By Kristin Stanberry
As a concerned parent, you read about issues that affect your child. If your child has a learning difficulty, you've probably found numerous research studies in the media and on the Internet. To evaluate such information, it's important to understand what well-founded research is — and what it is not. Valid research follows a standard scientific process and contains specific "ingredients."
In your role as parent and consumer, you may review research studies to help you make decisions about your child's medical care and educational needs. You may also evaluate products and services based on research. Knowing the difference between valid and faulty research can help avoid disaster.
Just for fun, let's apply the scientific principles of research and testing to a favorite American food: peanut butter. Suppose a new brand of peanut butter called Zippy is being tested against the top-selling national brand you've purchased for years. The research study is published in a national magazine. Before you purchase a jar of Zippy peanut butter, which research findings should you consider?
You probably already read the "Nutrition Facts" labels on packaged foods. Let's apply those same consumer skills to evaluating the peanut butter research study.
Here's the standard recipe for scientific research, listed by key ingredients:
Independent research (also called third party research) is conducted by experts who have nothing to gain (or lose) by the results of the study. Their research is strictly objective. In the case of the peanut butter testing, any research conducted by the manufacturers of Zippy, people who have invested their time, money, and advertising dollars in the product, couldn't be objective. An independent group such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), whose primary concern is assuring product safety for consumers, would better handle the testing.
Quantitative research includes qualities that can be measured, or quantified. These measures represent facts, not opinion. If the FDA were to test Zippy peanut butter on a quantitative scale, their concerns might include:
Qualitative research collects opinions and descriptions from subjects exposed to a particular product or treatment. Results may be reported as testimonials.
Kids who compare the taste and texture of Zippy peanut butter to the top national brand might offer qualitative opinions (testimonials) like these:
Sample size refers to the number of people or items involved.
In quantitative research, many samples of Zippy peanut butter should be tested. Ideally, random sampling would be used. That means samples are taken at random from many different batches of peanut butter.
In qualitative testing, a large number of subjects should be exposed to the product or treatment. For example, Zippy peanut butter should be taste-tested by hundreds of kids across the country — not just a few of them living in America's "Peanut Belt."
In testing, certain variables or factors must stay the same for results to be valid. When comparing two brands of peanut butter, you would test Zippy's creamy peanut butter against the top-selling creamy brand. If you compared creamy against chunky, the test results wouldn't be meaningful.
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