Descriptive Analysis in Education: A Guide for Researchers

Loeb, S., Dynarski, S., McFarland, D., Morris, P., Reardon, S., & Reber, S. 2017. “Descriptive Analysis in Education: A Guide for Researchers.” NCEE 2017–4023. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Key Themes

Descriptive analysis characterizes the world or a phenomenon—answering questions about who, what, where, when, and to what extent. Whether the goal is to identify and describe trends and variation in populations, create new measures of key phenomena, or describe samples in studies aimed at identifying causal effects, description plays a critical role in the scientific process in general and education research in particular.

Descriptive analysis stands on its own as a research product, such as when it identifies socially important phenomena that have not previously been recognized. In many instances, description can also point toward causal understanding and to the mechanisms behind causal relationships.

No matter how significant a researcher’s findings might be, they contribute to knowledge and practice only when others read and understand the conclusions. Part of the researcher’s job and expertise is to use appropriate analytical, communication, and data visualization methods to translate raw data into reported findings in a format that is useful for each intended audience.

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