The function of a research design is to ensure that the evidence obtained enables you to effectively address the research problem logically and as unambiguously as possible. In social sciences research, obtaining information relevant to the research problem generally entails specifying the type of evidence needed to test a theory, to evaluate a program, or to accurately describe and assess meaning related to an observable phenomenon.
With this in mind, a common mistake made by researchers is that they begin their investigations far too early, before they have thought critically about what information is required to address the research problem. Without attending to these design issues beforehand, the overall research problem will not be adequately addressed and any conclusions drawn will run the risk of being weak and unconvincing. As a consequence, the overall validity of the study will be undermined.
The length and complexity of describing research designs in your paper can vary considerably, but any well-developed design will achieve the following:
- Identify the research problem clearly and justify its selection, particularly in relation to any valid alternative designs that could have been used,
- Review and synthesize previously published literature associated with the research problem,
- Clearly and explicitly specify hypotheses [i.e., research questions] central to the problem,
- Effectively describe the data which will be necessary for an adequate testing of the hypotheses and explain how such data will be obtained, and
- Describe the methods of analysis to be applied to the data in determining whether or not the hypotheses are true or false.
The organization and structure of the section of your paper devoted to describing the research design will vary depending on the type of design you are using. However, you can get a sense of what to do by reviewing the literature of studies that have utilized the same research design. This can provide an outline to follow for your own paper.
NOTE: To search for scholarly resources on specific research designs and methods, use the SAGE Research Methods database. The database contains links to more than 175,000 pages of SAGE publisher's book, journal, and reference content on quantitative, qualitative, and mixed research methodologies. Also included is a collection of case studies of social research projects that can be used to help you better understand abstract or complex methodological concepts.
De Vaus, D. A. Research Design in Social Research. London: SAGE, 2001; Gorard, Stephen. Research Design: Creating Robust Approaches for the Social Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013; Leedy, Paul D. and Jeanne Ellis Ormrod. Practical Research: Planning and Design. Tenth edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2013; Vogt, W. Paul, Dianna C. Gardner, and Lynne M. Haeffele. When to Use What Research Design. New York: Guilford, 2012.
The method section of an APA format psychology paper provides the methods and procedures used in a research study or experiment. This part of an APA paper is critical because it allows other researchers to see exactly how you conducted your research. This allows other researchers to reproduce your experiment if they want and to assess alternative methods that might produce differing results.
So what exactly do you need to include when writing your method section?
You should provide detailed information on the research design, participants, equipment, materials, variables, and actions taken by the participants. The method section should provide enough information to allow other researchers to replicate your experiment or study.
The Parts of the Method Section
The method section should utilize subheadings to divide up different subsections. These subsections typically include: Participants, Materials, Design, and Procedure.
In this part of the method section, you should describe the participants in your experiment including who they were, how many there were, and how they were selected. Include details about how your participants were chosen, who they were, and any unique features that may set them apart from the general population. If you utilized random selection to choose your participants, it should be noted here.
"We randomly selected 100 children from elementary schools near the University of Arizona."
At the very minimum, this part of your method section must convey who was in your study, the population from which your participants were drawn, and any restrictions on your pool of participants. For example, if your study consists of female college students from a small private college in the mid-West, you should note this in this part of your method section.
This part of your method section should also explain how many participants were in your study, how many were assigned to each condition, and basic characteristics of your participants such as sex, age, ethnicity, or religion. In this subsection, it is also important to explain why your participants took part in your research. Was your study advertised at a college or hospital? Did participants receive some type of incentive to take part in your research?
Be sure to explain how participants were assigned to each group. Were they randomly assigned to a condition or was some other selection method used?
Providing this information helps other researchers understand how your study was performed, how generalizable the result might be, and allows others researchers to replicate your results with other populations to see if they might obtain the same results.
Describe the materials, measures, equipment, or stimuli used in the experiment. This may include testing instruments, technical equipment, books, images, or other materials used in the course of research. If you used some type of psychological assessment or special equipment during the course of your experiment, it should be noted in this part of your method section.
"Two stories from Sullivan et al.'s (1994) second-order false belief attribution tasks were used to assess children's understanding of second-order beliefs."
For standard and expected equipment such as computer screens, television screens, videos, keyboards, and radios, you can simply name the device and not provide further explanation. So if you used a computer to administer a psychological assessment, you would need to name the specific assessment you used, but you could simply state that you used a computer to administer the test rather than listing the brand and technical specifications of the device.
Specialized equipment, especially if it is something that is complex or created for a niche purpose, should be given greater detail. In some instances, such as if you created a special material or apparatus for your study, you may need to provide and illustration of the item that can be included in your appendix and then referred to in your method section.
Describe the type of design used in the experiment. Specify the variables as well as the levels of these variables. Clearly identify your independent variables, dependent variables, control variables, and any extraneous variables that might influence your results. Explain whether your experiment uses a within-groups or between-groups design.
"The experiment used a 3x2 between-subjects design. Theindependent variableswere age and understanding of second-order beliefs."
The next part of your method section should detail the procedures used in your experiment. Explain what you had participants do, how you collected data, and the order in which steps occurred.
"An examiner interviewed children individually at their school in one session that lasted 20 minutes on average. The examiner explained to each child that he or she would be told two short stories and that some questions would be asked after each story. All sessions were videotaped so the data could later be coded."
Keep this subsection concise yet detailed. Explain what you did and how you did it, but do not overwhelm your readers with too much information.
Things to Remember When Writing a Method Section
- Always write the method section in the past tense.
- Provide enough detail that another researcher could replicate your experiment, but focus on brevity. Avoid unnecessary detail that is not relevant to the outcome of the experiment.
- Remember to use proper APA format. As you are writing your method section, keep a style guide published by the American Psychological Association on hand, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
- Take a rough draft of your method section to your university's writing lab for additional assistance.
- Proofread your paper for typos, grammar problems, and spelling errors. Do not just rely on computer spell checkers. Always read through each section of your paper for agreement with other sections. If you mention steps and procedures in the method section, these elements should also be present in the results and discussion sections.
A Word From Verywell
The method section is one of the most important components of your APA format paper. The goal of your paper should be to clearly detail what you did in your experiment. Provide enough detail that another researcher could replicate your study if he or she wanted.
Finally, if you are writing your paper for a class or for a specific publication, be sure to keep in mind any specific instructions provided by your instructor or by the journal editor. Your instructor may have certain requirements that you need to follow while writing your method section.
American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: The American Psychological Association; 2010.