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Perspectives on Qualitative and Quantitative Research in Education

M Cecil Smith

Northern Illinois University

Introductory remarks for a presentation given at the 21st annual Midwest Research-to-
Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing, and Community Education
October 9-11, 2002
DeKalb, IL


Perspectives on Qualitative and Quantitative Research in Education

I, along with my NIU colleagues, Tom Smith, Nadine Dolby, and Hide Shimizu, want to

talk about the role of research training in graduate school, the different ways that such

research training occurs for students, and some important issues that graduate students

should be knowledgeable about—particularly in regards to the increasing demands for

students to have more sophisticated research skills. These demands arise, in part, because

of the recognition that the kinds of problems that educators must confront are very

complex and cannot be solved without understanding how social, economic, cultural,

political, and individual factors interact to create the kinds of conditions seen in schools

and communities.

This topic is particularly important at a conference such as this that focuses on translating

knowledge from the research laboratory (in whatever form it may be) to the arena of

practice in schools and communities.

Each of the four of us want to spend a few minutes describing what we think are some

key issues in graduate research training, and tell a bit about what we try to do here in our

College of Education in preparing graduate students to become not only consumers but

producers of research. We will not claim that we are necessarily training graduate

students better or differently from other colleges of education. In fact, surveys show that

graduate training in research methods across colleges of education is remarkably similar

(Mundfrom, Shaw, Thomas, Young, & Moore, 1998). As you might guess, however,

doctoral students do tend to get more training than masters students, and that graduate

students at research institutions receive more training than those at comprehensive


I teach an introductory course to research methods in education, as does my colleague,

Tom Smith. Although I’ve taught this course every semester for about 12 years, I still

find it a challenging course to teach. There are at least three reasons for this.

The first reason is that graduate students often come into the course very wary

about having to learn about research. My experience is that students tend to view research

as an esoteric activity that is not very relevant to what they do--or want to do--as

practitioners. They don’t see research as important to informing and improving their

skills and knowledge as teachers, counselors, and administrators.

The second reason has to do with “math anxiety,” or more accurately, a fear of

learning about statistics (as if quantitative methods were the only approach to educational

research). A few have heard about this thing called qualitative research and hope

desperately that we’ll focus only on that and disregard the numbers. Of course, we want

them to learn a variety of approaches to doing research, to understand that there are a

variety of “tools” that one can apply, and that the method one selects is very much a

function of the particular problem being investigated, how one frames the problem, and

one’s philosophical orientation about the nature of knowledge, truth, and certainty. These

are not simple issues and therefore it follows that the selection of a research method is not

something that is done casually.

The third reason has to do with what we try to accomplish in this single, 16-week

course. We attempt to teach graduate students how to be critical and informed consumers

of educational research—a basic skill that we believe is essential for all educators. So, we

spend a lot of time reading and critiquing studies of various sorts, thinking about the

value of these studies and how they contribute to the scientific knowledge base, and the

practicality of the findings for teachers and administrators. But, we also want to teach

them the basics of how to do research so that they can:

• ask a “good” research question

• distinguish among different types of variables

• recognize the differences between probability and non-probability

sampling methods

• understand the role of measurement in research

• distinguish among different data-gathering methods

• evaluate the advantage and disadvantages or strength and weaknesses of

different types of research: descriptive, correlational, group comparison

(including experiments), and qualitative and quantitative approaches

• understand some basic data analysis methods (both qualitative and


• make connections between research findings and practical matters in

regards to teaching, learning, and assessment.

Clearly, this is a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time. At best, students leave the

course with some “fuzzy” knowledge of a few basic concepts and (we hope) the

recognition that there is much more that they need to do to develop their research skills.

Unfortunately, due to the reluctance to increase credit-hour requirements in different


graduate programs, some students may not have further coursework in research methods

or statistics. A few may have opportunities to work as research assistants. Some masters

students, and all doctoral students, will of course face the task of having to do an original

piece of research—the thesis or dissertation. Most of us find it troubling that many

students begin this task not well prepared to undertake or complete it. Still other students

will be presented with opportunities to do research, or to be involved in research in their

schools, classrooms, counseling centers, and other worksites. Therefore, many of the

graduate students whom we set out to train to be consumers of research will evolve into

those persons who produce research.

On top of all this course content, we add yet another layer in the introductory course. We

emphasize that research has a largely social dimension to it. Research topics are

determined in that space occupied by the individual’s intellectual curiosity, their

perception of a particular problem, and their understanding of some social or educational

need. Researchers often collaborate with one another because even fairly simple studies

are very labor-intensive, and require multiple participants to organize and carry out the

work. Sometimes, it really is true that “two heads are better than one,” and collaborative

research activities result in more insightful, even groundbreaking studies. Certainly,

researchers also share with one another (and the general public) what they have learned

through publications and conference presentations. So, social science in education is very

much a social enterprise.


Thus, we create a variety of different learning opportunities in the course for students and

we either require or encourage them to:

• work together in small research teams to identify a problem that is of common

interest, to research and write collaboratively (in ways that approximate the collaborative

activities of many scholars)

• attend research conferences, graduate colloquia, and dissertations defenses (and

to evaluate these) in order to hear about research first-hand,

• interview educational researchers at other institutions to learn more about their

work and motivations,

• read and critique published research, and to do these things while

simultaneously developing their own research questions and appropriate methodologies

for addressing their questions.

There are great challenges to learning about educational research. Social and educational

problems are seemingly more complex, and the methods and tools developed to address

some of these problems are, likewise, more sophisticated. It is not enough for graduate

students, who aspire to professional practice in their respective fields, or to produce

original research themselves, to complete their programs of study with only a minimum

of research training. Thus, our goal is to create a forum for discussion among those who

teach research methods to seek out ways to reform graduate preparation in social science

research for education, making it more effective and efficient, and better suited to the

complex demands of society.



Mundfrom, D.J., Shaw, D.G., Thomas, A., Young, S., & Moore, A.D. (1998, April).
Introductory graduate research courses: An examination of the knowledge base.
Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research
Association, San Diego.