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Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research: Comparing the Methods and Strategies for Education Research

A woman sits at a library table with stacks of books and a laptop.

No matter the field of study, all research can be divided into two distinct methodologies: qualitative and quantitative research. Both methodologies offer education researchers important insights.

Education research assesses problems in policy, practices, and curriculum design, and it helps administrators identify solutions. Researchers can conduct small-scale studies to learn more about topics related to instruction or larger-scale ones to gain insight into school systems and investigate how to improve student outcomes.

Education research often relies on the quantitative methodology. Quantitative research in education provides numerical data that can prove or disprove a theory, and administrators can easily share the number-based results with other schools and districts. And while the research may speak to a relatively small sample size, educators and researchers can scale the results from quantifiable data to predict outcomes in larger student populations and groups.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research in Education: Definitions

Although there are many overlaps in the objectives of qualitative and quantitative research in education, researchers must understand the fundamental functions of each methodology in order to design and carry out an impactful research study. In addition, they must understand the differences that set qualitative and quantitative research apart in order to determine which methodology is better suited to specific education research topics.

Generate Hypotheses with Qualitative Research

Qualitative research focuses on thoughts, concepts, or experiences. The data collected often comes in narrative form and concentrates on unearthing insights that can lead to testable hypotheses. Educators use qualitative research in a study’s exploratory stages to uncover patterns or new angles.

Form Strong Conclusions with Quantitative Research

Quantitative research in education and other fields of inquiry is expressed in numbers and measurements. This type of research aims to find data to confirm or test a hypothesis.

Differences in Data Collection Methods

Keeping in mind the main distinction in qualitative vs. quantitative research—gathering descriptive information as opposed to numerical data—it stands to reason that there are different ways to acquire data for each research methodology. While certain approaches do overlap, the way researchers apply these collection techniques depends on their goal.

Interviews, for example, are common in both modes of research. An interview with students that features open-ended questions intended to reveal ideas and beliefs around attendance will provide qualitative data. This data may reveal a problem among students, such as a lack of access to transportation, that schools can help address.

An interview can also include questions posed to receive numerical answers. A case in point: how many days a week do students have trouble getting to school, and of those days, how often is a transportation-related issue the cause? In this example, qualitative and quantitative methodologies can lead to similar conclusions, but the research will differ in intent, design, and form.

Taking a look at behavioral observation, another common method used for both qualitative and quantitative research, qualitative data may consider a variety of factors, such as facial expressions, verbal responses, and body language.

On the other hand, a quantitative approach will create a coding scheme for certain predetermined behaviors and observe these in a quantifiable manner.

Qualitative Research Methods

  • Case Studies: Researchers conduct in-depth investigations into an individual, group, event, or community, typically gathering data through observation and interviews.
  • Focus Groups: A moderator (or researcher) guides conversation around a specific topic among a group of participants.
  • Ethnography: Researchers interact with and observe a specific societal or ethnic group in their real-life environment.
  • Interviews: Researchers ask participants questions to learn about their perspectives on a particular subject.

Quantitative Research Methods

  • Questionnaires and Surveys: Participants receive a list of questions, either closed-ended or multiple choice, which are directed around a particular topic.
  • Experiments: Researchers control and test variables to demonstrate cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Observations: Researchers look at quantifiable patterns and behavior.
  • Structured Interviews: Using a predetermined structure, researchers ask participants a fixed set of questions to acquire numerical data.

Choosing a Research Strategy

When choosing which research strategy to employ for a project or study, a number of considerations apply. One key piece of information to help determine whether to use a qualitative vs. quantitative research method is which phase of development the study is in.

For example, if a project is in its early stages and requires more research to find a testable hypothesis, qualitative research methods might prove most helpful. On the other hand, if the research team has already established a hypothesis or theory, quantitative research methods will provide data that can validate the theory or refine it for further testing.

It’s also important to understand a project’s research goals. For instance, do researchers aim to produce findings that reveal how to best encourage student engagement in math? Or is the goal to determine how many students are passing geometry? These two scenarios require distinct sets of data, which will determine the best methodology to employ.

In some situations, studies will benefit from a mixed-methods approach. Using the goals in the above example, one set of data could find the percentage of students passing geometry, which would be quantitative. The research team could also lead a focus group with the students achieving success to discuss which techniques and teaching practices they find most helpful, which would produce qualitative data.

Learn How to Put Education Research into Action

Those with an interest in learning how to harness research to develop innovative ideas to improve education systems may want to consider pursuing a doctoral degree. American University’s School of Education Online offers a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Education Policy and Leadership that prepares future educators, school administrators, and other education professionals to become leaders who effect positive changes in schools. Courses such as Applied Research Methods I: Enacting Critical Research provides students with the techniques and research skills needed to begin conducting research exploring new ways to enhance education. Learn more about American’ University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership.

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