A descriptive study is one in which information is collected without changing the environment (i.e., nothing is manipulated). Sometimes these are referred to as correlational or observational studies. The Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) defines a descriptive study as Any study that is not truly experimental. In human research, a descriptive study can provide information about the naturally occurring health status, behavior, attitudes or other characteristics of a particular group. Descriptive studies are also conducted to demonstrate associations or relationships between things in the world around you.
Descriptive studies can involve a one-time interaction with groups of people ( cross-sectional study ) or a study might follow individuals over time ( longitudinal study ). Descriptive studies, in which the researcher interacts with the participant, may involve surveys or interviews to collect the necessary information. Descriptive studies in which the researcher does not interact with the participant include observational studies of people in an environment and studies involving data collection using existing records (e.g., medical record review).
Case example of a descriptive study
Descriptive studies are usually the best methods for collecting information that will demonstrate relationships and describe the world as it exists. These types of studies are often done before an experiment to know what specific things to manipulate and include in an experiment. Bickman and Rog (1998) suggest that descriptive studies can answer questions such as “what is” or “what was.” Experiments can typically answer “why” or “how.”