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How To Do Methods In A Research Paper

I. Groups of Research Methods

There are two main groups of research methods in the social sciences:

  1. The empirical-analytical groupapproaches the study of social sciences in a similar manner that researchers study the natural sciences. This type of research focuses on objective knowledge, research questions that can be answered yes or no, and operational definitions of variables to be measured. The empirical-analytical group employs deductive reasoning that uses existing theory as a foundation for formulating hypotheses that need to be tested. This approach is focused on explanation.
  2. The interpretative group of methods is focused on understanding phenomenon in a comprehensive, holistic way. Interpretive methods focus on analytically disclosing the meaning-making practices of human subjects [the why, how, or by what means people do what they do], while showing how those practices arrange so that it can be used to generate observable outcomes. Interpretive methods allow you to recognize your connection to the phenomena under investigation. However, the interpretative group requires careful examination of variables because it focuses more on subjective knowledge.

II. Content

The introduction to your methodology section should begin by restating the research problem and underlying assumptions underpinning your study. This is followed by situating the methods you will use to gather, analyze, and process information within the overall “tradition” of your field of study and within the particular research design you have chosen to study the problem. If the method you choose lies outside of the tradition of your field [i.e., your review of the literature demonstrates that it is not commonly used], provide a justification for how your choice of methods specifically addresses the research problem in ways that have not been utilized in prior studies.

The remainder of your methodology section should describe the following:

  • Decisions made in selecting the data you have analyzed or, in the case of qualitative research, the subjects and research setting you have examined,
  • Tools and methods used to identify and collect information, and how you identified relevant variables,
  • The ways in which you processed the data and the procedures you used to analyze that data, and
  • The specific research tools or strategies that you utilized to study the underlying hypothesis and research questions.

In addition, an effectively written methodology section should:

  • Introduce the overall methodological approach for investigating your research problem. Is your study qualitative or quantitative or a combination of both (mixed method)? Are you going to take a special approach, such as action research, or a more neutral stance?
  • Indicate how the approach fits the overall research design. Your methods for gathering data should have a clear connection to your research problem. In other words, make sure that your methods will actually address the problem. One of the most common deficiencies found in research papers is that the proposed methodology is not suitable to achieving the stated objective of your paper.
  • Describe the specific methods of data collection you are going to use, such as, surveys, interviews, questionnaires, observation, archival research. If you are analyzing existing data, such as a data set or archival documents, describe how it was originally created or gathered and by whom. Also be sure to explain how older data is still relevant to investigating the current research problem.
  • Explain how you intend to analyze your results. Will you use statistical analysis? Will you use specific theoretical perspectives to help you analyze a text or explain observed behaviors? Describe how you plan to obtain an accurate assessment of relationships, patterns, trends, distributions, and possible contradictions found in the data.
  • Provide background and a rationale for methodologies that are unfamiliar for your readers. Very often in the social sciences, research problems and the methods for investigating them require more explanation/rationale than widely accepted rules governing the natural and physical sciences. Be clear and concise in your explanation.
  • Provide a justification for subject selection and sampling procedure. For instance, if you propose to conduct interviews, how do you intend to select the sample population? If you are analyzing texts, which texts have you chosen, and why? If you are using statistics, why is this set of data being used? If other data sources exist, explain why the data you chose is most appropriate to addressing the research problem.
  • Describe potential limitations. Are there any practical limitations that could affect your data collection? How will you attempt to control for potential confounding variables and errors? If your methodology may lead to problems you can anticipate, state this openly and show why pursuing this methodology outweighs the risk of these problems cropping up.

NOTEOnce you have written all of the elements of the methods section, subsequent revisions should focus on how to present those elements as clearly and as logically as possibly. The description of how you prepared to study the research problem, how you gathered the data, and the protocol for analyzing the data should be organized chronologically. For clarity, when a large amount of detail must be presented, information should be presented in sub-sections according to topic.

ANOTHER NOTE: If you are conducting a qualitative analysis of a research problem, the methodology section generally requires a more elaborate description of the methods used as well as an explanation of the processes applied to gathering and analyzing of data than is generally required for studies using quantitative methods. Because you are the primary instrument for generating the data, the process for collecting that data has a significantly greater impact on producing the findings. Therefore, qualitative research requires a more detailed description of the methods used.

III.  Problems to Avoid

Irrelevant Detail
The methodology section of your paper should be thorough but to the point. Do not provide any background information that doesn’t directly help the reader to understand why a particular method was chosen, how the data was gathered or obtained, and how it was analyzed.

Unnecessary Explanation of Basic Procedures
Remember that you are not writing a how-to guide about a particular method. You should make the assumption that readers possess a basic understanding of how to investigate the research problem on their own and, therefore, you do not have to go into great detail about specific methodological procedures. The focus should be on how you applied a method, not on the mechanics of doing a method. An exception to this rule is if you select an unconventional methodological approach; if this is the case, be sure to explain why this approach was chosen and how it enhances the overall process of discovery.

Problem Blindness
It is almost a given that you will encounter problems when collecting or generating your data, or, gaps will exist in existing data or archival materials. Do not ignore these problems or pretend they did not occur. Often, documenting how you overcame obstacles can form an interesting part of the methodology. It demonstrates to the reader that you can provide a cogent rationale for the decisions you made to minimize the impact of any problems that arose.

Literature Review
Just as the literature review section of your paper provides an overview of sources you have examined while researching a particular topic, the methodology section should cite any sources that informed your choice and application of a particular method [i.e., the choice of a survey should include any citations to the works you used to help construct the survey].

It’s More than Sources of Information!
A description of a research study's method should not be confused with a description of the sources of information. Such a list of sources is useful in and of itself, especially if it is accompanied by an explanation about the selection and use of the sources. The description of the project's methodology complements a list of sources in that it sets forth the organization and interpretation of information emanating from those sources.

Azevedo, L.F. et al. "How to Write a Scientific Paper: Writing the Methods Section." Revista Portuguesa de Pneumologia 17 (2011): 232-238; Blair Lorrie. “Choosing a Methodology.” In Writing a Graduate Thesis or Dissertation, Teaching Writing Series. (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers 2016), pp. 49-72; Butin, Dan W. The Education Dissertation A Guide for Practitioner Scholars. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2010; Carter, Susan. Structuring Your Research Thesis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012; Kallet, Richard H. “How to Write the Methods Section of a Research Paper.” Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004):1229-1232; Lunenburg, Frederick C. Writing a Successful Thesis or Dissertation: Tips and Strategies for Students in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Methods Section. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Rudestam, Kjell Erik and Rae R. Newton. “The Method Chapter: Describing Your Research Plan.” In Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process. (Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 2015), pp. 87-115; What is Interpretive Research. Institute of Public and International Affairs, University of Utah; Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Methods and Materials. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College.

Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion


Written for undergraduate students and new graduate students in psychology (experimental), this handout provides information on writing in psychology and on experimental report and experimental article writing.

Contributors:Dana Lynn Driscoll, Aleksandra Kasztalska
Last Edited: 2013-03-11 09:59:00

Method section

Your method section provides a detailed overview of how you conducted your research. Because your study methods form a large part of your credibility as a researcher and writer, it is imperative that you be clear about what you did to gather information from participants in your study.

With your methods section, as with the sections above, you want to walk your readers through your study almost as if they were a participant. What happened first? What happened next?

The method section includes the following sub-sections.

I. Participants: Discuss who was enrolled in your experiment. Include major demographics that have an impact on the results of the experiment (i.e. if race is a factor, you should provide a breakdown by race). The accepted term for describing a person who participates in research studies is a participant not a subject.

II. Apparatus and materials: The apparatus is any equipment used during data collection (such as computers or eye-tracking devices). Materials include scripts, surveys, or software used for data collection (not data analysis). It is sometimes necessary to provide specific examples of materials or prompts, depending on the nature of your study.

III. Procedure: The procedure includes the step-by-step how of your experiment. The procedure should include:

  • A description of the experimental design and how participants were assigned conditions.
  • Identification of your independent variable(s) (IV), dependent variable(s) (DV), and control variables. Give your variables clear, meaningful names so that your readers are not confused.
  • Important instructions to participants.
  • A step-by-step listing in chronological order of what participants did during the experiment.

Results section

The results section is where you present the results of your research-both narrated for the readers in plain English and accompanied by statistics.

Note: Depending on the requirements or the projected length of your paper, sometimes the results are combined with the discussion section.

Organizing Results

Continue with your story in the results section. How do your results fit with the overall story you are telling? What results are the most compelling? You want to begin your discussion by reminding your readers once again what your hypotheses were and what your overall story is. Then provide each result as it relates to that story. The most important results should go first.

Preliminary discussion: Sometimes it is necessary to provide a preliminary discussion in your results section about your participant groups. In order to convince your readers that your results are meaningful, you must first demonstrate that the conditions of the study were met. For example, if you randomly assigned subjects into groups, are these two groups comparable? You can't discuss the differences in the two groups until you establish that the two groups can be compared.

Provide information on your data analysis: Be sure to describe the analysis you did. If you are using a non-conventional analysis, you also need to provide justification for why you are doing so.

Presenting Results: Bem (2006) recommends the following pattern for presenting findings:

  • Remind readers of the conceptual hypotheses or questions you are asking
  • Remind readers of behaviors measured or operations performed
  • Provide the answer/result in plain English
  • Provide the statistic that supports your plain English answer
  • Elaborate or qualify the overall conclusion if necessary

Writers new to psychology and writing with statistics often dump numbers at their readers without providing a clear narration of what those numbers mean. Please see our Writing with Statistics handout for more information on how to write with statistics.

Discussion section

Your discussion section is where you talk about what your results mean and where you wrap up the overall story you are telling. This is where you interpret your findings, evaluate your hypotheses or research questions, discuss unexpected results, and tie your findings to the previous literature (discussed first in your literature review). Your discussion section should move from specific to general.

Here are some tips for writing your discussion section.

  • Begin by providing an interpretation of your results: what is it that you have learned from your research?
  • Discuss each hypotheses or research question in more depth.
  • Do not repeat what you have already said in your results—instead, focus on adding new information and broadening the perspective of your results to you reader.
  • Discuss how your results compare to previous findings in the literature. If there are differences, discuss why you think these differences exist and what they could mean.
  • Briefly consider your study's limitations, but do not dwell on its flaws.
  • Consider also what new questions your study raises, what questions your study was not able to answer, and what avenues future research could take in this area.


Example: Here is how this works.

Briel begins her discussion section by providing a sentence about her hypotheses—what she expected to find. She immediately follows this with what she did find and then her interpretation of those findings. After discussing each of her major results, she discusses larger implications of her work and avenues for future research.


References section

References should be in standard APA format. Please see our APA Formatting guide for specific instructions.

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