Primary research is a type of academic research that involves collecting new and original data to conduct a study.
Examples of primary research include studies that collect data through interviews, questionnaires, original text analysis, observation, surveys, focus groups, case studies, and ethnography.
It is the opposite of secondary research which involves looking at existing data to identify trends or new insights. Both secondary and primary research are legitimate forms of academic research.
Primary Research Examples
Interviews involve approaching relevant people and asking them questions to gather their thoughts and opinions on a topic. This can take the form of structured, semi-strutured, and unstructured interviews.
Structured interviews generally do not involve back-and-forth discussion between the researcher and the research participant, while semi-structured and unstructured interviews involve the interviewer asking follow-up questions to dig deeper and elicit more insights.
|Nurses’ experiences of deaths in hospital (Costello, 2006)||Interviews of nurses about the circumstances of patients’ deaths revealed nurses felt patients’ deaths were more satisfactorily managed when they had greater organizational control, but nurses tended to worry more about the workplace organization than the patients’ experiences as they died.|
|General practitioners’ engagement in end-of-life care (Deckx, 2016)||The study conducted semi-structured interviews with 15 Australian GPs to examine their approach to end-of-life care. GPs were found to be cognizant of their patients approaching end-of-life care, and adjusted care plans accordingly. However, in certain cases, this was not made explicit through discussion.|
|Older Persons’ Views on Important Values in Swedish Home Care Service (Olsen et al., 2022)||Semi-structured interviews of 16 people aged 74–90 who received home care service explored which values they would like to see fro home care services. They found that elders primarily wanted two things: to be supported as autonomous people, and as relational beings.|
2. Questionnaires and Surveys
Questionnaires are text-based interviews where a set of questions are written down by the researchers and sent to the research participants. The participants fill out the questionnaires and return them to the researcher.
The researcher then anonymizes the data and analyzes it by looking for trends and patterns across the dataset. They may do this manually or use research tools to find similarities and differences in the responses of the research participants.
A simple questionnaire can take the form of a Likert scale which involves asking a research participant to circle their opinion on a set of pre-determined responses (e.g. ‘Very Likely, Likely, Unlikely, Very Unlikely’). Other questionnaires require participants to write detailed paragraphs responding to questions which can then be analyzed.
One benefit of surveys over interviews is that it’s easier to gather large datasets.
|Nurses’ Experiences with Web-Based Learning (Atack & Rankin, 2022)||Questionnaires were given to nurses following an online education module to gather feedback on their experiences of online learning. Results showed both successes and challenges from learning online.|
|Teacher perceptions of using mobile phones in the classroom: Age matters! (O’Bannon & Thomas, 2014)||A 50-item survey of 1095 teachers was used to examine teachers’ perceptions of the use of phones in the classroom. The survey results showed that teachers over 50 tended to have significantly less support for phones in the classroom than teachers under 50.|
|Parents’ Perceptions of Their Involvement in Schooling (Erdener & Knoeppel, 2018)||742 parents took questionnaire surveys to assess their levels of involvement in their children’s education. Parents’ education, income and age were gathered in the survey. The study found that family income is the most influential factor affecting parental involvement in education.|
3. Control Group Analysis
Control group analyses involve separating research participants into two groups: the control group and the experimental group.
An intervention is applied to the experimental group. Researchers then observe the results and compare them to the control group to find out the effects of the intervention.
This sort of research is very common in medical research. For example, a new pill on the market might be used on two groups of sick patients to see whether the pill was effective in improving one group’s condition. If so, it may receive approval to go into the market.
|Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein, and Carbohydrates (Sacks et al., 2009)||In this study, 811 overweight adults were assigned to one of four diets that varied in the percentages of fat, protein, and carbohydrates they contained. By the end of the two-year study, the participants assigned to the different diets had similar weight loss, with an average of 4 kg lost.|
|Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults (Gardner et al., 2018)||In this study, researchers randomized 609 overweight adults into two groups and assigned them to either a high-fat, low-carbohydrate (HLF) diet or a high-carbohydrate, low-fat (HLC) diet. The researchers found that the participants in both groups had similar weight loss after 12 months, with no significant difference between the two groups. This suggests that the HLF and HLC diets had similar effects on weight loss.|
|Calorie Restriction with or without Time-Restricted Eating in Weight Loss (Liu et al., 2022)||The researchers randomly assigned 139 patients with obesity to time-restricted eating or daily calorie restriction alone. At 12 months, the time-restriction group had a mean weight loss of 8kg and the daily-calorie-restriction group had a mean weight loss of −6.3 kg. However, the researchers found that this was not a significant enough difference to find value in one method over the other.|
4. Observation Studies
Observational studies involve the researchers entering a research setting and recording their naturalistic observations of what they see. These observations can then form the basis of a thesis.
Longer-term observation studies where the researcher is embedded in a community are called ethnographic studies.
Tools for observation studies include simple pen-and-paper written vignettes about a topic, recording with the consent of research participants, or using field measuring devices.
Observational studies in fields like anthropology can lead to rich and detailed explanations of complex phenomena through a process called thick description. However, they’re inherently qualitative, subjective, and small-case studies that often make it difficult to make future predictions or hard scientific findings.
Another limitation is that the presence of the researcher can sometimes affect the behavior of the people or animals being observed.
|Putting “structure within the space”: Spatially un/responsive pedagogic practices (Saltmarsh et al., 2014)||The researchers observed interactions between students, teachers, and resources in an open learning classroom. Findings indicated that the layout of the classroom had a genuine impact on pedagogical practices, but factors such as teaching philosophies and student learning preferences also played a role in the spaces.|
|Musical expression: an observational study of instrumental teaching (Karlsson & Juslin, 2008)||Music lessons among a cohort of five teachers were filmed, transcribed, and thematized. Results demonstrated that the music lessons tended to be teacher-centered and lacked clear goals. This small-scale study may have been beneficial in a qualitative and contextualized way, but not useful in providing generalized knowledge for furthering research into musical pedagogy.|
|Writing instruction in first grade: an observational study (Coker et al., 2016)||Daylong observations in 50 first-grade classrooms found that explicit writing classes were taught for less than an average of 30 minutes per day. However, a high degree of variability in instructional methods and time demonstrated that first-grade writing instruction is inconsistently applied across schools which may cause high variations in the quality of writing instruction in US schools.|
Go Deeper: 15 Ethnography Examples
5. Focus Groups
Focus groups are similar to interviews, but involve small groups of research participants interacting with the interviewer and, sometimes, one another.
Focus group research is common, for example, in political research, where political parties commission independent research organizations to collect data about the electorate’s perceptions of the candidates. This can help inform them of how to more effectively position the candidate in advertising and press stops.
The biggest benefit of focus group studies is that they can gather qualitative information from a wider range of research participants than one-to-one interviews. However, the downside is that research participants tend to influence each others’ responses.
|Understanding Weight Stigmatization: A Focus Group Study (Cossrow, Jeffery & McGuire, 2001)||In a series of focus groups, research participants discussed their experiences with weight stigmatization and shared personal stories of being treated poorly because of their weight. The women in the focus groups reported a greater number and variety of negative experiences than the men.|
|Maternal Feeding Practices and Childhood Obesity (Baughcum et al, 1998)||This study was designed to identify maternal beliefs about child feeding that are associated with childhood obesity. The focus groups with mothers found that the mothers considered weight to be a direct measure of child health and parent confidence, which according to the resesarchers is too simplistic a perception, meaning physicians should be more careful in their language when working with mothers.|
|Exploring university students’ perceptions of plagiarism: a focus group study (Gullifer & Tyson, 2010)||Focus groups with university students about their knowledge and understanding of plagiarism found six themes: confusion, fear, perceived sanctions, perceived seriousness, academic consequences and resentment.|
6. Online Surveys
Online surveys are similar in purpose to offline questionnaires and surveys, but have unique benefits and limitations.
Like offline surveys and questionnaires, they can be in the form of written responses, multiple choice, and Likert scales.
However, they have some key benefits including: capacity to cast a wide net, ease of snowball sampling, and ease of finding participants.
These strengths also present some potential weaknesses: poorly designed online surveys may be corrupted if the sample is not sufficiently vetted and only distributed to non-representative sample sets (of course, this can be offset, depending on the study design).
|EU Kids Online 2020 (Smahel et al, 2020)||A survey of children’s internet use (aged 9–16) across 19 European nations. 25,101 children conducted online surveys. Findings showed girls accessed the internet using smartphones more than boys.|
|Use of Smartphone Apps, Social Media, and Web-Based Resources to Support Mental Health and Well-Being (Stawarz, Preist & Coyle, 2019)||A survey of 81 people who use technology to support their mental health, finding that participants found mental health apps to be useful but not sufficient to replace face-to-face therapy.|
|Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment (Martin & Bollinger, 2018)||155 students conducted an online survey with 38 items on it that assessed perceptions of engagement starategies used in online classes. It found that email reminders and regular announcements were the most effective engagement strategies.|
7. Action Research
Action research involves practitioners conducting just-in-time research in an authentic setting to improve their own practice. The researcher is an active participant who studies the effects of interventions.
It sits in contrast to other forms of primary research in this list, which are mostly conducted by researchers who attempt to detach themselves from the subject of study. Action research, on the other hand, involves a researcher who is also a participant.
Action research is most commonly used in classrooms, where teachers take the role of researchers to improve their own teaching and learning practices. However, action research can be used in other fields as well, particularly healthcare and social work.
|Instructional technology adoption in higher education (Groves & Zemel, 2000)||The practitioner-researschers looked at how they and their teaching assistants used technology in their teaching. The results showed that in order to incorporate technology in their teaching, they needed more accessible hardware, training, and discipline-specific media that was easy to use.|
|An action research project: Student perspectives on small-group learning in chemistry (Towns, Kreke & Fields 2000)||The authors used action research cycles – where they taught lessons, gathered evidence, reflected, created new and improved lessons based on their findings, and repeated the process. Their focus was on improving small-group learning.|
|Task-based language learning and teaching: An action-research study (Calvert & Sheen, 2014)||This action research study involved a teacher who developed and implemented a language learning task for adult refugees in an English program. The teacher critically reflected on and modified the task to better suit the needs of her students.|
Go Deeper: 21 Action Research Examples
8. Discourse and Textual Analysis
Discourse and textual analyses are studies of language and text. They could involve, for example, the collection of a selection of newspaper articles published within a defined timeframe to identify the ideological leanings of the newspapers.
This sort of analysis can also explore the language use of media to study how media constructs stereotypes. The quintessential example is the study of gender identities is Disney texts, which has historically shown how Disney texts promote and normalize gender roles that children could internalize.
Textual analysis is often confused as a type of secondary research. However, as long as the texts are primary sources examined from scratch, it should be considered primary research and not the analysis of an existing dataset.
|The Chronic Responsibility: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Danish Chronic Care Policies (Ravn, Frederiksen & Beedholm, 2015)||The authors examined Danish chronic care policy documents with a focus on how they categorize and pathologize vulnerable patients.|
|House price inflation in the news: a critical discourse analysis of newspaper coverage in the UK (Munro, 2018)||The study looks at how newspapers report on housing price rises in the UK. It shows how language like “natural” and “healthy” normalizes ever-rising housing prices and aims to dispel alternative discourses around ensuring access to the housing market for the working class.|
|Critical discourse analysis in political communication research: a case study of rightwing populist discourse in Australia (Sengul, 2019)||This author highlights the role of political speech in constructing a singular national identity that attempts to delineate in-groups and out-groups that marginalize people within a multicultural nation.|
Go Deeper: 21 Discourse Analysis Examples
9. Multimodal, Visual, and Semiotic Analysis
Discourse and textual analyses traditionally focused on words and written text. But with the increasing presence of visual texts in our lives, scholars had to come up with primary research studies that involved the analysis of multimodal texts.
This led to studies such as semiotics and multimodal discourse analysis. This is still considered primary research because it involves the direct analysis of primary data (such as pictures, posters, and movies).
While these studies tend to borrow significantly from written text analysis, they include methods such as social semiotic to explore how signs and symbols garner meaning in social contexts. This enables scholars to examine, for example, children’s drawings through to famous artworks.
|Exploring children’s perceptions of scientists through drawings and interviews (Samaras, Bonoti & Christidou, 2012)||These researchers analyzed children’s drawings of scientists and examined the presence of ‘indicators’ of stereotypes such as lab coats, eyeglasses, facial hair, research symbols, and so on. The study found the drawings were somewhat traditionally gendered. Follow-up interviews showed the children had less gender normative views of scientists, showing how mixed-methods research can be valuable for elucidating deeper insights.|
|Elitism for sale: Promoting the elite school online in the competitive educational marketplace (Drew, 2013)||A multimodal analysis of elite school websites, demonstrating how they use visual and audible markers of elitism, wealth, tradition, and exclusivity to market their products. Examples include anachronistic uniforms and low-angle shots of sandstone buildings that signify opulence and social status that can be bought through attendance in the institutions.|
|A social semiotic analysis of gender power in Nigeria’s newspaper political cartoons (Felicia, 2021)||A study of political cartoons in Norwegian newspapers that requires visual and semiotic analysis to gather meaning from the original text. The study collects a corpus of cartoons then contextualizes the cultural symbology to find that framing, salience in images, and visual metaphors create and reproduce Nigerian metanarratives of gender.|
Often, primary research is a more highly-regarded type of research than secondary research because it involves gathering new data.
However, secondary research should not be discounted: the synthesis, categorization, and critique of an existing corpus of research can reveal excellent new insights and help to consolidate academic knowledge and even challenge longstanding assumptions.
References for the mentioned studies (APA Style)
Atack, L., & Rankin, J. (2002). A descriptive study of registered nurses’ experiences with web‐based learning. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 40(4), 457-465.
Baughcum, A. E., Burklow, K. A., Deeks, C. M., Powers, S. W., & Whitaker, R. C. (1998). Maternal feeding practices and childhood obesity: a focus group study of low-income mothers. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 152(10), 1010-1014.
Calvert, M., & Sheen, Y. (2015). Task-based language learning and teaching: An action-research study. Language Teaching Research, 19(2), 226-244.
Coker, D. L., Farley-Ripple, E., Jackson, A. F., Wen, H., MacArthur, C. A., & Jennings, A. S. (2016). Writing instruction in first grade: An observational study. Reading and Writing, 29(5), 793-832.
Cossrow, N. H., Jeffery, R. W., & McGuire, M. T. (2001). Understanding weight stigmatization: A focus group study. Journal of nutrition education, 33(4), 208-214.
Costello, J. (2006). Dying well: nurses’ experiences of ‘good and bad’deaths in hospital. Journal of advanced nursing, 54(5), 594-601.
Deckx, L., Mitchell, G., Rosenberg, J., Kelly, M., Carmont, S. A., & Yates, P. (2019). General practitioners’ engagement in end-of-life care: a semi-structured interview study. BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care.
Drew, C. (2013). Elitism for sale: Promoting the elite school online in the competitive educational marketplace. Australian Journal of Education, 57(2), 174-184.
Erdener, M. A., & Knoeppel, R. C. (2018). Parents’ Perceptions of Their Involvement in Schooling. International Journal of Research in Education and Science, 4(1), 1-13.
Felicia, O. (2021). A social semiotic analysis of gender power in Nigeria’s newspaper political cartoons. Social Semiotics, 31(2), 266-281.
Gardner, C. D., Trepanowski, J. F., Del Gobbo, L. C., Hauser, M. E., Rigdon, J., Ioannidis, J. P., … & King, A. C. (2018). Effect of low-fat vs low-carbohydrate diet on 12-month weight loss in overweight adults and the association with genotype pattern or insulin secretion: the DIETFITS randomized clinical trial. Jama, 319(7), 667-679.
Groves, M. M., & Zemel, P. C. (2000). Instructional technology adoption in higher education: An action research case study. International Journal of Instructional Media, 27(1), 57.
Gullifer, J., & Tyson, G. A. (2010). Exploring university students’ perceptions of plagiarism: A focus group study. Studies in Higher Education, 35(4), 463-481.
Karlsson, J., & Juslin, P. N. (2008). Musical expression: An observational study of instrumental teaching. Psychology of music, 36(3), 309-334.
Liu, D., Huang, Y., Huang, C., Yang, S., Wei, X., Zhang, P., … & Zhang, H. (2022). Calorie restriction with or without time-restricted eating in weight loss. New England Journal of Medicine, 386(16), 1495-1504.
Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, 22(1), 205-222.
Munro, M. (2018). House price inflation in the news: a critical discourse analysis of newspaper coverage in the UK. Housing Studies, 33(7), 1085-1105.
O’bannon, B. W., & Thomas, K. (2014). Teacher perceptions of using mobile phones in the classroom: Age matters!. Computers & Education, 74, 15-25.
Olsen, M., Udo, C., Dahlberg, L., & Boström, A. M. (2022). Older Persons’ Views on Important Values in Swedish Home Care Service: A Semi-Structured Interview Study. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare, 15, 967.
Ravn, I. M., Frederiksen, K., & Beedholm, K. (2016). The chronic responsibility: a critical discourse analysis of Danish chronic care policies. Qualitative Health Research, 26(4), 545-554.
Sacks, F. M., Bray, G. A., Carey, V. J., Smith, S. R., Ryan, D. H., Anton, S. D., … & Williamson, D. A. (2009). Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. New England Journal of Medicine, 360(9), 859-873.
Saltmarsh, S., Chapman, A., Campbell, M., & Drew, C. (2015). Putting “structure within the space”: Spatially un/responsive pedagogic practices in open-plan learning environments. Educational Review, 67(3), 315-327.
Samaras, G., Bonoti, F., & Christidou, V. (2012). Exploring children’s perceptions of scientists through drawings and interviews. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 46, 1541-1546.
Sengul, K. (2019). Critical discourse analysis in political communication research: a case study of right-wing populist discourse in Australia. Communication Research and Practice, 5(4), 376-392.
Smahel, D., Machackova, H., Mascheroni, G., Dedkova, L., Staksrud, E., Ólafsson, K., … & Hasebrink, U. (2020). EU Kids Online 2020: Survey results from 19 countries.
Stawarz, K., Preist, C., & Coyle, D. (2019). Use of smartphone apps, social media, and web-based resources to support mental health and well-being: online survey. JMIR mental health, 6(7), e12546.Towns, M. H., Kreke, K., & Fields, A. (2000). An action research project: Student perspectives on small-group learning in chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 77(1), 111.
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.