Research Methods

SoTL research can be conducted in a variety of ways to gather information about student learning. A SoTL researcher may choose to use either quantitative or qualitative methodologies, or a combination of both. Appropriate methods and their selection are dictated by the research questions.

Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative data provide textual, verbal, or visual data that is analyzed by coding for themes or patterns and then classified. It can also be analyzed quantitatively using content analysis to count the frequency of a theme or pattern. Examples of qualitative data collection methods include interview(s), open-ended survey questions, focus groups, observation, and written/illustration content analysis.

Interviews allow for a friendly exploration of, and discussion around, a wide variety of topics. Conversations provide immediate responses, opportunities for detailed questions, and clarification using probing questions. Interviews require developing good questions and pre-testing questions is always recommended. Interviews enable deep understanding of an issue and probe complexities that cannot be fully explored with quantitative data. Data consist of verbatim quotes which can be thematically coded and classified but must always be kept in context.

Types of interviews:

Unstructured: In-depth or intensive interviews where the exact wording, the order, and the answers have not been pre-determined.

Semi-structured: In-depth or intensive interviews where an outline of the questions is predetermined, however, researchers have flexibility during the interview to probe into questions further or follow-up on ideas presented during the conversation.

Structured: All participants are asked the same questions in the same order. They are useful when looking for very specific information, as opposed to impressions, perceptions and feelings.

Focus groups involve bringing a group of individuals together to explore a given theme and lead a guided discussion on the topic. The focus group format allows researchers to collect data from a far greater number of subjects at once; however, these discussions often generate large amounts of data that may be difficult to analyze. Focus groups also provide the opportunity to explore group dynamics, possibly bringing out issues that would not have emerged in a one-on-one interview setting. During focus groups, discussions can easily get off-track. In group settings, some may be less inclined to be open and honest.

Case study research involves exploring a single program, event, activity, process, or classroom in depth. Although results cannot necessarily be generalized to other situations, case studies in educational research provide a singular model of a classroom in action with its own unique teaching and learning participants, influences, culture and constraints, providing a rich perspective on the learning environment.

This method involves purposeful observation of activities, behaviours, actions, conversations, interpersonal interactions, processes, or where any other aspect of observable human experience can be described. Observation typically involves the researcher becoming part of the group being studied in order to better understand the subjects in question and observe their behaviour. Immersion of the researcher into the group may be either overt or covert and allows for research to take place in a natural setting. It is generally unstructured and used for exploratory purposes. It is important to note that observation can cause participants to change behaviour if they know they are being observed and there are ethical considerations around some forms of observation.

Quantitative Research Methods

Quantitative data provides numerical data that is analyzed using descriptive and inferential statistics. Examples of quantitative data collection methods includes survey, questionnaire, quasi-experiment, content analysis, test scores, and Likert scales.

Survey research collects data in a pre-determined format from all or part of a population to assess the relative incidence, distribution, and interrelations of multiple variables. Questions can be open-ended or closed resulting in a combination of both qualitative and quantitative data. The method provides participants with a high level of confidentiality and anonymity which can solicit more honest responses; however, the high level of anonymity makes it difficult to ensure a representative sample. Surveys do not easily allow for follow-up and clarification.

This method does not involve direct student involvement, as the researcher will be engaging with literature and completed studies in order to synthesizes existing knowledge on similar or related topics, highlighting critical issues and trends in that body of scholarship. In short, it evaluates material that has already been published.

This type of research does not necessarily require REB approval. If you are considering this methodology and require further information around REB requirements, please email

Experimental research measures cause and effect where at least one independent variable is manipulated, other relevant materials are controlled, and the effect on one or more dependent variables are observed. In academic settings, experimental design can be difficult because the design often requires withholding or altering service or instruction in control or treatment groups, which can raise ethical issues; however, implementation of a new piece of educational technology, leveraging novel pedagogy, or revising delivery methods will generally fall into this methodology. Because of this, it is important that there is careful ethical consideration around grading, student participation and conduct, and data gathered.

If you require assistance determining what the best approach would be for your SoTL project, please email for support.


Content on this page adopted from Open Educational Resources (OER) under a Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike 4.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) from Queen’s University (n.d.). Educational Research: A practial guide. Retrieved from Educational Research: A Practical Guide | OER Commons.