Method and Research Design
The method section answers these two main questions:
1. How was the data collected or generated?
2. How was it analyzed?
In other words, it shows your reader how you obtained your results.
But why do you need to explain how you obtained your results?
- We need to know how the data was obtained because the method affects the results. For instance, if you are investigating users’ perceptions of the efficiency of public transport in Bangkok, you will obtain different results if you use a multiple choice questionnaire than if you conduct interviews. Knowing how the data was collected helps the reader evaluate the validity and reliability of your results, and the conclusions you draw from them.
- Often there are different methods that we can use to investigate a research problem. Your methodology should make clear the reasons why you chose a particular method or procedure.
- The reader wants to know that the data was collected or generated in a way that is consistent with accepted practice in the field of study. For example, if you are using a questionnaire, readers need to know that it offered your respondents a reasonable range of answers to choose from (asking if the efficiency of public transport in Bangkok is “a. excellent, b. very good or c. good” would obviously not be acceptable as it does not allow respondents to give negative answers).
- The research methods must be appropriate to the objectives of the study. If you perform a case study of one commuter in order to investigate users’ perceptions of the efficiency of public transport in Bangkok, your method is obviously unsuited to your objectives.
- The methodology should also discuss the problems that were anticipated and explain the steps taken to prevent them from occurring, and the problems that did occur and the ways their impact was minimized.
- In some cases, it is useful for other researchers to adapt or replicate your methodology, so often sufficient information is given to allow others to use the work. This is particularly the case when a new method had been developed, or an innovative adaptation used.
1. Irrelevant Detail
2. Unnecessary explanation of basic procedures
Remember that you are not writing a how-to guide for beginners. Your readers will be people who have a level of expertise in your field and you can assume that they are familiar with basic assessments, laboratory procedures etc, so do not explain these in detail. For example: “Total chlorophyll content (microgram/gram vegetable tissue) was determined spectrophotometrically by the Anderson and Boardman method (1964), as adapted by Barth et al., (1992)”(Barth et al., 1993). Notice that the authors do not explain the Anderson and Boardman method (we can assume it is known in their field of study) nor their own previous adaptation of it (because the adaptation has already been recorded in the work they published in 1992). However they do record in detail their own procedures that have not been previously recorded: “At each time interval, three replicates/treatment were taken, ground (stem and florets) with a Kitchen-Aid grinder Model K5-A and used for determination of reduced ascorbic acid”(Barth et al., 1993).Notice that they specify the equipment used because it could affect the results.
3. Problem blindness
Most of us encounter some problems when collecting or generating our data. Do not ignore significant problems or pretend they did not occur. Often, recording how you overcame obstacles can form an interesting part of the methodology, and means you can also give a rationale for certain decisions, plus a realistic view of using the methods you chose.
This is how method fits into your thesis:
- Analysis:Classes of data are collected and studies conducted to discern patterns and formulate principles that might guide future action.
- Case Study:The background, development, current conditions and environmental interactions of one or more individuals, groups, communities, businesses or institutions is observed, recorded and analyzed for stages of patterns in relation to internal and external influences.
- Comparison:Two or more existing situations are studied to determine their similarities and differences.
- Correlation-Prediction:Statistically significant correlation coefficients between and among a number of factors are sought and interpreted.
- Evaluation:Research to determine whether a program or project followed the prescribed procedures and achieved the stated outcomes.
- Design-demonstration:New systems or programs are constructed, tested and evaluated
- Experiment:One or more variables are manipulated and the results analyzed.
- Survey-questionnaire:Behaviors, beliefs and observations of specific groups are identified, reported and interpreted.
- Status:A representative or selected sample of one or more phenomena is examined to determine its special characteristics.
- Theory Construction:An attempt to find or describe principles that explain how things work the way they do.
- Trend Analysis:Predicting or forecasting the future direction of events.
The following example is abridged (the introduction has been removed, as well as the results, discussion and conclusions).
Task:Look for the purpose of each part of the methodology. Examine each sentence and see if you can decide its function. Here is a range of possibilities to help you: rationale (reasons for doing something), description (e.g. of equipment), purpose (e.g. of the model), application (how something is used), structure of the research (the order in which information will be given), assumptions (for a model), parameters (these may be variables that are measured).
Click on the highlighted sentences for suggested answers. The answers are designed for you to jump and forth rather than to read as a complete text.
Production and Storage of Ice for Cooling Buildings
Wubben, E.A., Shapiro, H.N. and Nelson, R.M. Transactions of the ASME, Vol. 111, pp. 338 – , 1989.
A strategy that may provide economic benefits in buildings is to use and ice production system to provide cool storage for later use when cooling is needed. Understanding the fundamental dynamics of the storage tank is critical in determining the feasibility of such strategies. For this purpose, a lumped parameter model of ice growth on a heat exchanger is developed. Results of an experimental study of an ice storage system installed in a residential research facility are also presented. The results of the parametric study are also presented that show some of the effects of geometric and operation variables on system performance. Trends exhibited in the results suggest ways to optimize ice production for the particular exchanger studied.
Lumped Parameter Model of Ice Growth
In this section, governing equations are developed to model ice growth on the heat exchanger plates. The modelis intended tocharacterize the dynamics of the ice growth without the [added problem] of the detailed ice profiles. The presentationbegins withmass and energy balances andconcludes withthe development of a model for the heat transfer between the water and the coolant.
Energy and Mass Balances
An analytical model of a storage tank and heat exchangerwas constructed topredict the amount of ice that could be produced on the heat exchanger.The model predictsthe energy flows into and out of the storage tank by considering energy and mass balances for a suitable control volume.The rates of energy removal from the tank are related to parametersthat depend on the properties of the storage medium, the physical characteristics of the system, and the environmental conditions. After this model was verified by experiments,it was usedto predict the effects of these parameters on the system performance.
The heat exchanger, illustrated in Figs. 1 and 2,consists oftwo plates with attached tubes placed in parallel between supply and return headers. This type of heat exchangerwas chosen becauseof its thermal characteristics, large surface area, ready availability, and because the ice remains attached to the heat exchanger.To simplify the model,no stratification of the water is allowed in the storage tank. A submerged pump is placed in the tank to keep the water well mixed.
- Bear in mind thepurposeof the method section.
- Keep notes of what you did, why you did it, and what happened. Some researchers keep research diaries so that they have a record of the methods they used. Make sure you develop some way of recording your work, and that you then carefully select which material to include in your final methodology section.
- Remember who your audience will be, and be careful not to include unnecessary details.
- Avoid using “I” to write about what you did. Do not use “we” unless you really were working with one or more other researchers. One way to avoid this problem is to usepassive voice.
- Verb tenses– be consistent, and choose the correct one!
Structureof the written report: the writers are telling you how their research will be presented in the following section, including the topic and the order in which information will appear. This is useful because it gives an overview of the methodology section and therefore makes what follows easier to understand. Without an overview it may not be evident why the author/s are presenting certain material or the relevance of certain sections. This first paragraph functions like an introduction to the following section. Usually every section of a piece of research writing has some form of introduction that gives the main points of what follows or outlines the structure of the research.
Purpose:in this case, the purpose of the model. Very often in methodology sections the purpose is given first, or at least very early because knowing the aim of the research is obviously paramount to understanding how the researcher/s set out to achieve their objectives. Later, in the second paragraph, the more specific purpose (in this case to predict) is given.
What the model does:the model predicts energy flows. In this sentence we learn a more specific purpose than was given in the previous paragraph, and are given more information about how it works.
Functioning of the system:here the authors tell us which variables affect the rate of energy removal, i.e. how the system functions. In the following sentence we are told that the model is used to predict the effect of these parameters.
Application:how the model was used, in this case as a method of predicting how well the system would work.
Description:a description of the model, in this case the physical equipment assumed in the model.
Rationale:reasons why this method (in this case, this heat exchanger) were chosen for this model. It is often crucial to give an explanation in order to justify decisions.
“To simplify the model”
Assumptions:models necessarily involve simplifying reality. Here the authors specify their assumptions (no stratification in the water), and provide a rationale for why they can assume this to be true (a submerged pump in the tank is assumed to keep the water sufficiently well mixed).
Because you haven’t yet carried out your research, you should write about what you plan to do in the future tense (because you will do the work at some point in the future). For example:
A multiple choice questionnaire will be administered to the top managers of fifty information technology companies in the country.
Use “will” to make the future tense rather than the more informal “going to.”
For facts or information that are true and unlikely to change, write about them in the present tense. For example:
A multiple choice questionnaire will be used since it offers a way to reduce the time respondents will need to complete it, and therefore to increase the number of completed questionnaires.
The fact that the multiple choice questionnaire offers a way to reduce completion time is true whether the questionnaire is administered today or next year (it is always true), so “offers” is used instead of “will offer.”
Most of your methodology section will be written in the past tense because you are recording what you have done. Notice too that it is usually written in the simple past (the verb tense used for events that are now finished). For example:
1) The sample was weighed.
2) Fish seed were added to the pool.
3) A thermometer recorded changes in external temperature.
These sentences are written in the past tense, because an action took place and is now finished. (For example in 1, the sample was weighed on the 18th August, 1996 at 3pm and is not still being weighed – the action of weighing is finished so simple past is used). Notice that although 1, 2 and 3 are all in the simple past, 1 and 2 are passive verbs while 3 is active. (See Passive and Active Voice for more information). For facts or information that are true and unlikely to change, write about them in the present tense. For example:
Vietnam was chosen for this study because it has a long coastline.
(Present tense is used because we assume that the length of Vietnam’s coastline is unlikely to change.)
Cornmeal was used to feed the fingerlings because it provides high nutritional content at a relatively low cost.
(Present tense is used because we assume that neither the nutritional content nor the cost of corn meal is likely to change.)
Other verb tenses may also be used, for example to describe one event happening during another. Example:
Ethyl alcohol was added while the sample was being dried.
(past continuous passive)
Table 3 shows that the main cause of weight increase was nutritional value of the feed. (Table 3 will always show this – it is now a fact that is unlikely to change, and will be true whenever this sentence is read, so present tense is used.)
Look at the text below and see if you can decide why each highlighted tense has been used. Find suggested answers by clicking on the words, then return to the text by using the arrows.
Takii, K. and Shimano, S. et al.. In The Current Status of Fish Nutrition in Aquaculture, Takeda, M. And Watanabe, T. (Eds.)
Materials and Methods
Formulations and proximate compositions of the experimental dietsare shownin Table 1. Brown fish mealwas usedtoprovide approximately 54% (dry matter basis) crude protein for the control diet 1. In diets 2-4 and 5, approximately 15-46% and 31% of the fish mealwas isonitrogenously substitutedwith a soy protein concentrate (SPC), respectively, diets 2-4 were supplemented with the essential amino acids (DL-menthionin, L-lysine, L-histidine, L-valine and L-threonin) to simulate the composition of the control diet 1. Feeding stimulants (L-alanine, L-proline and 5’-IMP)were supplementedto each diet. The SPCusedin this experimentwasDANPRO-A, product of Aarhus Olie Co., Ltd, (Denmark,suppliedby Bayer Japan Co., Ltd., whichcontainsa high level of crude protein and a low level of trypsin inhibitors, as a result of the treatments of defatting, ethanol extraction and toasting.
Moist pelletswere preparedbythoroughly mixing the dry ingredients with oil and cold water and then extruding the dough through a laboratory pelleting machine. Resulting pellets, 3 or 5 mm in diameter,were storedat -20 degrees until use.
For information about voice, seePassive and Active Voice.
Description of above example
was used to provide/was isonitrogenously substituted/were supplemented/were prepared/were stored: simple past (passive)– this is the most commonly used tense in a method section because it describes actions that are now finished. Passive Voice because it sounds more objective not to use “I” (see Active and Passive).
used/was/supplied by: simple past.The product was used (an action now finished). In this experiment (now finished) the product was DANPRO-A. The product was supplied (also an action that is now finished).
What does it matter? Well, using passive or active voice changes the emphasis of a piece of writing. For example:
“The biscuit was eaten by the dog.” This sentence is passive because the main focus of the sentence is on the biscuit, but the biscuit does not do anything – instead something is done to the biscuit (by the dog). In fact, we can even leave out the part about who performed the action: The biscuit was eaten.
“The dog ate the biscuit.” This is active because the main focus of our attention is on the dog, and the dog is the one who does something (it eats the biscuit).
People reading your thesis or dissertation are going to be far less interested in you than in your work so the emphasis should be on what you did and not on you. Also, by not saying “I weighed the sample” but “The sample was weighed” you make your writing sound more objective.
Passive voice is the verb to be followed by a past participle: For example:
- Rice is grown in Thailand. (simple present is plus past participle grown)
- The film is being shown at Future Park Mall. (present continuous is being plus past participleshown)
- The sample was weighed to find its dry weight. (simple past was plus past participle weighed)
- The samples were being dried . (past continuous were being plus past participle dried)
- The interviews will be conducted in groups. (future will be plus past participle conducted)
Research writing usually avoids using “I” or “we” (although “we” is becoming more acceptable in co-authored papers). By convention, if the passive voice is used we assume that an action was carried out by the researcher/s, and we don’t say directly who did it. For example:
The temperature inside the chamber was increased from 0 C to 20 C by the researcher.
The temperature inside the chamber was increased from 0 C to 20 C. (We assume the researcher increased the temperature.)
Four thermocouples were monitored hourly by the researcher.
Four thermocouples were monitored hourly. (We assume the researcher monitored them.)
The active voice is usually used when the equipment has performed an action (i.e. when it is not the researcher/s who have performed the action). For example:
- A 200hp generator provided power to the piezometers.
- Control gauges monitored air pressure inside the chamber.
The use of active voice indicates that the researchers were not directly involved in the functioning of the equipment.
The passive voice can be used to describe an action involving equipment, but a “by” clause must be included to which equipment performed the action. For example: Power was supplied by 14 generators with capacities ranging from 90 to 300 KW.