Many educational research methods are descriptive; that is, they set out to describe and to interpret what is. Descriptive research, according to Best, is concerned with:
conditions or relationships that exist; practices that prevail; beliefs, points of views, or attitudes that are held; processes that are going on; effects that are being felt; or trends that are developing. At times, descriptive research is concerned with how what is or what exists is related to some preceding event that has influenced or affected a present condition or event.
Such studies look at individuals, groups, institutions, methods and materials in order to describe, compare, contrast, classify, analyse and interpret the entities and the events that constitute their various fields of inquiry.
This chapter deals with several types of descriptive survey research, including longitudinal, cross-sectional and trend or prediction studies. Collectively longitudinal, cross-sectional and trend or prediction studies are sometimes termed developmental research because they are concerned both to describe what the present relationships are among variables in a given situation and to account for changes occurring in those relationships as a function of time. The term ‘developmental’ is primarily biological, having to do with the organization and life processes of living things. The concept has been appropriated and applied to diverse educational, historical, sociological and psychological phenomena. In education, for example, developmental studies often retain the original biological orientation of the term, having to do with the acquisition of motor and perceptual skills in young children. However, the designation ‘developmental’ has wider application in this field, for example, in connection with Piaget’s studies of qualitative changes occurring in children’s thinking, and Kohlberg’s work on moral development.
Typically, surveys gather data at a particular point in time with the intention of describing the nature of existing conditions, or identifying standards against which existing conditions can be compared, or determining the relationships that exist between specific events. Thus, surveys may vary in their levels of complexity from those which provide simple frequency counts to those which present relational analysis.
Surveys may be further differentiated in terms of their scope. A study of contemporary developments in post-secondary education, for example, might encompass the whole of Western Europe; a study of subject choice, on the other hand, might be confined to one secondary school. The complexity and scope of surveys in education can be illustrated by reference to familiar examples. The surveys undertaken for the Plowden Committee on primary school children (Central Advisory Council on Education, 1967) collected a wealth of information on children, teachers and parents and used sophisticated analytical techniques to predict pupil attainment. By contrast, the small scale survey of Jackson and Marsden (1962) involved a detailed study of the backgrounds and values of 88 working-class adults who had achieved success through selective secondary education.