The Decision Circuit

A tool to help you put together the three major sections of a methods plan: problem formulation, data collection design and analysis, limitations and ethics.


  • Start with a researchable question.
  • Make selections on the Decision Boards by following the numbered sequence.
  • Consult the glossary for definitions.
  • Critically review choices with peers and/or the teacher:
    • Are the decisions, taken together as a whole, logically compatible?
    • Are the choices well-aligned with the original research question and stated goal?
    • Do the decisions permit you to address the research question with the time and resources available?
    • How ethical is your proposal?
  • Revise according to feedback received.
  • Write your method plan according to the decisions you have made using the Decision Circuit


  1. Do not try to re-invent the wheel. Build on existing research.
  2. Start with a research question that is:
    • testable
    • narrow in scope
    • specific to a particular group or period
    • worthy of scientific inquiry
    • something that interests you
  3. Let the research question guide your choice of methods.
  4. Devise a method plan that is feasible and realistic.
  5. Ensure the methods chosen can generate valid and reliable data / information that can be treated ethically.



1.1 What is your research question?

  • Where did this question come from?
  • How is the question related to previous research in the area?
  • Why would finding the answers to this question matter? Who would benefit? How?

1.2 Which of the two types of problem formulations would most likely help you to address your research question?


  • a prediction that sets out to test for significant relationships or differences between clearly defined variables
  • relies mainly on quantitative forms of data
  • follows a linear path


  • an interpretive statement that expresses a clear and focused position in need of plausible evidence and arguments
  • relies mainly on qualitative forms of data
  • follows a non-linear path

1.3 What is the most suitable approach for collecting and analyzing the data?


  • Attempts to determine the “why” as opposed to “how” or “when” or “what”
  • Involves study designs that are complex, expensive and time-consuming
  • Outside reach of standard student-based assignments


  • Attempts to discover a new facet of a problem or to run a small-scale test or pilot
  • Involves study designs that can be relatively simple with relatively small sample sizes and short time frames
  • Within reach of standard student-based assignments


  • Attempts to provide a detailed, in-depth account or picture of the “how,” “when,” “who” or “what” aspects of a problem or phenomena
  • Involves study designs that can be relatively simple with varying sample sizes and timelines, depending on scope of study
  • Within reach of standard student-based assignments

2.1 What forms of data / information do you think are required to address the question?

Obtained with direct human contact, such as…

  • Records from experiments
  • Completed survey questionnaire responses
  • Transcripts / recordings from interviews (focus groups or interviews)
  • Field notes

Obtained without direct contact with human subjects, such as…

A) From your own field data collection efforts:

  • Records from a non-participant observation of human behaviour
  • Records from a non-reactive observation of physical traces (accretion or erosion)

B) From data that are available, but have to be located and processed somehow:

  • Documentation from government agencies and organizations (e.g., official statistics, reports, articles, budgets, policy statements, public records such as birth, graduation and death…)
  • Publications from non-governmental organizations, private organizations and international agencies (e.g., reports, recommendations, press releases, records from meetings, proceedings or conferences…)
  • Survey research results (e.g., polls, market surveys…)
  • Data collected and analyzed by researchers (e.g., published in books / journal articles / monographs)
  • Primary Sources / Artifacts (e.g., recordings, constitutions, declarations, bills, treaties, letters, speeches, personal correspondence, diaries, memoirs, notes, photographs, scrapbooks, portfolios, schedules, recipes… often stored in digital archival collections or remnants found on site such as inscriptions, clothing, tools, furniture, logs, photographs…)
  • Communication / media output (e.g., from websites, news sources, radio, television, films, advertising, billboards, music, documentaries, video games, Internet, listservs, blogs, advertising, announcements, press releases…)
  • Expressive art forms (e.g., paintings, sculptures, poems, novels, lyrics, folk tales, legends…)

2.2 Which data collection technique(s) will permit you to gather the data in an organized manner?

Most intrusive  Least intrusive Continuum

  • Experimental
  • Qualitative Interview
  • Focus Group 
  • Quantitative Survey 
  • Non-Participant Observation Field Research
  • Historical-Comparative
  • Case Study
  • Physical Traces
  • Content Analysis
  • Document Analysis
  • Secondary Analysis
  • Meta-Analysis

2.3 Which data processing instrument(s) might be required to collect, measure or support your data?

Standardized  Non-Standardized Continuum

  • Questionnaire
  • Test / Scale / Inventory
  • Spreadsheet File
  • Focus Group Schedule
  • Data Entry Code Sheet
  • Recording / Measuring Device
  • Participant Consent Form / Procedure
  • Permission Slip
  • Inventory of Information Sources
  • Field Notebook 
  • Qualitative Interview Schedule

2.4 What type(s) of units need to be measured?

  • Individual Group
  • Social Interaction
  • Geographical Unit
  • Program Organization
  • Object / Document / Artifact

2.5 For each type of unit required, what sampling strategy will you use?

  • Representative / Random
  • SRS (Simple Random Sample)
  • Systematic
  • Multistage-Cluster
  • Stratified
  • Non-Representative / Non-Random
  • Convenience
  • Purposive
  • Snowball
  • Theoretical
  • Quota

3.1 What type(s) of analysis might you need to manage and examine your data?

Deductive  Inductive 


  • Test of Statistical Inference
  • Correlation / Regression
  • Descriptive
  • Thematic
  • Narrative

3.2 What are some of the limitations?

  • Bias (e.g., such as sampling bias, experimenter / interviewer bias…)
  • Reliability
  • Time
  • Cost
  • Validity
  • Skills / knowledge
  • Available resource

3.3 What are the ethical dimensions of the research?

Human-subject ethics

Protecting the rights of research subjects when using forms of data / information that require direct contact and interaction with human subjects is a matter of complying with your duty as a researcher to abide by existing codes of ethics. Researchers involved in direct human contact research are responsible for knowing what is required of them. Following the required protocol involves voluntary and informed consent, as well as obtaining approval from your own institution’s Research Ethics Board (REB). Critical consideration should also be given to using available data, especially experimental data, that may have been obtained unethically.

Non-human-subject ethics

As members of a community of scholars, researchers are ethically bound to fair and proper use of data / information:

  • To provide fair and accurate accounts of the data / information used
  • To credit sources according to recognized professional conventions
  • To respect rights of authors and sources of information in private collections
  • To avoid overgeneralizing or exaggerating claims beyond what the data / information warrants