Descriptive Research Design: Definition, Example & Types

Instructor: A Ray Tatum

A. Ray has taught junior high, high school and college English and has a master's degree in curriculum.

In this lesson you will learn to define descriptive research as well as to identify the three main types of descriptive research used in the field of psychology. Following this lesson you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.


In the field of research psychology there are a lot of choices when it comes to research methodology. Knowing which method to use may seem tough, but first asking yourself what is the question that needs to be answered? oftentimes will lead you in the right direction.

Maybe you want to know if a relationship exists between two things, like how much time a person spends studying for a test and their subsequent grade on that test, so you design a correlational study. Or, perhaps you want to know how manipulating or changing the amount of time one group of people study affects their test score, so you design an experimental study. Or possibly you are not interested in how things are related, or how manipulating one thing affects another - you simply want to observe and describe something in an effort to understand it better. This is the essence of descriptive research in the field of psychology, and is the focus of this lesson.


As the name implies, descriptive research methods are used when the researcher wants to describe specific behavior as it occurs in the environment. There are a variety of descriptive research methods available, and once again, the nature of the question that needs to be answered drives which method is used. Traditionally, descriptive research involves three main categories: observation, case studies, and surveys. Let's take a closer look at each of these individually.


Observational research involves, well, observing. Say for instance you were interested in learning more about how toddlers from different cultures engage in play activities. You would not want to impact their natural inclinations to behave and engage in play activity, so you would watch from afar or perhaps through a two-way mirror, simply observing and noting what you are seeing. After you complete all of your observations, you can then make inferences about the differences and similarities that were noted. Nothing has been manipulated and hopefully they didn't even know you were there.

Case Study

Another type of descriptive research method is called a case study. A case study involves making detailed observations about one specific case. For instance, a medical student who is interested in learning more about a particularly unique patient might study the behaviors and thought processes of that one individual. This could consist of observations or interviews, but like observational research, there is no influence from the researcher. The intent is simply to examine closely the qualities and characteristics of this one case.

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