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Empirical Research in the Social Sciences and Education

Basic info, tips, & resources for finding empirical research, especially in Education, Graduate Psychology and Behavioral/Social Sciences

What is Empirical Research?

An empirical research article is a primary source where the authors reported on experiments or observations that they conducted. Their research includes their observed and measured data that they derived from an actual experiment rather than theory or belief. 

How do you know if you are reading an empirical article? Ask yourself: "What did the authors actually do?" or "How could this study be re-created?"

Key characteristics to look for:

  • Specific research questions to be answered
  • Definition of the population, behavior, or phenomena being studied
  • Description of the process or methodology used to study this population or phenomena, including selection criteria, controls, and testing instruments (example: surveys, questionnaires, etc)
  • You can readily describe what the authors actually did 

Layout of Empirical Articles

Scholarly journals sometimes use a specific layout for empirical articles, called the "IMRaD" format, to communicate empirical research findings. There are four main components:

  • Introduction: aka "literature review". This section summarizes what is known about the topic at the time of the article's publication. It brings the reader up-to-speed on the research and usually includes a theoretical framework 
  • Methodology: aka "research design". This section describes exactly how the study was done. It describes the population, research process, and analytical tools
  • Results: aka "findings". This section describes what was learned in the study. It usually contains statistical data or substantial quotes from research participants
  • Discussion: aka "conclusion" or "implications". This section explains why the study is important, and also describes the limitations of the study. While research results can influence professional practices and future studies, it's important for the researchers to clarify if specific aspects of the study should limit its use. For example, a study using undergraduate students at a small, western, private college can not be extrapolated to include all undergraduates.