Descriptive Design

Descriptive Research Design -  While descriptive research can be both qualitative and quantitative, quantitative descriptive research is used to capture the status quo of things.  In other words, descriptive statistics tell what it is, rather than trying to determine the cause and effect.

The most common measures of central tendency used are: mean (or average), frequency, mode and media. The measures of dispersion report the sample variation from the mean such as standard deviation; and the measures of extremity reports on values that differ from the observed value (outliers) (Boslaugh, 2008)

When do we use the design? – A few of the instances when this design is used are as follows.  It is used when we are interested in “doing inventory” (e.g. the number of students proficient on the ELA state exam), observing order in things (e.g. finding percentile ranking of ELA students), and creating cut off points for decision making (e.g. identifying top 25% students for scholarship) and so on.  

Type of problem appropriate for this design – While the problem is always the gap in our knowledge in something, Sample research questions that descriptive research can address are Do teachers hold favorable attitudes toward using technology in ELA classrooms? What are the perceptions How are teacher’s perceptions about their data use?

Theoretical framework/discipline background:  Descriptive research can be used in any discipline. Descriptive statistics is the fastest way to turn information into knowledge and to describe things and events.  Sample use of descriptive research can be in education to produce statistical information about aspects of education that interests policy makers and educators.  Considerable amount of descriptive research is being conducted by National Center for Education Statistics.  Organizations such as the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement (IEA) have also done major descriptive studies

Specific Characteristics – Descriptive research can include many variables and uses more tables and visuals (Glass & Hopkins, 1984) than other research designs because its purpose is to capture “what is” and to organize data into patterns that emerge during analysis.   

Sample Size -  In descriptive research, the sample size is important not for analysis itself, but for the results to generalize to the population from which the samples have been selected.  In other words, the average ELA scores can be calculated for any group of learners.

Sampling Method –  In descriptive studies both random and non-random samples are used based on the purpose and focus of the study.  Often times, especially in educational research, a census method is used where the data from the entire student population is being analyzed.

Data Collection – Quantitative descriptive studies can collect data using surveys.  Additionally, secondary data can also be used. However, in survey research beyond descriptive analysis inferential analysis is also used.   

This research uses surveys to gather information about organizations, groups, people and so forth to describe domain characteristics (Holton & Burnett, 2005). As the word imply descriptive statistics  are descriptive rather than inferential but they form the base for inferential statistics and they are often used to complement the final conclusions by providing descriptive numbers. (Salkind, 2010).

Data Analysis – Data analysis is mainly through the use of descriptive statistics (i.e. measures of central tendency and variability).  Correlation is also described having descriptive as a good estimate for the identified relationship in the population from which the sample was taken.   

Write up Results – Descriptive studies report summary data such as measures of central tendency including the mean, median, mode, deviance from the mean, variation, percentage, and correlation between variables.


Borg, W. R. Gall. 1989. Educational Research: An Introduction, Fifth Edition. New York: Longman.

Boslaugh, S. (2008). Encyclopedia of Epidemiology. doi:10.4135/9781412953948

Cochenour, J. (1994). Survey of Compressed Video Applications: Higher Education, K-12, and the Private Sector, 1993.

Holton, E. F., & Burnett, M. F. (2005). The Basics of Quantitative Research. In R. A. Swanson & E. F. Holton (Eds.), Research in organizations: Foundations and methods of Inquiry (pp. 29-44). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Kramer, R. F. (1985). A Overview of Descriptive Research. Journal of the Association of Pediatric Oncology Nurses, 2(2), 41-45. doi:10.1177/104345428500200208

Salkind, N. (2010). Encyclopedia of Research Design. doi:10.4135/9781412961288

Signer, B. R. (1991). CAI and at-risk minority urban high school students. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 24(2), 189-203.

Nolan, P. C., McKinnon, D. H., & Soler, J. (1992). Computers in education: Achieving equitable access and use. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 24(3), 299-314.

Rysavy, S. D. M., & Sales, G. C. (1991). Cooperative learning in computer-based instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 39(2), 70-79.


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