The strategies and tools used to gather information collection must be appropriate to the type of inquiry, both in terms of approach and scale. For example, some tools such as questionnaires can be applied to both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, and can be administered to large numbers of participants.
Interviews tend to be more appropriate for qualitative studies and require more time to carry out, and limit the number of participants that can be involved.
Depending on the subject of the research any one or more means of gathering data may be appropriate, such as observation (of people, interactions, work products, documents, etc.) or questioning (through interview, questionnaire, focus group).
It is important that the level of structure required to ensure relevance, reliability, validity and accuracy is incorporated into the strategy at the research design phase.
The research tools selected need to gather data that is:
- Relevant: helps to answer the specific question posed by the research.
- Reliable: can be expected to be repeated with the same results (eg data gathered during a lesson by the teacher in a class should correspond to that gathered by a teaching assistant).
- Valid: represents what it claims to represent.
- Accurate: the tool used must be sensitive enough to include information that is relevant and exclude what is not.
It may be possible to use standardised tools – that is, tools that have already been produced by other researchers and shown to meet these requirements. At times, though, the researcher will need to formulate their own.
The final part of the research design will be to create the actual information gathering tools (eg questionnaires, observation schedules, interview schedules, etc.)
Observations, interviews, questionnaires and documents will all potentially return different information about the same topic.
For example, a postal questionnaire may provide a large amount of information at a fairly superficial level, whereas an interview may reveal deeper insights, but with more limited scope.
Observation may reveal much about the 'what' and 'how', but less about the 'why'. Careful thought therefore needs to be given to the selection of strategies and how they may be used in combination in order to most appropriately address the research question.
The sensitivity of a research tool concerns its ability to measure the subject matter. It needs to be accurate enough to give meaningful results.
For example, when measuring a child's engagement we may define engagement as:
Interaction relevant to the task with one or more peers, for two or more minutes.
However, this definition would not be sensitive enough to measure engagement for a child with complex needs, pro-social skills and an attention span of less than two minutes.