Descriptive Study 101

A descriptive study is a relevant and useful type of scientific research. This article will discuss the descriptive study definition and what it takes to write one. We will also give a descriptive study example at the end of the article. If you are interested you can also learn more about prospective and retrospective studies.

What Is a Descriptive Study

A descriptive study is a kind of research that describes a situation, a section of the population, or a phenomenon that is being studied. At the same time, other types of research papers focus on answering the “why” descriptive research aims to solve the questions pertaining to the “how, what, when, and where”.

In many ways, the descriptive paper is more like a preliminary paper before the actual research. The questions answered by a descriptive study are necessary for the full understanding of the problem being tackled. It’s essential to have a complete and proper understanding of what a problem is before tackling it with full-scale research.

Types of Descriptive Research

There are several types of descriptive research that you should know about. They are mainly classified by the method used for descriptive research. 

Descriptive Survey

As the name suggests, this kind of study uses surveys to get information. For example, a study is seeking to find information about nurses from a particular location. What the researcher will do is conduct a study among a selected number of nurses from that area. In this case, the surveys can be made up of questions that can be answered with either a yes or a no.

Descriptive-Normative Survey

This is an extension of the descriptive survey type of study. The main addition here is the use of the normative element. Under this type, the results of the survey will be compared to the predefined norm. To illustrate, a business might wish to test the performance of its employees for their respective roles.

The employees will be given a survey, and the result of that survey will be compared with the norm for each role. If the result is above the mean, then the results can be considered positive. If it is within the mean then it is acceptable. If it falls below the defined average, then it becomes problematic. 

Descriptive Status

This kind of descriptive study aims at answering questions regarding real-life situations. For example, the employer might want to learn about the connection between the salary of their employees and their performance.

The information about employee salaries can be analyzed in connection with the performance of each employee. The aim is to find a relationship between the two and discover if a high salary actually leads to better performance.

Descriptive Analysis

For this type of study, a subject is described through a more in-depth analysis of it. For instance, the employer that is aiming to amylase the role of its workers can work in the further division of the employees. The employees can be grouped under two categories: those who work from home and those work in the office.

A questionnaire can be created for employees working in the same roles and those who are getting similar salaries. 

Descriptive Analysis

This type of descriptive study is often used in biology. It is used for describing plants and animals. They will gather samples of the plants and animals then reclassify them using the descriptions.

Descriptive Comparative

Under this type of study, the writer will be picking two variables that are not manipulated in any way. The writer will then establish which of the two are better.  Thus, a researcher may want to determine whether email or social media is better for conducting surveys. Participants can be asked to use the two methods, and then things like success rate speed can be analyzed afterward.

Correlative Survey

This kind of study is used to determine the relationship between two factors. It determines whether the relation is negative, positive, or even neutral.  For example, it will seek to establish if variables X and Y and directly proportional, inversely proportional, or if there is no relation at all between the two.

Purpose of Descriptive Research

What is the purpose of descriptive research?

The purpose of descriptive research is to identify trends, characteristics, and frequencies. It is instrumental when the topic is still largely unknown.  Again, it answers a lot of questions about the topic.

There are several reasons why you should use descriptive research study:

  1. It can be used to define the characteristics of a subject.
  2. It is particularly useful for measuring the changes in data over a set period of time.
  3. A descriptive study can also be used to check on how different demographics actually respond to various variables that they are faced with.
  4. The validation of existing conditions can also be one of the purposes of this kind of study.
  5. Another important characteristic of a descriptive study is that it is normally conducted over a longer period of time. The number of times it is conducted and the longer the period, gives the results more validity.

These are just some of the characteristics of descriptive research, which you should know about.

Descriptive Research Design

The great thing about the descriptive research design is that it can use a lot of research methods to reveal more about the topic. The researcher will not be manipulating any of the variables here. He or she will just stick to describing them. 

Qualitative descriptive research

As you might have noted by now, descriptive research can also use qualitative research methods. It may be described as a quantitative type of research, but descriptive research can also be turned in to a qualitative study.

Characteristics of a Descriptive Research

Here are some of the qualities of a descriptive research: 

  1. The descriptive research method is very quantitative. That’s because it uses quantifiable data to describe its topic.
  2. It can also be qualitative to properly describe the subject being studied. A qualitative descriptive study is also used quite often.
  3. In a descriptive study, the variables are not controlled. The only task of the researcher is to describe them.
  4. A descriptive study is often used as the basis for additional research. The topic explored by the study can be further examined using other forms of research.

Examples of Descriptive Research

Now that you know what is a descriptive study, it’s time to learn about a few examples of this kind of research. 

Player Performance

A sports team might want to compare the performance of its players when it comes to playing in their home court compared to when they are playing away from home. This can be useful in finding ways to improve the performance of the team overall. Once the reasons why poor performance has been identified, the team can then find ways to remedy the reasons.


Plants and animals are classified by scientists using a descriptive study. They go and list the various characteristics of an animal and they go and use those for additional classification.

Study of Human Behavior 

Descriptive study is often used when it comes to the study of human behavior. This is often used by businesses that want to know the impact of their products on the market. They study the reaction of the people that belong to their market. This is an often-used example of descriptive research.

So what is descriptive research?

Descriptive research methods are very useful in revealing a lot about the topic. Now, that you know a bit more about it, you should be ready to use it.

Prospective Study vs. Retrospective Study

Welcome to our Study Design 101 series of posts! Today we’ll delve into the basics of retrospective study vs. prospective study designs. You can also check out our post about the descriptive study.

Cohort Studies

Before we define what prospective and retrospective studies are, we need to understand what cohort studies are. Both prospective and retrospective studies are cohort studies. A cohort study is a type of research that recruits a group of people who share common traits. The traits can include a shared occupation, ethnicity, or having the same kind of disease.

Medical researchers often use this kind of study to evaluate the impact of various conditions on the population. A cohort study is advantageous in finding the root cause of diseases and looking at the possible cures. In many cases, the members of a cohort are those who are exposed to a certain kind of risk factor. The participants of the cohort are then studied over time, and the effects of the risk factor can be deduced from the results.

What is a Prospective Study?

Now that you know more about cohort studies, it is time to understand what prospective studies are. A prospective cohort study is a research where the scientists come up with the study, create a design for it, and then recruit the subjects. They will get as much background info about the subjects as necessary for the purpose of the study.

The investigators will conduct follow-ups among the subjects, and that can be done through interviews, phone calls, or online surveys. If the research calls for it, then physical examinations will also be a part of the checking. Some studies may also require that the subjects be given some things that can help the research. For example, they may be handed tools that can help them record.

That’s what the prospective study definition, and later on, we will see an example of a prospective study to differentiate it from other types of studies further.

What is a Retrospective Study

What is a retrospective study, and why is it so important?

A retrospective cohort study is also a kind of cohort study, but in this case, the subjects are grouped based on their exposure to the risk factor being studied. That means going back in time to identify a group that has already been exposed to the risk factor and studying the effects.

Researchers are free to use various methods in carrying out their studies. They can interview the subjects, read old newspapers, and go back and check other records. As the name of the research suggests, the researches who use this method go back in time to do their study.

For example, researchers can study the effects of exposure to a specific chemical that happened to factory workers decades ago. They can use existing records for checking that.

Ambidirectional Cohort Study

It is worth noting that there is a third type of cohort study in use today. That is what’s known as the ambidirectional cohort study. The name suggests that it can go both ways, which means it is both forward-looking and be retroactive. It can study the continuing effects of a risk factor and look back at past results simultaneously.

An excellent example of this is studying the effects of a new drug on patients. An ambidirectional study will check the ongoing impact on patients; it will also look back at the effects of other similar drugs in the past. So, it is ongoing and yet looking at records at the same time.

That should give you a clear idea as to the retrospective study definition. It’s time to move about the other aspects of the studies.

Purpose and Design of the Studies

So what is the purpose of these studies? Both of these cohort studies are aimed at checking the effect of individual factors on the cohorts. The design of these studies makes them ideal for use in medical research.

Cohort study designs were used in some of the essential medical researches. The design of these studies will pick a risk factor, and then the researchers will focus on that.

Key Differences Between Prospective and Retrospective Studies

There are several critical differences between prospective and retrospective studies. Here are the most important ones:

  • Subjects 
  • Data Collection
  • Data Analysis
  • Advantages
  • Disadvantages

The Subjects

Let’s take the case of a study that is researching a disease like AIDS. In a prospective study, the subject may or may not be infected with the disease yet. With a retrospective study, the subjects would have been infected with the disease already. 

Collection of Data

This article is basically retrospective vs. prospective study. No study is better than the other. It is merely finding the right design that would apply to a certain type of study. A retrospective study can base its research on previously published sources like magazines and newspapers. That’s because it’s reliant on what happened in the past.

On the other hand, a prospective study is meant to check on what would happen in the future. The researchers are expected to keep the new records of the research.

Data Analysis

Aide from the way that the data is gathered, the analysis of that data is another key difference between these two types of research. With a retrospective study, the data analysis can be done immediately. There is no need to wait for a certain period because the needed data is already existing. It is just a matter of finding the right relevant data.

With a prospective analysis, the researchers will have to wait before the relevant data is enough to analyze the data.

The Advantages

Each study type has its advantages. A retrospective study can be conducted on a small scale because it can just go over existing data. A prospective study on the other has more applications, especially in the field of Western medicine.

The Disadvantages

On the other side of the coin, both study types have their disadvantages as well. A prospective study, for example can be very costly. A retrospective study, on the other hand, is minimal since it can only rely on existing data. It cannot study new factors since it is tied to what has happened in the past.

Examples  of Prospective and Retrospective Studies

The  Nurses Health Study is arguably the most well-known cohort study to have been conducted. It is a prospective study that was meant to study the risk factors of chronic diseases in women. As the name suggests, it took nurses to subject, and it has revealed a few important things about health.

Another important prospective study is the  Framingham Heart Study. This is a cohort study on the residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, which focused on cardiovascular diseases. It is an extensive study that involves years of in-depth research. 

Those examples should give you an idea regarding the scale and coverage of cohort studies. It takes up a lot of resources to conduct a prospective study effectively.

Now, you should be able to tell the difference between a prospective study and a retrospective study. Both of these types of research are very effective. It is just a matter of the right one that would apply to the kind of research that you want to conduct.