Methods of Social research and Investigation

Methods of Social Investigation


‘Describe how you would plan and undertake an investigation into why someof this College’s students do not complete their degree courses.’

(You have been given only 100 to finance the study; and one term’s sabbatical.)


Define the variables in the given title

After a Research Statement has been formulated it is very important that theresearcher defines any variables within it. A variable is any word whose meaningmay be ambiguous or which could have several different meanings. This is a crucial stage in the planning process as a vague title renders any results at the end of the research without true meaning.

In this case, the Research Statement is the given title ‘Describe how you wouldplan and undertake an investigation into why some of this College’s students do not complete their degree courses.’ Within this Research Statement there are several variables: ‘colleges’, ‘students’, ‘complete’ and ‘degree courses’. These variables will be defined as follows:

‘College’s’ we will take this to mean students at Royal Holloway and BedfordNew College, University of London.

‘Students’                    Undergraduates on a first degree (excluding post graduates and so on).

‘Complete’Graduate’Degree courses’       The course for which the student originally registered.


By defining the variables above there can be no confusion as to the meaning of the Research Statement. This process also helps the researcher to focus on the group of people that he wishes to study.


Decide on the purpose of the research


Having defined the variables in the Research Statement, the researcher now needs to focus his attention on the purpose of the research, and consequently lay down the Research Objectives. This part of the planning process allows the researcher time to consider what he hopes to achieve from the research and ensures that the research represents his objectives.


The purpose of our research is to identify the reasons for students failing tocomplete the degree course for which they were originally admitted (variablesalready identified). The results of the research would allow the college to takeaction to encourage students to continue their studies and could even be used toaid the selection process and perhaps prevent problems from the outset. This is the final purpose of the research.


Who is to be studied?

The researcher needs to identify the group of people upon which to base the study. The process is made easier by the fact that we have already defined the variables in the Research Statement. The research group has been thus so far defined as those students of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London who did not graduate from the first degree course for which they originally registered. To concentrate the study group further, the research will be based on those students who left during the academic year 1995/6 only. The study will include students who were registered in all faculties within the University.


Initial sources of information

Once the research group has been identified the researcher needs to consider how to identify those individuals which fall within the specified group. In this case, the information we require will be held in the College Registry and also in the Faculty Offices. This information is confidential and is not available to the public, and this difficulty will be dealt with in the next section.


How to begin the investigation

This particular research project requires the cooperation of a group of ex-students
of the college on what may be a sensitive subject. Therefore, the first action that
we would take is to send a contact letter out to all those within our potential
research group. The letter would describe the research that we are carrying out,
its purpose and the method by which we intend to conduct it (thereby informing the
recipient of what they will be asked to do). It would then ask the ex-student
whether they would mind taking part in the research. It would then ask those who
are willing to be involved to send some basic details about age, sex, and faculty and
so on.


The letter would not be personalised as we do not yet know the names and addresses
of the ex-students. We would then take the letter (and copies) to the registry and
ask if they would mind sending them to the ex-students that they have on their
files. This is to protect the confidentiality of the information held at the
Registry. We would also include a stamped addressed envelope in the letter to
encourage the ex-students to respond. At this time we still do not know the names
of the ex-students and will only know that information from the response. I would
also set a final response date so that we have a cut-off point and know when we can
begin the investigation in full.

After the final response date we would examine the basic details of the respondents (age, sex and so on) and from this information, formulate a Random Sample. Random sampling is a procedure in which bias is removed from the sample. In other words, we ensure that we do not have thirty women and 3 men in our sample. We would aim to have a wide cross sectionof people with no one particular group being any more predominant than the other.


In official statistics approximately 3% of all students ‘drop-out’ of University.

Whilst I suspect that the figure would be lower here, we shall use this figure as a base and given the number of students is approximately 5,000 would estimate the total number of ‘drop-out’ cases to be around 150. Bearing in mind that the sensitive nature of the research may cause a low response rate we would hope to have approximately 50 research subjects after the randomsample.


Which method of investigation to use?

“A survey is a method of collecting information from people about their ideas,feelings, plans, and beliefs, social, educational and financial background”. The survey would be the most effective way of conducting this investigation for several reasons. Firstly, the postal survey allows us to cover a wide geographical area within our limited budget. Secondly, the survey allows the respondent to answer the questions in privacy, which is important given the sensitive nature of the questions and thirdly the survey allows us to correlate the results more easily.


Survey design

Survey design is a complicated topic as so many points need to be consideredtogether. The points that we would bear in mind whilst designing our survey are as follows:

The position of the questions is very important

The first question should be clearly related to the purpose of theresearch as defined in the research statement.

The questions should move from the familiar, such as name and so on, tothe more complex.

Sensitive questions should be placed in the middle, so that therespondent is still concentrating on the questionnaire but is not put off from starting to answer it.

The final questions should be relatively easy to answer as therespondent may be getting bored with the questionnaire.


It is very important to ensure that the questions are independent from each other.


We should be careful about the language that we use, avoiding emotional language, leading or presuming questions.

It is also important to stress the confidentiality of the questionnaire so that the respondents are encouraged to both take part and answer honestly.


Bearing in mind these design criteria we would use open ended questions to ask the respondent for basic information about their age, sex, ethnic origin, course title, and year of entry to the college. We would then go on to ask them why they decided to leave the college prior to graduating.


Pilot survey


After we had designed the survey we would conduct a small pilot survey on current students at the University. A pilot survey allows the researcher to check that the questionnaire is understandable and so on. It may also give him some idea as to the amount of time it may take to get a response and may even indicate a response rate. On a limited budget, it is hoped that the pilot survey would help to prevent any expensive mistakes later on in the research project.

If the pilot survey is successful we would go on to send the survey, with a stamped addressed envelope, to our sample group.


Survey Results


After the final deadline for respondents has passed we would collect together the
received surveys and initially examine the basic information (age, sex and so on)
to ensure that we still have a random sample. We would then look at the reasons
given for leaving the college. The easiest way to correlate these results would beto categorise them in a table such as that displayed below.

Reason for leaving Number of respondentsTotal

Change of course IIIIIIIIIIIII                      13

Change of college IIIIIII                   7

Illness             IIIIIIII            8

Not ready to study/year out               IIIIII               6

Financial/grant problems                    IIIIIIIIIII 11

No longer wishes to study                 II         2

English language problems                I           1

Accommodation         II         2

Other I            1


After we had correlated the results
in a table we would calculate
percentages to give a more
meaningful picture. We would
then represent the results

Graphically in either a pie chart or
a bar chart so that the information
can be assimilated easily by
anyone interested in the results of
the survey.

Problems with our approach


The main problem with research of this kind is the sensitive nature of the topic and the lowresponse rate that might result from that. Also, those people who reply to the initial contactletter may differ from those who do not and a whole strata of ex-students may not reply to thecontact letter because of the reason that they left. This must be taken into consideration whenthe results are published. A final problem may be that a large number of students may haveleft the address held by the college and this may affect the response rate.



In conclusion then, this method of planning and undertaking an investigation into why someof this college’s students do not complete their degree courses should produce some useableand unbiased results.



Fink, A &Kosecoff, J (1985) How to Conduct Surveys Giddens, A (1993) Sociology

Howard, K & Sharp, J (1983) Management of a Student Research Project Kane, E (1985) Doing Your Own Research

Moser and Kalton (1971) Survey Methods in Social Investigation
Oppenheim, A (1992 2ed) Research Methods in Social Relations


Emma Woodmansee

SP104 Methods of Social Investigation

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