Alignment: Driving Your Research Study on a Straight Path

Alignment: Driving Your Research Study on a Straight Path

This is the first in a three-part series. Use the links below to view the rest of the series:

  1. Part 1: Driving Your Research Study on a Straight Path
  2. Part 2: Supporting Your Research Questions with Methods
  3. Part 3: Tools to Strengthen Your Project

Research questions commonly arise from questions in real life, problems confronted, and extending current knowledge.   As researchers, we translate questions into testable research studies.  Good studies demonstrate both theoretical and methodological alignment (distinct, but not separate, issues) from the research question to the research study. Appraising alignment in your study is critical for two reasons. First, well-aligned studies allow you to have confidence in the clarity of your study when it is being reviewed by funding, ethical, or publication outlets. Second, well-aligned studies can help you defend against skepticism that the results answer the research questions and contribute to the field.  

What is Theoretical and Methodological Alignment?

Good methodological alignment means that each section of a study is using the same terminology, planned claims are appropriate, and assumptions are correct. This is a slightly different focus from conversations on theoretical alignment.  By writing with an ear towards theoretical alignment, the specific niche of your study is clearly articulated within the larger literature. Theoretical alignment also considers validity between your research agenda and selected programs or outlets (we will leave this for others to cover). On the other hand, methodological alignment most importantly occurs through deliberate, reflective decisions being made in the methods and analysis to ensure a logical, overall picture.  It considers how well your data collection and analysis protocols are a valid, reliable representation of your study goals.

Alignment should not occur through justification after a study is created. If you have to explain it, it may not exist!  In some cases, you might need to redesign or rewrite a study to create better alignment. This is ok and will likely produce a better study and more reliable results.

Selecting an analysis that is appropriate to your research question is a necessary but not sufficient criteria to demonstrate alignment.  This selection still depends on how the research study is framed, what questions are asked of the participants, and if overall study can be summarized concisely.  Below is an example of methodological alignment in selecting variables, samples, study design, and analysis from a recent study in the Educational Researcher

Example of Good Alignment

Blanchard, LePrevost, Tolin, and Gutierrez (2016) tackle how technology-enhanced professional development changes teachers’ beliefs and practices in a three year mixed method study.  They find evidence of change, the impact differed across teachers, and is transferred to students. 

Article is available on sage journals website (open access):


Blanchard, M., LePrevost, C., Tolin, A.D., & Gutierrez, K. (2016). Investigating technology-enhanced teacher professional development in rural, high-poverty middle schools.  Educational Researcher, 45(3), 207-220.

  • Introduction: Operationalizing key variables:
  • Studying change in teacher behaviors, beliefs, and practices, what should be found in the data in order to demonstrate change is identified in the literature review (e.g., a behavioral change in implementation from replacement to amplification, or amplification to transformative).
  • Student impact is identified as test scores, as this is the main indicator of success at the national level and a reason for providing teacher professional development.
  • Methods: Selecting a sample framework:
  • Interested in how technology impacts behaviors, a sample of teachers using technology and not receiving professional development is identified.
  • Sample was large enough to have a control group, two schools were selected to be able to identify school specific effects, and larger context (rural, high-poverty districts in a southeastern state) was explicit.
  • Teachers were uniform in the type and level of course they taught, helping control for external variables.
  • Methods: Choosing the appropriate study design:
  • Using a control and experimental group to test if the intervention changes behaviors and impacts students
  • Study length was appropriate to be able to capture change.  Decision about length of intervention was situated within previous literature.
  • Intervention is explained in detail that is reproducible.
  • Methods: Designing survey measures:
  • Measures are clearly outlined in terms of when they were given, key variable being collected, citations, and example items (Table 2). 
  • Methods: Data analysis:
  • Following a mixed method design, the qualitative analysis helps explain the first set of quantitative analysis results and the qualitative analysis results lead to a testable second set of quantitative questions. 
  • The data analysis can answer the research questions (i.e., change is being captured, reflections are being collected, student data fits R2 and R3).
  • Results:
  • The results are organized in sections aligning to the research questions.
  • Results are presented followed by interpretation of results. 


Valerie Denise Smith's picture Valerie Denise Smith | August 10, 2016 10:01 am MST

The mixed method for this research since social, behavioral, communal, and familial influences can impact learning and achievement. Other variables can include poverty's influence on achievement, curricula, and the students early education start. I am always concerned as a scholar and researcher when academics is boxed into test results. Future research efforts that changes in student behavior and achievement may add an enhanced constructual validity.

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