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Categorizing Educational Research

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We can categorize research in many different ways. For instance, it is carried out at different levels: undergraduate, practitioner, Masters, doctoral and post-doctoral. It may be funded by an external body, including government, or not have any allocated financial support at all. It can also relate to a wide range of themes, including (of course) education.



The posting below looks at some of the basic categories of educational research. It is from Chapter 1, Research, paradigms, and ethics, in the book: A Beginner's Guide to Doing Your Education Research Project, by Mike Lambert. Published by SAGE Publications Inc., 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320 Copyright © Mike Lambert, 2012.  All rights reserved.  Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research 

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Categorizing Educational Research


We can categorize research in many different ways. For instance, it is carried out at different levels: undergraduate, practitioner, Masters, doctoral and post-doctoral. It may be funded by an external body, including government, or not have any allocated financial support at all. It can also relate to a wide range of themes, including (of course) education.

Educational research investigates learning, curriculum and educational practice. lt can be carried out by practitioners or by 'outsiders' (and even by children and school students themselves). It may achieve many things - your project may achieve these too. For example, it can:

•        strengthen understanding of how centres, schools or colleges function and how they might function better

•        deepen understanding of educational practice, in the classroom and elsewhere

•        explore the feelings ('perspectives') of those in education about curriculum, styles of teaching and about learning itself.

It also comes in different forms. Here are some common approaches, together with examples of each:

* Theoretical research

Theoretical research scrutinizes concepts and ideas (such as equality and justice), rather than their practical application.

Example: Starting his discussion with: 'Teachers often shut their students up', Callan (2011) examined the tensions between the silencing of students' derogatory comments and the ideals of free speech.

* Action or practitioner research

Action research investigates everyday actions, in work or in our social lives, with a view to improving systems and practice. It is often carried out by practitioners, such as teachers. Participants themselves may also have direct input into design and monitoring of the investigation (sometimes known as 'participatory' research).

Example: Rule and Modipa (2011) explored the educational experiences of adults with disabilities in South Africa. The study's participatory, action-research approach involved people with disabilities designing and conducting the investigation. The study was also an example of 'emancipatory research' which challenges social oppression of marginalized groups.

* Evaluative

Evaluative research assesses the usefulness or effectiveness of an organization or activity, possibly to indicate whether this should be continued.

Example: Blenkinsop et al. (2007) evaluated the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, which provided fruit to young children in English schools every morning. They found that children's fruit consumption increased, but saw no wider or sustained impact on their diet.

* Experimental

This involves a structured experiment. Situations are carefully organized, so that different scenarios can be investigated. For instance, two student groups (one 'experimental', the other 'control') are taught the same thing in different ways. The researcher then tries to determine which approach is more beneficial. To adopt this approach, it must be possible to measure clearly the issue in question.

Example: Finnish research by livonen, Saakslahti and Nissinen (2011) used two groups of young children to study the effects of an eight-month, pre-school, physical-education curriculum.

* 'Cause and effect' research

Experimental research is usually associated with what I call 'cause and effect' research - trying to find out if and how one thing causes or affects another. For instance, does a particular teaching approach, initiative or resource improve students' learning and achievement?

Example: Blatchford et al. (2011) studied over 8000 students to examine the effects of work by education support staff. Uncomfortably for educators, it found that the students getting most support tended to make less academic progress than similar students with less support.

* Case study

Case-study research involves in-depth investigation of an individual, group, event or system, usually within its real-life context and sometimes over a period of time (called a 'longitudinal' study).

Example: Forrester (2010) used a longitudinal case-study approach to document the musical development of one child between the ages of l and 4 years.

* Systematic review

Systematic reviews critically appraise a range of research evidence or literature (or both) on a particular topic. From the analysis, it identifies key messages and continuing gaps in understanding.

Example: Sebba et al. (2008) searched electronic databases and journals to find and review 26 published research studies relating to the topic of self and peer assessment in secondary schools.

* Exploratory

Exploratory research seeks to understand situations more clearly and deeply than before, often from varied perspectives.

Example: Rassool (2004) explored ways in which children from minority ethnic groups viewed themselves culturally and educationally within British society.

* Comparative

Comparative research investigates two or more different situations, for instance practice in different countries or institutions, and makes comparisons in order to understand both situations better.

Example: Jerman and Pretnar (2006) compared the musical abilities of l1-year- old children on the Caribbean island of Martinique and in Slovenia. This comparison identified common elements and some differences which seemed to explain much better results on Martinique.

* Grounded theory

This approach is often used to create or produce an overall theory from wide-ranging investigation, often culminating in an intricate flow chart or diagram. The approach was first formulated by Glaser and Strauss (1967).

Example: Thomberg's (2008) grounded-theory research in Sweden developed a categorized system of school rules and sought to explain the logic behind them.

* Ethnography

Ethnographic research studies cultures or groups in naturalistic contexts, 'understanding things from the point of view of those involved' (Denscombe, 2010: 80-81). Ethnographic researchers often immerse themselves in the lives of those they are researching.

Example: Tang and Maxwell (2007) used observation, interviews, daily conversations and questionnaires to investigate cultural features of the Chinese kindergarten curriculum, finding that 'children are taught to learn together rather than explore individually' and that children 's 'spontaneous learning interests are welcomed but seldom developed in depth'.


Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Martin, C., Russell, A., and Webster, R. (2011) 'The impact of support staff on pupils' \"positive approaches to learning\" and their academic progress', British Educational Research Journal, 37(3): 443-464

Blenkinshop, S., Bradshaw, S., Cade, J,.Chan, D., Greenwood, D., Ransley, J., Schagen, S., Scott, E., Teeman, D. and Thomas, J. (2007) Further Evaluation of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme. London: Department of Health.

Forrester, M.A. (2010) 'Emerging musicality during pre-school years: a case study of one child', Psychology of Music, 38(2): 131-158.

Jerman, J., and Pretnar, T. (2006) 'Comparative analysis of musical abilities of 11-year-olds from Slovenia and the island of Martinique', Education 3-13, 34(3): 233-242.

Rassool, N. (2004) 'Flexible identities: exploring race and gender issues amongst a group of immigrant pupils in an inner-city comprehensive school', in V. Lewis, M. Kellett, C. Robinson, S. Fraser and S. Ding (eds) The Reality of Research with Children and Young People. London: Sage.

Rule, P. and Modipa, T.R. (2011) ' \"We must believe in ourselves\": attitudes and experiences of adult learners with disabilities in KwaZulu-Nata, South Africa', Adult Education Quarterly, 28 February. Available at: (accessed 27 January 2012).

Sebba J., Crick R.D., Yu, G., Lawson H., Harlen W. and Durant K. (2008) 'Systematic review of research evidence of the impact on students in secondary schools of self and peer assessment', in Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of education, University of London.