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Social Work Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs
by
Matthew Morton, Paul Montgomery

Introduction

In strengthening social work’s ability to improve lives and communities, experimental design can play a critical role in helping stakeholders better understand what works in achieving positive impacts. Experimental design studies aim to test whether a specific “intervention” (or “treatment”) causes change in specific outcomes. Experiments test for this cause-and-effect relationship by exposing a group of research participants to the intervention and observing for any differences in changes of behavior between the intervention group and another group that does not receive the intervention. The group that does not receive the intervention is typically called a “control” or “comparison” group. Notably some literature reserves the term “experimental design” for studies in which participants are randomly assigned to intervention or control groups. Other literature, however, defines the term more broadly to include what some would classify as “quasi-experimental” or “nonrandomized” trials in which an intervention is applied to one group in order to detect changes but assignment to groups occurs through a method of selection other than randomization. This bibliography will consider experimental design in the broader context of both randomized and nonrandomized trials, but it will also supply references that clarify the special ability of randomized controlled trials to reduce bias and strengthen the credibility of experimental findings that guarantee causality. The field of experimental design includes considerable diversity with respect to specific methods, applications, and perspectives. This bibliography aims to organize some of the foremost texts and papers concerning experimental design to provide readers with (a) useful introductions to experimental design and basic principles, (b) practical references for specific audiences or topics of interest, and (c) a rounded tour of the views and debates surrounding experimental design.

Introductory Works

This section presents texts and papers that aim to introduce the purpose and principles of experimental design to a wider audience. Chalmers 2003 provides a good first read that articulates cause for the evidence-based practice movement from which experimental design has gained increasing momentum. Rubin and Babbie 2008, particularly chapter 10, offers an introduction to experimental design and critical concepts with the intention of reaching a social work student audience. Baker 2000 provides similar material applied for use by developmental impact researchers. Eccles, et al. 2003 and Kendall 2003, though geared toward a health care readership, provide useful summaries of key concepts in experimental design for unfamiliar readers. Oakley, et al. 2003, Rosen, et al. 2006, and Sibbald and Roland 1998 articulate nontechnical cases for general audiences for the applicability and value of experimental design. For the advanced student, Kirk 2003 is a most useful text, as it provides a more sophisticated presentation of the topic area.

  • Baker, Judy L. 2000. Evaluating the impact of development projects on poverty: A handbook for practitioners. Washington, DC: World Bank.

    E-mail Citation »

    Available free online, this handbook offers a user-friendly overview of the impact of evaluation issues and approaches in which experimental design is often situated. Different types of experimental and quasi-experimental designs are discussed.

  • Chalmers, Iain. 2003. Trying to do more good than harm in policy and practice: The role of rigorous, transparent, up-to-date evaluations. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 589.1: 22–40.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716203254762E-mail Citation »

    Chalmers articulates a case for increasing the development and use of rigorous, transparent, and up-to-date experimental designs to improve the processes by which we make decisions about whether and how to intervene in the lives of others. He further argues for systematically reviewing the state of research on a given topic prior to initiating new trials.

  • Eccles, Martin, Jeremy Grimshaw, Marion Campbell, and Craig Ramsay. 2003. Research designs for studies evaluating the effectiveness of change and improvement strategies. Quality and Safety in Health Care 12.1: 47–52.

    DOI: 10.1136/qhc.12.1.47E-mail Citation »

    This article briefly surveys different kinds of experimental designs for evaluation of more complex, behavioral interventions and in doing so introduces readers to key concepts and terms.

  • Kendall, Jonathan M. 2003. Designing a research project: Randomised controlled trials and their principles. Emergency Medicine Journal 20.2: 164–168.

    DOI: 10.1136/emj.20.2.164E-mail Citation »

    This article provides a basic, nontechnical summary introduction to the features and applicability of randomized designs for an unfamiliar audience.

  • Kirk, Roger E. 2003. Experimental design. In Handbook of psychology, Vol. 2, Research methods in psychology. Edited by John A. Schinka, and Wayne F. Velicer, 3–32. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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    Though brief, this overview introduces readers to more complex categories of experimental design (for example, hierarchical designs in which multiple treatments are nested within each other) relevant to readers interested in a more advanced introduction to approaches. Kirk characterizes experimental design by random assignment of participants.

  • Oakley, Ann, Vicki Strange, Tami Toroyan, Meg Wiggins, Ian Roberts, and Judith Stephenson. 2003. Using random allocation to evaluate social interventions: Three recent U.K. examples. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 589.1: 170–189.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716203254765E-mail Citation »

    Oakley and colleagues argue for the applicability of robust experimental design to social interventions as it has been popularly used in health and medicine. The paper provides three examples of randomized controlled trials with social interventions in the United Kingdom to illustrate strategies for conducting successful experimental trials.

  • Rosen, Laura, Orly Manor, Dan Engelhard, and David Zucker. 2006. In defense of the randomized controlled trial for health promotion research. American Journal of Public Health 96.7: 1181–1186.

    DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2004.061713E-mail Citation »

    This paper discusses the value of experimental design in evaluating health promotion interventions and responds to common criticisms of experimental design with suggestions for tailoring strategies and approaches to meet different conditions rather than abandoning experimental design altogether.

  • Rubin, Allen, and Earl R. Babbie. 2008. Research methods for social work. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks Cole.

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    This textbook, which can serve as a general textbook for graduate and upper-level undergraduate social work students on research methods, dedicates chapter 10 to experimental design, which could be used as an introductory read to the topic. Unique to this edition from previous versions, the authors make explicit links to the material throughout the book to the evidence-based practice movement.

  • Sibbald, Bonnie, and Martin Roland. 1998. Understanding controlled trials: Why are randomised controlled trials important? British Medical Journal 316.7126: 201.

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    This brief note discusses the features of experimental design that make it useful and authoritative for evaluating intervention impacts.

LAST MODIFIED: 06/29/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195389678-0053

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