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Descriptive Research | Definition, Types, Methods & Examples

Published on May 15, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on October 10, 2022.

Descriptive research aims to accurately and systematically describe a population, situation or phenomenon. It can answer what , where , when and how   questions , but not why questions.

A descriptive research design can use a wide variety of research methods  to investigate one or more variables . Unlike in experimental research , the researcher does not control or manipulate any of the variables, but only observes and measures them.

Table of contents

When to use a descriptive research design, descriptive research methods.

Descriptive research is an appropriate choice when the research aim is to identify characteristics, frequencies, trends, and categories.

It is useful when not much is known yet about the topic or problem. Before you can research why something happens, you need to understand how, when and where it happens.

Descriptive research question examples

Descriptive research is usually defined as a type of quantitative research , though qualitative research can also be used for descriptive purposes. The research design should be carefully developed to ensure that the results are valid and reliable .

Survey research allows you to gather large volumes of data that can be analyzed for frequencies, averages and patterns. Common uses of surveys include:


Observations allow you to gather data on behaviours and phenomena without having to rely on the honesty and accuracy of respondents. This method is often used by psychological, social and market researchers to understand how people act in real-life situations.

Observation of physical entities and phenomena is also an important part of research in the natural sciences. Before you can develop testable hypotheses , models or theories, it’s necessary to observe and systematically describe the subject under investigation.

Case studies

A case study can be used to describe the characteristics of a specific subject (such as a person, group, event or organization). Instead of gathering a large volume of data to identify patterns across time or location, case studies gather detailed data to identify the characteristics of a narrowly defined subject.

Rather than aiming to describe generalizable facts, case studies often focus on unusual or interesting cases that challenge assumptions, add complexity, or reveal something new about a research problem .

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Child Care and Early Education Research Connections

Descriptive research studies.

Descriptive research is a type of research that is used to describe the characteristics of a population. It collects data that are used to answer a wide range of what, when, and how questions pertaining to a particular population or group. For example, descriptive studies might be used to answer questions such as: What percentage of Head Start teachers have a bachelor's degree or higher? What is the average reading ability of 5-year-olds when they first enter kindergarten? What kinds of math activities are used in early childhood programs? When do children first receive regular child care from someone other than their parents? When are children with developmental disabilities first diagnosed and when do they first receive services? What factors do programs consider when making decisions about the type of assessments that will be used to assess the skills of the children in their programs? How do the types of services children receive from their early childhood program change as children age?

Descriptive research does not answer questions about why a certain phenomenon occurs or what the causes are. Answers to such questions are best obtained from  randomized and quasi-experimental studies . However, data from descriptive studies can be used to examine the relationships (correlations) among variables. While the findings from correlational analyses are not evidence of causality, they can help to distinguish variables that may be important in explaining a phenomenon from those that are not. Thus, descriptive research is often used to generate hypotheses that should be tested using more rigorous designs.

A variety of data collection methods may be used alone or in combination to answer the types of questions guiding descriptive research. Some of the more common methods include surveys, interviews, observations, case studies, and portfolios. The data collected through these methods can be either quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative data are typically analyzed and presenting using  descriptive statistics . Using quantitative data, researchers may describe the characteristics of a sample or population in terms of percentages (e.g., percentage of population that belong to different racial/ethnic groups, percentage of low-income families that receive different government services) or averages (e.g., average household income, average scores of reading, mathematics and language assessments). Quantitative data, such as narrative data collected as part of a case study, may be used to organize, classify, and used to identify patterns of behaviors, attitudes, and other characteristics of groups.

Descriptive studies have an important role in early care and education research. Studies such as the  National Survey of Early Care and Education  and the  National Household Education Surveys Program  have greatly increased our knowledge of the supply of and demand for child care in the U.S. The  Head Start Family and Child Experiences Survey  and the  Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Program  have provided researchers, policy makers and practitioners with rich information about school readiness skills of children in the U.S.

Each of the methods used to collect descriptive data have their own strengths and limitations. The following are some of the strengths and limitations of descriptive research studies in general.

Study participants are questioned or observed in a natural setting (e.g., their homes, child care or educational settings).

Study data can be used to identify the prevalence of particular problems and the need for new or additional services to address these problems.

Descriptive research may identify areas in need of additional research and relationships between variables that require future study. Descriptive research is often referred to as "hypothesis generating research."

Depending on the data collection method used, descriptive studies can generate rich datasets on large and diverse samples.


Descriptive studies cannot be used to establish cause and effect relationships.

Respondents may not be truthful when answering survey questions or may give socially desirable responses.

The choice and wording of questions on a questionnaire may influence the descriptive findings.

Depending on the type and size of sample, the findings may not be generalizable or produce an accurate description of the population of interest.

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Descriptive Research 101: Definition, Methods and Examples

Parvathi vijayamohan.

18 November 2022

Table Of Contents

What is Descriptive Research?

Key characteristics of descriptive research.


Case studies, 7 types of descriptive research, descriptive research: examples to build your next study, tips to excel at descriptive research.

Imagine you are a detective called to a crime scene. Your job is to study the scene and report whatever you find: whether that’s the half-smoked cigarette on the table or the large “RACHE” written in blood on the wall. That, in a nutshell, is  descriptive research .

Researchers often need to do descriptive research on a problem before they attempt to solve it. So in this guide, we’ll take you through:

Click to jump to the section that interests you.

Definition: As its name says, descriptive research  describes  the characteristics of the problem, phenomenon, situation, or group under study.

So the goal of all descriptive studies is to  explore  the background, details, and existing patterns in the problem to fully understand it. In other words, preliminary research.

However, descriptive research can be both  preliminary and conclusive . You can use the data from a descriptive study to make reports and get insights for further planning.

What descriptive research isn’t: Descriptive research finds the  what/when/where  of a problem, not the  why/how .

Because of this, we can’t use the descriptive method to explore cause-and-effect relationships where one variable (like a person’s job role) affects another variable (like their monthly income).

Descriptive Research Methods: The Top Three You Need to Know!

In short, survey research is a brief interview or conversation with a set of prepared questions about a topic.

So you create a questionnaire, share it, and analyze the data you collect for further action. Learn about the differences between surveys and questionnaires  here .

You can access free survey templates , over 20+ question types , and pass data to 1,500+ applications with survey software, like SurveySparrow . It enables you to create surveys, share them and capture data with very little effort.

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The observational method is a type of descriptive research in which you, the researcher, observe ongoing behavior.

Now, there are several (non-creepy) ways you can observe someone. In fact, observational research has three main approaches:

In the case study method, you do a detailed study of a specific group, person, or event over a period.

This brings us to a frequently asked question: “What’s the difference between case studies and longitudinal studies?”

A case study will go  very in-depth into the subject with one-on-one interviews, observations, and archival research. They are also qualitative, though sometimes they will use numbers and stats.

An example of longitudinal research would be a study of the health of night shift employees vs. general shift employees over a decade. An example of a case study would involve in-depth interviews with Casey, an assistant director of nursing who’s handled the night shift at the hospital for ten years now.

1. Case Study: Airbnb’s Growth Strategy

In an excellent case study, Tam Al Saad, Principal Consultant, Strategy + Growth at Webprofits, deep dives into how Airbnb attracted and retained 150 million users .

“What Airbnb offers isn’t a cheap place to sleep when you’re on holiday; it’s the opportunity to experience your destination as a local would. It’s the chance to meet the locals, experience the markets, and find non-touristy places.

Sure, you can visit the Louvre, see Buckingham Palace, and climb the Empire State Building, but you can do it as if it were your hometown while staying in a place that has character and feels like a home.” – Tam al Saad, Principal Consultant, Strategy + Growth at Webprofits

2. Observation – Better Tech Experiences for the Elderly

We often think that our elders are so hopeless with technology. But we’re not getting any younger either, and tech is changing at a hair trigger! This article by Annemieke Hendricks shares a wonderful example where researchers compare the levels of technological familiarity between age groups and how that influences usage.

“It is generally assumed that older adults have difficulty using modern electronic devices, such as mobile telephones or computers. Because this age group is growing in most countries, changing products and processes to adapt to their needs is increasingly more important. “ – Annemieke Hendricks, Marketing Communication Specialist, Noldus

3. Surveys – Decoding Sleep with SurveySparrow

SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) – an independent, non-profit research center – wanted to investigate the impact of stress on an adolescent’s sleep. To get those insights, two actions were essential: tracking sleep patterns through wearable devices and sending surveys at a pre-set time –  the pre-sleep period.

“With SurveySparrow’s recurring surveys feature, SRI was able to share engaging surveys with their participants exactly at the time they wanted and at the frequency they preferred.”

Read more about this project : How SRI International decoded sleep patterns with SurveySparrow

1: Answer the six Ws –

#2: Introduce and explain your methodological approach

#3: Describe your methods of data collection and/or selection.

#4: Describe your methods of analysis.

#5: Explain the reasoning behind your choices.

#6: Collect data.

#7: Analyze the data. Use software to speed up the process and reduce overthinking and human error.

#8: Report your conclusions and how you drew the results.

Wrapping Up

That’s all, folks!

Growth Marketer at SurveySparrow

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41.1 What Is Descriptive Research?

The type of question asked by the researcher will ultimately determine the type of approach necessary to complete an accurate assessment of the topic at hand. Descriptive studies, primarily concerned with finding out "what is," might be applied to investigate the following questions: Do teachers hold favorable attitudes toward using computers in schools? What kinds of activities that involve technology occur in sixth-grade classrooms and how frequently do they occur? What have been the reactions of school administrators to technological innovations in teaching the social sciences? How have high school computing courses changed over the last 10 years? How do the new multimediated textbooks compare to the print-based textbooks? How are decisions being made about using Channel One in schools, and for those schools that choose to use it, how is Channel One being implemented? What is the best way to provide access to computer equipment in schools? How should instructional designers improve software design to make the software more appealing to students? To what degree are special-education teachers well versed concerning assistive technology? Is there a relationship between experience with multimedia computers and problem-solving skills? How successful is a certain satellite-delivered Spanish course in terms of motivational value and academic achievement? Do teachers actually implement technology in the way they perceive? How many people use the AECT gopher server, and what do they use if for?

Descriptive research can be either quantitative or qualitative. It can involve collections of quantitative information that can be tabulated along a continuum in numerical form, such as scores on a test or the number of times a person chooses to use a-certain feature of a multimedia program, or it can describe categories of information such as gender or patterns of interaction when using technology in a group situation. Descriptive research involves gathering data that describe events and then organizes, tabulates, depicts, and describes the data collection (Glass & Hopkins, 1984). It often uses visual aids such as graphs and charts to aid the reader in understanding the data distribution. Because the human mind cannot extract the full import of a large mass of raw data, descriptive statistics are very important in reducing the data to manageable form. When in-depth, narrative descriptions of small numbers of cases are involved, the research uses description as a tool to organize data into patterns that emerge during analysis. Those patterns aid the mind in comprehending a qualitative study and its implications.

Most quantitative research falls into two areas: studies that describe events and studies aimed at discovering inferences or causal relationships. Descriptive studies are aimed at finding out "what is," so observational and survey methods are frequently used to collect descriptive data (Borg & Gall, 1989). Studies of this type might describe the current state of multimedia usage in schools or patterns of activity resulting from group work at the computer. An example of this is Cochenour, Hakes, and Neal's (1994) study of trends in compressed video applications with education and the private sector.

Descriptive studies report summary data such as measures of central tendency including the mean, median, mode, deviance from the mean, variation, percentage, and correlation between variables. Survey research commonly includes that type of measurement, but often goes beyond the descriptive statistics in order to draw inferences. See, for example, Signer's (1991) survey of computer-assisted instruction and at-risk students, or Nolan, McKinnon, and Soler's (1992) research on achieving equitable access to school computers. Thick, rich descriptions of phenomena can also emerge from qualitative studies, case studies, observational studies, interviews, and portfolio assessments. Robinson's (1994) case study of a televised news program in classrooms and Lee's (1994) case study about identifying values concerning school restructuring are excellent examples of case studies.

Descriptive research is unique in the number of variables employed. Like other types of research, descriptive research can include multiple variables for analysis, yet unlike other methods, it requires only one variable (Borg & Gall, 1989). For example, a descriptive study might employ methods of analyzing correlations between multiple variables by using tests such as Pearson's Product Moment correlation, regression, or multiple regression analysis. Good examples of this are the Knupfer and Hayes (1994) study about the effects of the Channel One broadcast on knowledge of current events, Manaev's (1991) study about mass media effectiveness, McKenna's (1993) study of the relationship between attributes of a radio program and it's appeal to listeners, Orey and Nelson's (1994) examination of learner interactions with hypermedia environments, and Shapiro's (1991) study of memory and decision processes.

On the other hand, descriptive research might simply report the percentage summary on a single variable. Examples of this are the tally of reference citations in selected instructional design and technology journals by Anglin and Towers (1992); Barry's (1994) investigation of the controversy surrounding advertising and Channel One; Lu, Morlan, Lerchlorlarn, Lee, and Dike's (1993) investigation of the international utilization of media in education (1993); and Pettersson, Metallinos, Muffoletto, Shaw, and Takakuwa's (1993) analysis of the use of verbo-visual information in teaching geography in various countries.

Descriptive statistics utilize data collection and analysis techniques that yield reports concerning the measures of central tendency, variation, and correlation. The combination of its characteristic summary and correlational statistics, along with its focus on specific types of research questions, methods, and outcomes is what distinguishes descriptive research from other research types.

Three main purposes of research are to describe, explain, and validate findings. Description emerges following creative exploration, and serves to organize the findings in order to fit them with explanations, and then test or validate those explanations (Krathwohl, 1993). Many research studies call for the description of natural or man-made phenomena such as their form, structure, activity, change over time, relation to other phenomena, and so on. The description often illuminates knowledge that we might not otherwise notice or even encounter. Several important scientific discoveries as well as anthropological information about events outside of our common experiences have resulted from making such descriptions. For example, astronomers use their telescopes to develop descriptions of different parts of the universe, anthropologists describe life events of socially atypical situations or cultures uniquely different from our own, and educational researchers describe activities within classrooms concerning the implementation of technology. This process sometimes results in the discovery of stars and stellar events, new knowledge about value systems or practices of other cultures, or even the reality of classroom life as new technologies are implemented within schools.

Educational researchers might use observational, survey, and interview techniques to collect data about group dynamics during computer-based activities. These data could then be used to recommend specific strategies for implementing computers or improving teaching strategies. Two excellent studies concerning the role of collaborative groups were conducted by Webb (1982), and Rysavy and Sales (1991). Noreen Webb's landmark study used descriptive research techniques to investigate collaborative groups as they worked within classrooms. Rysavy and Sales also apply a descriptive approach to study the role of group collaboration for working at computers. The Rysavy and Sales approach did not observe students in classrooms, but reported certain common findings that emerged through a literature search.

Descriptive studies have an important role in educational research. They have greatly increased our knowledge about what happens in schools. Some of the important books in education have reported studies of this type: Life in Classrooms, by Philip Jackson; The Good High School, by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot; Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920, by Larry Cuban; A Place Called School, by John Goodlad; Visual Literacy: A Spectrum of Learning, by D. M. Moore and Dwyer; Computers in Education: Social, Political, and Historical Perspectives, by Muffoletto and Knupfer; and Contemporary Issues in American Distance Education, by M. G. Moore.

Henry J. Becker's (1986) series of survey reports concerning the implementation of computers into schools across the United States as well as Nancy Nelson Knupfer's (1988) reports about teacher's opinions and patterns of computer usage also fit partially within the realm of descriptive research. Both studies describe categories of data and use statistical analysis to examine correlations between specific variables. Both also go beyond the bounds of descriptive research and conduct further statistical procedures appropriate to their research questions, thus enabling them to make further recommendations about implementing computing technology in ways to support grassroots change and equitable practices within the schools. Finally, Knupfer's study extended the analysis and conclusions in order to yield suggestions for instructional designers involved with educational computing.

41.1.1 The Nature of Descriptive Research

The descriptive function of research is heavily dependent on instrumentation for measurement and observation (Borg & Gall, 1989). Researchers may work for many years to perfect such instrumentation so that the resulting measurement will be accurate, reliable, and generalizable. Instruments such as the electron microscope, standardized tests for various purposes, the United States census, Michael Simonson's questionnaires about computer usage, and scores of thoroughly validated questionnaires are examples of some instruments that yield valuable descriptive data. Once the instruments are developed, they can be used to describe phenomena of interest to the researchers.

The intent of some descriptive research is to produce statistical information about aspects of education that interests policy makers and educators. The National Center for Education Statistics specializes in this kind of research. Many of its findings are published in an annual volume

called Digest of Educational Statistics. The center also administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which collects descriptive information about how well the nation's youth are doing in various subject areas. A typical NAEP publication is The Reading Report Card, which provides descriptive information about the reading achievement of junior high and high school students during the past 2 decades.

On a larger scale, the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement (IEA) has done major descriptive studies comparing the academic achievement levels of students in many different nations, including the United States (Borg & Gall, 1989). Within the United States, huge amounts of information are being gathered continuously by the Office of Technology Assessment, which influences policy concerning technology in education. As a way of offering guidance about the potential of technologies for distance education, that office has published a book called Linking for Learning: A New Course for Education, which offers descriptions of distance education and its potential.

There has been an ongoing debate among researchers about the value of quantitative (see 40.1.2) versus qualitative research, and certain remarks have targeted descriptive research as being less pure than traditional experimental, quantitative designs. Rumors abound that young researchers must conduct quantitative research in order to get published in Educational Technology Research and Development and other prestigious journals in the field. One camp argues the benefits of a scientific approach to educational research, thus preferring the experimental, quantitative approach, while the other camp posits the need to recognize the unique human side of educational research questions and thus prefers to use qualitative research methodology. Because descriptive research spans both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, it brings the ability to describe events in greater or less depth as needed, to focus on various elements of different research techniques, and to engage quantitative statistics to organize information in meaningful ways. The citations within this chapter provide ample evidence that descriptive research can indeed be published in prestigious journals.

Descriptive studies can yield rich data that lead to important recommendations. For example, Galloway (1992) bases recommendations for teaching with computer analogies on descriptive data, and Wehrs (1992) draws reasonable conclusions about using expert systems to support academic advising. On the other hand, descriptive research can be misused by those who do not understand its purpose and limitations. For example, one cannot try to draw conclusions that show cause and effect, because that is beyond the bounds of the statistics employed.

Borg and Gall (1989) classify the outcomes of educational research into the four categories of description, prediction, improvement, and explanation. They say that descriptive research describes natural or man-made educational phenomena that is of interest to policy makers and educators. Predictions of educational phenomenon seek to determine whether certain students are at risk and if teachers should use different techniques to instruct them. Research about improvement asks whether a certain technique does something to help students learn better and whether certain interventions can improve student learning by applying causal-comparative, correlational, and experimental methods. The final category of explanation posits that research is able to explain a set of phenomena that leads to our ability to describe, predict, and control the phenomena with a high level of certainty and accuracy. This usually takes the form of theories.

The methods of collecting data for descriptive research can be employed singly or in various combinations, depending on the research questions at hand. Descriptive research often calls upon quasi-experimental research design (Campbell & Stanley, 1963). Some of the common data collection methods applied to questions within the realm of descriptive research include surveys, interviews, observations, and portfolios.

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Descriptive Research: Definition, Characteristics, Methods + Examples

Descriptive Research

Suppose an apparel brand wants to understand the fashion purchasing trends among New York’s buyers, then it must conduct a demographic survey of the specific region, gather population data, and then conduct descriptive research on this demographic segment. The study will then uncover details on “what is the purchasing pattern of New York buyers,” but will not cover any investigative information about “ why ” the patterns exist. Because for the apparel brand trying to break into this market, understanding the nature of their market is the study’s main goal. Let’s talk about it.

Content Index

What is descriptive research?

Characteristics of descriptive research, applications of descriptive research with examples, advantages of descriptive research, descriptive research methods, examples of descriptive research.

Descriptive research is a research method describing the characteristics of the population or phenomenon studied. This descriptive methodology focuses more on the “what” of the research subject than the “why” of the research subject.

The method primarily focuses on describing the nature of a demographic segment without focusing on “why” a particular phenomenon occurs. In other words, it “describes” the research subject without covering “why” it happens.

Gather research insights

The term descriptive research then refers to research questions, design of the study, and data analysis conducted on that topic. We call it an observational research method because none of the research study variables are influenced in any capacity.

Some distinctive characteristics of descriptive research are:

A descriptive research method can be used in multiple ways and for various reasons. Before getting into any survey , though, the survey goals and survey design are crucial. Despite following these steps, there is no way to know if one will meet the research outcome. How to use descriptive research? To understand the end objective of research goals, below are some ways organizations currently use descriptive research today:

Some of the significant advantages of descriptive research are:

Advantages of descriptive research

There are three distinctive methods to conduct descriptive research. They are:

The observational method is the most effective method to conduct this research, and researchers make use of both quantitative and qualitative observations.

A quantitative observation is the objective collection of data primarily focused on numbers and values. It suggests “associated with, of or depicted in terms of a quantity.” Results of quantitative observation are derived using statistical and numerical analysis methods. It implies observation of any entity associated with a numeric value such as age, shape, weight, volume, scale, etc. For example, the researcher can track if current customers will refer the brand using a simple Net Promoter Score question .

Qualitative observation doesn’t involve measurements or numbers but instead just monitoring characteristics. In this case, the researcher observes the respondents from a distance. Since the respondents are in a comfortable environment, the characteristics observed are natural and effective. In a descriptive research design, the researcher can choose to be either a complete observer, an observer as a participant, a participant as an observer, or a full participant. For example, in a supermarket, a researcher can from afar monitor and track the customers’ selection and purchasing trends. This offers a more in-depth insight into the purchasing experience of the customer.

Case studies involve in-depth research and study of individuals or groups. Case studies lead to a hypothesis and widen a further scope of studying a phenomenon. However, case studies should not be used to determine cause and effect as they can’t make accurate predictions because there could be a bias on the researcher’s part. The other reason why case studies are not a reliable way of conducting descriptive research is that there could be an atypical respondent in the survey. Describing them leads to weak generalizations and moving away from external validity.

In survey research, respondents answer through surveys or questionnaires or polls . They are a popular market research tool to collect feedback from respondents. A study to gather useful data should have the right survey questions. It should be a balanced mix of open-ended questions and close ended-questions . The survey method can be conducted online or offline, making it the go-to option for descriptive research where the sample size is enormous.

Some examples of descriptive research are:

Some other problems and research questions that can lead to descriptive research are:


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  1. Descriptive Research

    Descriptive research aims to accurately and systematically describe a population, situation or phenomenon. It can answer what, where, when and how questions, but not why questions. A descriptive research design can use a wide variety of research methods to investigate one or more variables.

  2. Descriptive Research Studies

    Descriptive research is a type of research that is used to describe the characteristics of a population. It collects data that are used to answer a wide range of what, when, and how questions pertaining to a particular population or group.

  3. Descriptive Research 101: Definition, Methods and Examples

    For example, suppose you are a website beta testing an app feature. In that case, descriptive research invites users to try the feature, tracking their behavior and then asking their opinions. Can be applied to many research methods and areas. Examples include healthcare, SaaS, psychology, political studies, education, and pop culture.


    The term descriptive research refers to the type of research question, design, and data analysis that will be applied to a given topic. Descriptive statistics tell what is, while inferential statistics try to determine cause and effect.

  5. Descriptive Research: Characteristics, Methods + Examples

    Descriptive research definition: Descriptive research is defined as a research method that describes the characteristics of the population or phenomenon studied. This descriptive methodology focuses more on the “what” of the research subject than the “why” of the research subject.