15 Experimental Design Examples

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Experimental design involves testing an independent variable against a dependent variable. It is a central feature of the scientific method.

A simple example of an experimental design is a clinical trial, where research participants are placed into control and treatment groups in order to determine the degree to which an intervention in the treatment group is effective.

There are three categories of experimental design. They are:

  • Pre-Experimental Design: Testing the effects of the independent variable on a single participant or a small group of participants (e.g. a case study).
  • Quasi-Experimental Design: Testing the effects of the independent variable on a group of participants who aren’t randomly assigned to treatment and control groups (e.g. purposive sampling).
  • True Experimental Design: Testing the effects of the independent variable on a group of participants who are randomly assigned to treatment and control groups in order to infer causality (e.g. clinical trials).

A good research student can look at a design’s methodology and correctly categorize it. Below are some typical examples of experimental designs, with their type indicated.

Experimental Design Examples

The following are examples of experimental design (with their type indicated).

1. Action Research in the Classroom

Type: Pre-Experimental Design

A teacher wants to know if a small group activity will help students learn how to conduct a survey. So, they test the activity out on a few of their classes and make careful observations regarding the outcome.

The teacher might observe that the students respond well to the activity and seem to be learning the material quickly.

However, because there was no comparison group of students that learned how to do a survey with a different methodology, the teacher cannot be certain that the activity is actually the best method for teaching that subject.

2. Study on the Impact of an Advertisement

Type: Pre-Experimental Design

An advertising firm has assigned two of their best staff to develop a quirky ad about eating a brand’s new breakfast product.

The team puts together an unusual skit that involves characters enjoying the breakfast while engaged in silly gestures and zany background music.
The ad agency doesn’t want to spend a great deal of money on the ad just yet, so the commercial is shot with a low budget. The firm then shows the ad to a small group of people just to see their reactions.

Afterwards they determine that the ad had a strong impact on viewers so they move forward with a much larger budget.

3. Case Study

Type: Pre-Experimental Design

A medical doctor has a hunch that an old treatment regimen might be effective in treating a rare illness.

The treatment has never been used in this manner before. So, the doctor applies the treatment to two of their patients with the illness.
After several weeks, the results seem to indicate that the treatment is not causing any change in the illness. The doctor concludes that there is no need to continue the treatment or conduct a larger study with a control condition.

4. Fertilizer and Plant Growth Study

Type: Pre-Experimental Design

An agricultural farmer is exploring different combinations of nutrients on plant growth, so she does a small experiment.

Instead of spending a lot of time and money applying the different mixes to acres of land and waiting several months to see the results, she decides to apply the fertilizer to some small plants in the lab.

After several weeks, it appears that the plants are responding well. They are growing rapidly and producing dense branching. She shows the plants to her colleagues and they all agree that further testing is needed under better controlled conditions.

5. Mood States Study

Type: Pre-Experimental Design

A team of psychologists is interested in studying how mood affects altruistic behavior. They are undecided however, on how to put the research participants in a bad mood, so they try a few pilot studies out.

They try one suggestion and make a 3-minute video that shows sad scenes from famous heart-wrenching movies.

They then recruit a few people to watch the clips and measure their mood states afterwards.

The results indicate that people were put in a negative mood, but since there was no control group, the researchers cannot be 100% confident in the clip’s effectiveness.

6. Math Games and Learning Study

Type: Quasi-Experimental Design

Two teachers have developed a set of math games that they think will make learning math more enjoyable for their students. They decide to test out the games on their classes.

So, for two weeks, one teacher has all of her students play the math games. The other teacher uses the standard teaching techniques. At the end of the two weeks, all students take the same math test.
The results indicate that students that played the math games did better on the test.

Although the teachers would like to say the games were the cause of the improved performance, they cannot be 100% sure because the study lacked random assignment. There are many other differences between the groups that played the games and those that did not.

7. Economic Impact of Policy

Type: Quasi-Experimental Design

An economic policy institute has decided to test the effectiveness of a new policy on the development of small business. The institute identifies two cities in a third-world country for testing.

The two cities are similar in terms of size, economic output, and other characteristics.
The city in which the new policy was implemented showed a much higher growth of small businesses than the other city.

Although the two cities were similar in many ways, the researchers must be cautious in their conclusions. There may exist other differences between the two cities that effected small business growth other than the policy.

8. Parenting Styles and Academic Performance

Type: Quasi-Experimental Design

Psychologists want to understand how parenting style affects children’s academic performance.

So, they identify a large group of parents that have one of four parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or neglectful.
The researchers then compare the grades of each group and discover that children raised with the authoritative parenting style had better grades than the other three groups.
Although these results may seem convincing, it turns out that parents that use the authoritative parenting style also have higher SES class and can afford to provide their children with more intellectually enriching activities like summer STEAM camps.

9. Movies and Donations Study

Type: Quasi-Experimental Design

Will the type of movie a person watches affect the likelihood that they donate to a charitable cause? To answer this question, a researcher decides to solicit donations at the exit point of a large theatre.

He chooses to study two types of movies: action-hero and murder mystery. After collecting donations for one month, he tallies the results. Patrons that watched the action-hero movie donated more than those that watched the murder mystery.
Can you think of why these results could be due to something other than the movie?

10. Gender and Mindfulness Apps Study

Type: Quasi-Experimental Design

Researchers decide to conduct a study on whether men or women benefit from mindfulness the most. So, they recruit office workers in large corporations at all levels of management.

Then, they divide the research sample up into males and females and ask the participants to use a mindfulness app once each day for at least 15 minutes.

At the end of three weeks, the researchers give all the participants a questionnaire that measures stress and also take swabs from their saliva to measure stress hormones.

The results indicate the women responded much better to the apps than males and showed lower stress levels on both measures.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to conclude that women respond to apps better than men because the researchers could not randomly assign participants to gender. This means that there may be extraneous variables that are causing the results.

11. Eyewitness Testimony Study

Type: True Experimental Design

To study the how leading questions on the memories of eyewitnesses leads to retroactive inference, Loftus and Palmer (1974) conducted a simple experiment consistent with true experimental design.

Research participants all watched the same short video of two cars having an accident. Each were randomly assigned to be asked either one of two versions of a question regarding the accident.

Half of the participants were asked the question “How fast were the two cars going when they smashed into each other?” and the other half were asked “How fast were the two cars going when they contacted each other?”

Participants’ estimates were affected by the wording of the question. Participants that responded to the question with the word “smashed” gave much higher estimates than participants that responded to the word “contacted.”

12. Sports Nutrition Bars Study

Type: True Experimental Design

A company wants to test the effects of their sports nutrition bars. So, they recruited students on a college campus to participate in their study. The students were randomly assigned to either the treatment condition or control condition.

Participants in the treatment condition ate two nutrition bars. Participants in the control condition ate two similar looking bars that tasted nearly identical, but offered no nutritional value.

One hour after consuming the bars, participants ran on a treadmill at a moderate pace for 15 minutes. The researchers recorded their speed, breathing rates, and level of exhaustion.

The results indicated that participants that ate the nutrition bars ran faster, breathed more easily, and reported feeling less exhausted than participants that ate the non-nutritious bar.

13. Clinical Trials

Type: True Experimental Design

Medical researchers often use true experiments to assess the effectiveness of various treatment regimens. For a simplified example: people from the population are randomly selected to participate in a study on the effects of a medication on heart disease.

Participants are randomly assigned to either receive the medication or nothing at all. Three months later, all participants are contacted and they are given a full battery of heart disease tests.

The results indicate that participants that received the medication had significantly lower levels of heart disease than participants that received no medication.

14. Leadership Training Study

Type: True Experimental Design

A large corporation wants to improve the leadership skills of its mid-level managers. The HR department has developed two programs, one online and the other in-person in small classes.

HR randomly selects 120 employees to participate and then randomly assigned them to one of three conditions: one-third are assigned to the online program, one-third to the in-class version, and one-third are put on a waiting list.

The training lasts for 6 weeks and 4 months later, supervisors of the participants are asked to rate their staff in terms of leadership potential. The supervisors were not informed about which of their staff participated in the program.

The results indicated that the in-person participants received the highest ratings from their supervisors. The online class participants came in second, followed by those on the waiting list.

15. Reading Comprehension and Lighting Study

Type: True Experimental Design

Different wavelengths of light may affect cognitive processing. To put this hypothesis to the test, a researcher randomly assigned students on a college campus to read a history chapter in one of three lighting conditions: natural sunlight, artificial yellow light, and standard fluorescent light.

At the end of the chapter all students took the same exam. The researcher then compared the scores on the exam for students in each condition. The results revealed that natural sunlight produced the best test scores, followed by yellow light and fluorescent light.

Therefore, the researcher concludes that natural sunlight improves reading comprehension.

Conclusion

Experimental design is a central feature of scientific research. When done using true experimental design, causality can be infered, which allows researchers to provide proof that an independent variable affects a dependent variable. This is necessary in just about every field of research, and especially in medical sciences.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.

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