Using Mixed Methods Research Designs

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This month’s question is answered by Felice Billups, Professor, Educational Leadership Doctoral Program and Research Fellow, Center for Research & Evaluation, Johnson & Wales University.

The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Subscribers are invited to join the discussion by commenting at the end of the article.

Dear Felice, I am now in charge of several IR projects in our office, and I would like to apply mixed methods research designs to these projects. Can you offer some guidance on how to get started and ways to make them more successful?

Fbillups.jpgMixed methods research designs are a wonderful way to obtain a comprehensive perspective on a research problem. As Creswell (2013) notes, a mixed methods approach is where the researcher collects, analyzes, and integrates both quantitative and qualitative data in a single study, or in multiple studies, in a sustained program of inquiry. For institutional researchers, the combination of these data make research findings more relatable, understandable, and actionable for decision-makers. There are several ways to apply the mixed methods paradigm to applied and longitudinal research projects, and it is relatively easy to get started.

First, however, it is important to contextualize mixed methods research as a design approach. Known as the newest methodological ‘revolution’ and the third paradigm to surface in a largely quantitatively-dominant profession, mixed methods research has emerged as an increasingly viable option for institutional researchers. Originally called triangulation studies, researchers can now choose from a range of mixed methods designs. The most common approaches range from sequential designs (quantitatively dominant designs which inform a subsequent qualitative phase or vice versa), concurrent or convergent designs, (where quantitative and qualitative phases are conducted simultaneously and may be of equal or different weights), and several advanced designs where multiple phases of research are conducted, either for applied inquiry or for longitudinal projects.

Let’s say that you want to administer a large-scale survey questionnaire with your incoming first-year class, but you know that you also want to follow up with select respondents to probe issues more deeply. This sequential explanatory design would begin with the survey, and then use the results to inform an approach for the subsequent qualitative phase. You might conduct a series of focus groups or interviews with questionnaire respondents; this could be accomplished by creating a link at the end of your survey asking respondents to indicate their interest in participating in one of these opportunities. By converging your quantitative results with your focus group or interview data you could explain or extend your understanding of the survey data. Conversely, if you were asked to conduct research on a minimally researched topic, you might use a sequential exploratory design. By exploring the topic qualitatively (individual interviews with content experts or select informants), you would use the qualitative results to develop a quantitative instrument for a larger sample. In this way, the first phase would inform development of research instruments and questions for the second phase. These two examples represent some of the more common approaches to sequential applications in institutional research projects.

The use of multi-layered designs in longer term projects or longitudinal studies is another way to maximize mixed methods research in institutional research studies. For instance, the administration of the NSSE or UCLA surveys provides an excellent platform for developing a multi-project study; the juxtaposition of administering a pre-designed survey questionnaire each fall can complement campus-based focus groups, individual or dyadic interviews (facilitated discussions with 2 participants), or reflective questionnaires, administered during the following spring semester. If this approach is repeated annually, and for a series of years, trends data generated from survey results might be better understood because of the supplemental qualitative data. Over time, you could develop a holistic picture of how your population compared with national benchmarks, enhanced with specific findings about student experiences that help consumers understand the results more intimately, relative to your campus.

Getting started with any of these design approaches is no different than planning for other IR projects: begin with your research objective and your research questions, and select a research design that will best answer your research problem. Mixed methods studies allow for multiple views and extensive corroboration of data to provide robust findings. If the goal is to provide campus leaders and decision-makers with the means to advance the institution, mixed methods studies are one more tool in the institutional researcher’s toolkit.


Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches, (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.



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