study, the researcher develops rapport in order to get them to disclose information. Researchers should make sure that they provide an environment that is trustworthy. At the same time, they need to be sensitive to the power that they hold over participants, especially if those participants are their students.
  6. Intrusiveness: Individuals participating in a research study have a reasonable expectation that the conduct of the researcher will not be excessively intrusive. Intrusiveness can mean intruding on their time, intruding on their space, and intruding on their personal lives. As you design a research study, you ought to be able to make a reasonable estimate of the amount of time participation will take. 
  7. Data Interpretation: A researcher is expected to analyze data in a manner that avoids misstatements, misinterpretations, or fraudulent analysis. The other principles discussed involve your interaction with individuals in your study. This principle represents something different. It guides you to use your data to fairly represent what you see and hear. Of course, your own lens will influence you. You have a responsibility to interpret your data and present evidence so that others can decide to what extent your interpretation is believable. 

Obtaining ecological validity within an ethical framework means sacrificing control. We usually cannot randomly place students into sections of a course in order to test a teaching method; this would be unfair to students, as they are typically able to choose their own course sections. It would also be a breach of ethics to expose some students to new and effective teaching techniques while condemning others to ineffective and outdated approaches. 
Students are our partners and participants in SoTL, and therefore must be treated with respect. You may even wish to involve students as co-researchers, a practice that is popular in the SoTL field (see Mercer-Mapstone, et al., 2017). At a minimum, you should consider your study from the student participants’ perspective, be as transparent as you can without unduly influencing your results, address any concerns, and above all else, do no harm. 


Resources & Suggestions