Five things that are worth knowing about design research

This week I reviewed some literature related to an upcoming educational research and development project that I will also participate in, so I decided to write today about the topic I focused on the most lately: design research, and more precisely how it relates to program evaluation. In this introductory post, I collected some points that can help one to comprehend what design research is and what kind of practical aspects it has.

  1. Methodology vs. research approach vs. research method

First of all, it is important to make it clear that design research is neither a methodology nor a method. It is an approach that provides methodological flexibility and gives room for both qualitative and quantitative tools. Maybe the best expression we can use here is “methodological framework”, which offers “design based insights and research based designs” (Bakker, 2018 p7).

  • Design vs. evaluation

Second, we have to understand how this framework can fit into any research agenda related to education. Design research aims basically to design and develop an intervention (e.g. training programs, learning materials, processes, learning environment etc.), so it goes beyond evaluation and is already part of the development itself.

  • How it was vs. how it should be

But which part of the program involves design research? Let’s assume, that the program is about implementing new instructional materials. It is not enough to design the materials in an intuitive way without basing them on research. To get the highest possible value of the project, we have to apply scientific standards already in the beginning. In this case, research appears in the design phase, far before any formative or summative evaluation. Describing or evaluating the educational program as it currently is might be an aim. Design research, however, is about education as it could be or even as it should be.

  • Describing the consequences of interventions vs. explaining them

In evaluating educational programs, randomized control trials (RCT), or in other words, true experiments have been handled as a kind of gold standard for studying causal lows. Some scholars however argue (Biesta, 2007; Engeström, 2011), that there are limitations in practice, like the ethical and logistical problems of complete randomization, or questioning the applicability of the same rigorous methods used in natural sciences to unveil cause-effect relationships in case of human beings. In his book, Bakker mentions an example of studying the impacts of using warming-up exercises in classes with RCT. It turned out, that under experimental conditions key pieces of information were lost. For example, that these exercises cannot be aligned to the topic of the lessons effectively every time, and teachers can run out of relevant warming-up activities fast. 

  • Ending programs vs. cycles

RCT has limitations also if it is about formative evaluation or innovation projects. Design research is more suitable to solve long-standing or complex problems and fits better to learning cycles. It provides not only proof of what works, but also insights into how and why something works. Educational programs are cyclical in character: analysis, design, evaluation and revision activities are iterated until an appropriate balance between the intended and the realized outcome has been achieved. So design research is especially fruitful in this domain, no wonder that the design research papers focus especially on educational applications.

This short blog post was the first time I wrote about design research from the aspect of education research, but definitely not the last.  I am super excited to be part of such a research project soon and plan to share my experiences here too.

Recommended literature:

Bakker, A. (2018). What is design research in education? 1 (pp. 3-22). Routledge.


Biesta, G. (2015). Freeing teaching from learning: Opening up existential possibilities in educational relationships. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 34(3), 229–243.

Engeström, Y. (2011). From design experiments to formative interventions. Theory & Psychology, 21(5), 598–628.