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Notes On Research Methodology, spring 2009


Theory (isl. kenning) “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.” REF
A theory is a relatively big explanation, covering several phenomena, often through a single principle, or a set of simple principles.
Hypothesis (isl. tilgáta) Is a prediction about the relationship between a limited set of phenomena, as explained by a particular theory
Experimental design “A planned interference in the natural order of events.”
Quasi-Experimental When conditions do not permit an ideal design to be used and a controlled experiement is impossible, there are other techniques that can be used. These are called quasi-experimental designs.
Dependent variable(s) These are “the things we want to measure”, e.g. the speedup seen with the new word processor.
Values are measured during and/or after the experiment.
Independent variables These are factors that need to be controlled for the results to be more intelligible. Example: If we want to study the efficiency speedup seen by a new multi-cultural word processor we would want to have all or some of the cultures represented when we do the study.
We select their values - the values are known when we start an experiment.
Any independent variable must have at least 2 levels (values), so its effect can be evaluated.
Subject(s) Means the subject under study, which can be people, technology and natural phenomena
Sample: Subject selection from a “population” A representative subset, drawn from a population, of the phenomenon we are studying. Typically you can't study all the individuals of a particular subject pool, so in your experiment you use a sample and hope that the results generalize to the rest of the subjects.
a. Siggi, Maggi and Biggi representing human males.
b. 10 lakes representing all freshwater on the Earth's surface.
c. rust on bottom of doors representing the overall state of an automobile.
A sample should be randomly chosen to (1) minimize spurious correlations and thus (2) maximize the generalizability of the results of measuring only a small subset of the phenomenon.
Data Typically “raw numbers” – only contain low-level semantics
Information Processed and prepared data
Statistics Mathematical methods for dealing with uncertainty.

The Scientific Method: Classical Description

Identification, description and formalization of phenomenon 1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
Hypothesis, null-hypothesis 2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
Creation of experimental setup to test hypothesis 3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
Performance of experiment, collection and analysis of results 4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments. Basic assumption: Repeatability — Can be repeated by anyone anywhere
Repeatability requires formal framework Detailed description, clear goals, clear (limited) scope, hence the formalities in their execution
Key idea: Comparsion Baseline collected in same experimental setup without any other intervention by experimenter

Controled Experiment

What it is A fairly recent research method, historically speaking, for testing hypotheses / theories
When to use When it is possible to control and select everything of importance to the subject of study
How to do Select subjects freely, randomize samples, remove experimenter effect through double-blind procedure, use control groups, select independent and dependent variables as necessary to answer the questions raised.
Why randomize? Given a complex phenomenon, it is impossible to know all potential causal chains that may exist between the various elements under study. Randomization lessens the probability that there is systematic bias in any factors that are not under study but could affect the results and thus imply different conclusions.
What is randomized? The sample should be randomized; subjects should be randomly assigned to control group versus experimental group; Any independent variable identified which could affect the results but is not considered of interest to the research at hand.
Between subjects vs. within subjects design Between subjects: Two separate groups of subject/phenomena measured
Within subjects: Same subjects/phenomena measured twice, on different occasions
Internal validity How likely is it that the independent variables caused the dependent variables?
External validity How likely is it that the results generalize to other instances of the phenomenon under study?
Bottom line Controlled Experiment: The most powerful mechanism for generating reliable knowledge known to mankind.

Steps in Research Execution

Identify the phenomenon to study Characterize it in ways that make it easy to study.
Ask the right question(s) “A question well asked is a question half-answered.”
Identify variables that matter Independent and dependent.
Choose experimental design Based on the nature of the experiement, but some flexibility with regards to how detailed/reliable/etc. the results should be.
Designing the experiment How do we measure the dependent variables?
How do we control the independent variables?
What are the hypotheses?
How will we run the experiment?
Many ways to avoid spurious correlation, e.g. double-blind procedure: The experimenter does not know which group a subject belongs to and/or which level of an independent variable is being tested.
Choose statistical tests Statistical methods should be chosen with the experimental design: Make sure you select the right statistical test based on your design and your knowledge of the relationship between your sample and your population, and the distribution and means of the population that the sample is drawn from.
Design the setup Identify all factors that could potentially confound your results and take appropriate measures to get the best results possible.
Execute the experiment Follow the method designed!
Collect data, analyze results Careful experimental design makes this straightforward (bad design makes it a nightmare!). \\Use tables, graphs, as appropriate - very important to choose right presentation method.
Draw conclusions from statistical tests Use inference, based on probabilities, statistical significance.
Write up the report in theses or scientific publications

Correlational Studies & Quasi-Experimental Design

Correlation Some factors/variables co-vary when changes in one variable are related with changes in the other, negative or positive
Correlation: Powerful tool Any variables in the world can be measured for correlation. Only two variables are needed (independent and dependent) for doing correlation studies
Main operating principle behind correlation There is no causation without correlation
Correlation: Pitfall Correlation does not imply causation between the variables measured!
Quasi-experimental designs Purpose: Where true experimental design is not possible, approximate it.
If direct control over dependent/independent variables is not possible.
How it works 1. One-shot case study (no control group)
2. Single group pre- and post-test (minimal control)
3. ABAB: Single-group repeated measures (slightly less minimal control)
Limitations Much greater uncertainty as to the internal and external validity of the quasi-experiments than true experimental designs

Field Studies

What is it? Quasi-experimental design. To study a phenomeon “in the wild”.
When When a controlled experimental setup is not possible.
Examples Example hypothesis: “The popularity of Nokia phones has to do with the quality of their user interface.”
How Try to approximate a true experimental design as possible, by randomizing where possible, and by controlling the independent variables, if possible. Make the best attempt possible at analyzing potential alternative variables related to the dependent variable to be measured.
Example method Questionnaires: A set of questions posed to people intended to reflect reality.
Important note on questionnaires Take good care designing/writing the questions! (It's harder to get it right than you think!)
Bottom line Unavoidable in all fields of study. Very useful as a supportive method to true experiments.


What is it? A more loose, pre-study using the intended experimental design to tune it
A pre-study intended to gauge the nature, scales or other factors of the variables to be measured, or the subject to be measured
Why and when Pilots are much more useful than you might think. Yes, it will increase the duration and effort of your experiment BUT: It can significantly improve the quality of the subsequent experiment in many cases. It will certainly clarify and sharpen the experimenter's understanding of one or more of: the experiment, experimental procedure, variables and subjects.
Bottom line Do not try to “save time” by skipping a pilot! A pilot study makes sense — most of the time.


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