How to Write a Descriptive Research Design

Descriptive research is a common method of qualitative research used in the social sciences and psychology to monitor the behavior of a subject without affecting that subject in any way. As a popular precursor to quantitative research, descriptive research is also practiced in cultural anthropology, where the benefit of "thick description" gives an ethnographer (someone who researches specific cultures) knowledge of a subject's behavior within the appropriate context. For instance, if studying a native tribe of Africa, the researcher would dress and act like the tribes people, as well as follow any customs so as not to disrupt the natural flow of life in the tribe. It might be best to write the descriptive research design as you formulate your project. Like other qualitative methods of study, there are several designs to choose from.

Determine the what, the how and the why of your study. You are performing your research to answer these important questions: What is going on that's important to your study? How is it happening? Why is it happening? Also, provide a practical reason as to why your study is useful -- whether to better inform a quantitative study to follow or to merely understand an isolated event, a general trend or phenomenon.

Choose a descriptive research design for your study. There are three common designs to choose from: a simple descriptive design is used to gather facts about a particular subject or group; a comparative descriptive design is used to compare two or more groups; a correlational design is used to determine the relationship between two or more variables. For instance, if you want to determine why people in one village are getting sick as compared to a neighboring village where none are getting sick, you could take samples from their respective water sources. If one source contains toxins, you might correlate your findings with statistics gathered from the sick village. A particularly robust study may require more than one of these designs. For instance, if you plan to gather facts about secondary educational practices within a particular state, you might want to use a simple descriptive design for all high school teachers as a group, then use a comparative descriptive design to compare the practices of public school teachers with those of private school teachers.

Design a case study for your study. Case studies can augment whichever descriptive research design you use. Documenting specific and interesting cases in your research will enrich your study by illustrating what is happening and why. The data collected from a case study should be relevant to your basic questions (see Step 1) and should be as concise as possible. Analysis of case study results tend to be based more on opinion than on statistics and is designed to provoke debate rather than to draw hard conclusions.

Include a survey in your design. Surveys should be concise; research that is too broad will require too many questions, and research that is too narrow won't cover the material. Sample groups should correlate with your general design (i.e., public and private high school teachers) and should be relevant to what is happening (i.e., what specific grading policies and criteria are used).

Christopher de la Torre has been writing about science and communication since 1998. His work appears on websites including Singularity Hub and in "Vogue." He holds a Bachelor of Science in biology and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Eastern Connecticut State University and is pursuing a master's degree in English from George Mason University.