Observational design and questionnaire and interview construction - Research methods

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Observational design and questionnaire and interview construction
Research methods

Observational design

There are several ways to gather data from observations, including visual and audio recordings, and ’on-the-spot’ notetaking using rating scales and coding categories. Observational studies work best when time is taken to create effective behavioural categories.

Behavioural categories: observers need to agree upon a grid or coding sheet that truly represents the behaviour being observed. For instance, if observers wish to observe the effect of age and gender on the speed of car driving, they might wish to create behavioural categories like distracted, talking, using mobile phone and concentrating (see Table 7.1) and then code individual drivers’ behaviour using agreed scales. Coding can involve numbers, such as the apparent age of the driver, or letters to denote characteristics such as gender, e.g. ’M’ for male, as well as observed behaviours, like using ’T’ for a driver that was talking. Observed behaviours can also be rated on structured scales, for instance from 1 to 5 to indicate the degree of safe driving.

Table 7.1 Behavioural categories of driving behaviour


Sex (M/F)

Age (estimate)

Number of passengers

Observed behaviour

Type of car

Speed (estimate in km per hour)

Safe driving rating 1 = very unsafe 5 = very safe

























D etc.








Observed behaviour code

D = Distracted M-P = Using mobile phone T = Talking C = Concentrating

Sampling procedures: it is often difficult to observe all behaviour, especially continuous behaviour (non-stop). Placing behaviour into categories helps, but there are also different types of sampling procedures (methods of recording data) that can be used, which involve selecting some of the behaviour to observe and record, with the aim being to select representative behaviour. One sampling procedure is event sampling, where the number of times a behaviour occurs in a target individual (or individuals) is recorded. Another procedure is time sampling, where behaviour is recorded at a set interval, for instance what behaviour is seen every 30 seconds.

Inter-observer reliability: this occurs when independent observers code behaviour in the same way. This lessens the chance of observer bias where an observer sees what they want/expect to see. To establish inter-observer reliability, clearly described behavioural categories need to be created that do not overlap. Video-taping observed behaviour means inter-observer reliability can be checked at a later date.


A problem with questionnaires is their low response rate. Therefore it is important to construct questionnaires in a way that maximises the chances of participants completing and returning them.

Aim: having a precise aim not only allows participants to understand the purpose of the questionnaire but also allows researchers to construct questions that fit the aim.

Length: having unnecessary and over-long questions increases the chances that participants will not give the questions full consideration, or will not even complete the questionnaire.

Previous questionnaires: questionnaires that have proved successful in gaining high return rates and generating useful answers should be used as a basis for the construction of a new questionnaire.

Question formation: to generate meaningful answers and to increase completion rates, questions should be concise, unambiguous and easy to understand. It is also best if questions stick to single points to avoid becoming over-complex and confusing.

Pilot study: a questionnaire should be tested out on a small group of individuals who provide detailed and honest feedback on all aspects of the questionnaire’s design. This means corrections/adjustments can be made before the questionnaire is used on the actual sample of participants.

Measurement scales: questionnaires often use measurement scales involving a series of statements, with participants choosing a score that reflects the statement they opt for. However, if participants do not fully understand a question, they will tend to choose the middle score, which can give a false impression of their actual attitude to that question. Therefore when constructing such questions it is important that the question and the statements to choose from are easy to understand.


Effective questionnaires also use a mix of closed questions, which allow a limited range of responses (such as yes/no answers) and therefore generate quantitative data (occurring as numbers), and open questions, which allow participants to answer fully in their own words and therefore generate qualitative data (non-numerical).

Design of interviews

The effectiveness of interviews is dependent on the appropriateness of the interviewer and the choice of such is affected by several factors, including:

• gender and age — can especially affect answers on questions of a sensitive sexual nature

• ethnicity — fuller, more honest answers are gained with an interviewer of the same ethnic background as the interviewee

• personal characteristics — an interviewer’s appearance, accent, degree of formality, etc. can all affect the answers gained. Effective interviewers adapt their style to suit different interviewees.


The peer review process and implications of research for the economy


Peer review is essential to scholarly communication and the verification process. It involves the expert scrutiny of research papers to determine scientific validity. Only when perceived as valid may papers be published in respected journals, and therefore peer review is regarded as a ’gatekeeper’, lessening the possibility that unscientific research is published and accepted as scientific fact. The process involves several experts being sent a copy of a research paper by a journal editor, with several possible outcomes: accept the work unconditionally; accept if modifications are made; reject, but suggest revisions; reject outright.

Criticisms of peer review

Image There are many organisations with interests in ensuring that only certain research is published, for example drug companies desiring studies published that suggest their products are effective, and this puts pressure on those involved in peer review to remain independent and unbiased.

Image Research operates in a narrow social world that makes it difficult to peer review in an objective, unbiased way, due to jealousies, past differences, etc. that may occur between researchers.

Image Reviewers have been accused of not validating research for publication so that their own work may be published first. Indeed, claims are even made of reviewers plagiarising research they were supposed to be scrutinising and passing it off as their own.

Image Peer review can be slow, sometimes taking years to achieve.

Reporting psychological investigations

Psychologists communicate effectively by publishing research in peer-reviewed journals written in a prescribed manner to permit replication, so that findings can be validated. The title should be clear, relevant and fully informative. The table of contents lists all sections with page numbers. The abstract consists of a concise statement of aims, hypotheses, methodology, results, conclusions and suggestions for future research. The introduction presents the theoretical background and previous research, from an initial broader perspective down to a narrower one. The aims and hypotheses are then quoted in an unambiguous fashion, with justification for the direction of the experimental/alternative hypothesis given. The method details all methodological requirements relating to the design and the participants, usually inclusive of ethical considerations, as well as materials, controls and the standardised procedure used. The results incur first as descriptive statistics, where measure of dispersion and central tendency are given and results summarised in appropriate graphs and tables, and second as inferential statistics, where statistical tests are justified and outcome of analysis quoted in terms of the hypotheses. The discussion explains findings in terms of aims and hypotheses and evaluates them in terms of previous findings and theoretical aspects. Sources of error are identified and strategies suggested to resolve them before implications of research and ideas for future research are presented. The references list all sources used, while the appendices detail standardised instructions, raw data, calculations and other relevant information.

The implications of psychological research for the economy

Psychological research continually leads to practical applications that benefit people’s lives, which in turn benefits the economy. This is especially true for mental health. Ten per cent of people will spend time in a mental institution during their lifetime and 1 in 3 people will receive treatment for mental problems. Therefore, effective treatments, developed from psychological research, make huge savings in financial terms by enabling people to return to work and contribute more fully to the economy through the wages they earn and spend and through the increased taxes that they contribute. Effective strategies to deal with mental health also reduce the long-term financial costs on the health service from having to deal with people who would have remained ill without such treatments.


• Koran et al. (2000) gave an additional treatment of the antipsychotic drug olanzapine to a group of OCD sufferers who had not responded to a course of treatment with the antidepressant drug fluoxetine, while treatment with the antidepressant continued. It was found that the combined treatment produced improvements in reducing OCD symptoms. This suggests that a combined drug therapy is useful in addressing treatment-resistant forms of OCD, thus benefiting the economy by getting people back to work and reducing the burden on the health services.

• Brosnan & Thorpe (2006) gave a group of participants who had a fear of using computers a 10-week course of systematic desensitisation (SD) and found that their fear levels became comparable to a control group of non-fearful participants. A second group of similarly treated participants were compared to a non-treated group of participants with a fear of using computers and were followed up for a year. Fear levels were significantly lowered in the fearful group, which suggests that SD is an effective treatment for reducing technophobia and therefore allows such people to work and contribute to the economy.


Image As well as producing a better functioning workforce and reducing costs to the health service, psychological research also cuts costs in policing, the judiciary, the prison services, etc., as psychologically healthy people are less likely to incur costs on these institutions.

Image When conducting research, psychologists need to remember that ethical considerations come before profit and that psychology should not be used to exploit people, for instance by producing practical applications that have negative consequences, like manipulating social influences to get people to conform and carry out immoral practices in the workplace.

Image In conducting research and producing practical applications, psychologists must ensure that they do not become divorced from the consequences of their actions. An example might be conducting research into psychoactive drugs, the results of which are then misused by drug companies to produce treatments that increase the companies’ profits but have negative consequences for the people who use the drugs.