7.2 Research Traditions

The different beliefs about reality and knowledge described above lead to different research questions and different ways of conducting research. Quality research demonstrates consistency between the research tradition, research questions, type of data collected, methods of data analysis, conclusion drawn, and claims about how widely the conclusions can be generalized (applied to other situations beyond the research study).

Postpositivist Research

In the postpositivist tradition, the job of researchers is to uncover to the best of their ability (or at least approximate) objective truth. They use established theory to generate research questions that can be answered through objective observation and/or experimentation. They form a theory-based hypothesis and then test it by collecting and analyzing data, which is most often quantitative. They look for evidence that either supports or does not support the hypothesis, recognizing that conclusions from any one study will always be tentative and not certain. You will often see phrases like “How does X affect Y?” or “Does X cause Y?” in their written reports. Postpositivist researchers make every effort to control for extraneous factors and take careful measurements.  The ultimate goal is to make a discovery that has some measure of generalizability, or applicability to other similar contexts.

Experimental design is common under this tradition.  For example, if researchers want to know if a gamified math lesson helps students learn basic algebra, they might randomly assign a group of similar students to learn an algebra lesson either with the game or in a traditional classroom. Random assignment minimizes the risk that pre-existing differences between the two groups will “contaminate” the result. If random assignment is not possible, they might instead do a quasi-experiment where they use two existing groups with similar characteristics, such as two classrooms in the same school. Experimenters then give both groups a test on the material before the intervention to verify both groups have similar (lack of) knowledge of the lesson. After each group completes the intervention they are tested again to see if the groups achieved different average scores.

If the group completing the traditional lesson has an average score of 8/10 on the test and the group completing the gamified lesson averages 9/10, does that demonstrate that the gamified version was better? Not necessarily. The significance of the difference must be verified statistically before researchers can claim they have evidence supporting the usefulness of the gamified lesson.

Experiments and quasi-experiments are not the only types of studies done under a postpositivist perspective. Descriptive studies (often, but not always, accomplished with surveys) and correlational studies (explorations of whether two variables appear to change in relation to each other) are also common.

All of the research traditions come with their own set of strengths and limitations, which should be readily acknowledged by researchers. The strength of postpositivist research is its ability to produce generalizable results that can be applied in other settings with characteristics similar to the research setting. A limitation is that its focus on patterns and trends neglects the experiences of individuals. Postpositivist research is good at addressing questions of “What works?” or “Which is better?” (e.g., “Does a gamified algebra lesson improve test scores?”) but does not usually address questions like “What does the process look like?” or “What are the students’ perceptions of their experience?”


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Foundations of Educational Technology Copyright © 2017 by Penny Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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