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Correlational Designs

In educational research, your objective may be to relate variables rather than manipulate the
independent variable, as in an experiment. If so, your design is correlational research. Although it is
not as rigorous as an experiment, you can use it for relating variables or predicting outcomes. This
chapter defines correlational research, identifies when you use it, assesses the key characteristics of
it, and advances the steps in conducting and evaluating this design.
By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:
Define correlational research, and describe when to use it, and how it developed.
Identify the two types of correlational designs.
Describe the key characteristics of correlational designs.
Identify potential ethical issues in conducting correlational research.
Identify steps in conducting a correlation study.
List the criteria for evaluating a correlational study.
Maria chooses a quantitative correlational design for her graduate school Research project. This is
her research question: Is the use of alcohol by students related to suspensions for weapon
possession? In other words, does use of alcohol predict whether a person will receive suspension
for possessing weapons in the school? Maria accesses school records for individuals cited for
possession of alcohol and the records for Weapons possession. She relates these two variables using
the correlation statistic. She finds that the two variables are positively related: If a person has been
cited for alcohol, he or she is likely to be suspended for weapon possession as well. Maria conducts a
correlation research study.
Correlational designs provide an opportunity for you to predict scores and explain the relationship
among variables. In correlational research designs, investigators use the correlation statistical test to
describe and measure the degree of association (or relationship) between two or more variables or
sets of scores. In this design, the researchers do not attempt to control or manipulate the variables
as in an experiment; instead, they relate, using the correlation statistic, two or more scores for each
person (e.g., a student motivation and a student achievement score for each individual).
A correlation is a statistical test to determine the tendency or pattern for two (or more) variables or
two sets of data to vary consistently. In the case of only two variables, this means that two variables
share common variance, or they co-vary together. To say that two variables co-vary has a somewhat
complicated mathematical basis. Co-vary means that we can predict a score on one variable with
knowledge about the individuals score on another variable. A simple example might illustrate this
point. Assume that scores on a math quiz for fourth-grade students range from 30 to 90. We are
interested in whether scores on an in-class exercise in math (one variable) can predict the students
math quiz scores (another variable). If the scores on the exercise do not explain the scores on the
math quiz, then we cannot predict anyones score except to say that it might range from 30 to 90. If
the exercise could explain the variance in all of the math quiz scores, then we could predict the math
scores perfectly. This situation is seldom achieved; instead, we might find that 40% of the variance in
math quiz scores is explained by scores on the exercise. This narrows our prediction on math quiz
scores from 30 to 90 to something less, such as 40 to 60. The idea is that as variance increases, we
are better able to predict scores from the independent to the dependent variable (Gall, Borg, & Gall,
The statistic that expresses a correlation statistic as a linear relationship is the product moment
correlation coefficient. It is also called the bivariate correlation, zero-order correlation, or simply r,
and it is indicated by an r for its notation. The statistic is calculated for two variables ( rxy) by
multiplying the z scores on X and Y for each case and then dividing by the number of cases minus
one (e.g., see the detailed steps in Vockell & Ashner, 1995). The mathematical calculations are
illustrated in many introductory statistics books.
When Do You Use Correlational Research?
You use this design when you seek to relate two or more variables to see if they influence each
other, such as the relationship between teachers who endorse developmentally appropriate
practices and their use of the whole-language approach to reading instruction (Ketner, Smith, &
Parnell, 1997). This design allows you to predict an outcome, such as the prediction that ability,
quality of schooling, student motivation, and academic coursework influence student achievement
(Anderson & Keith, 1997). You also use this design when you know and can apply statistical
knowledge based on calculating the correlation statistical test.
How Did Correlational Research Develop?
The history of correlational research draws on the themes of the origin and development of the
correlation statistical test and the procedures for using and interpreting the test. Statisticians first
developed the procedures for calculating the correlation statistics in the late 19th century (Cowles,
1989). Although British biometricians articulated the basic ideas of co-relation during the last half
of the 1800s, Karl Pearson presented the familiar correlation formula we know today in a paper
before the Royal Society in England in November 1895 (Cowles, 1989). Interestingly, Pearson used
illustrations from Darwins theory of evolution and Sir Francis Galtons ideas on heredity and natural
inheritance to advance his ideas about correlation. For example, one idea Pearson explored was to
study Galtons idea of the relationship between the left cubit (the distance between the elbow of
the bent left arm and the tip of the middle finger) and stature for adult males (Cowles, 1989).
In presenting ideas about correlations, Pearson not only articulated the formula for a correlation,
but he also presented concepts familiar to quantitative researchers today, such as the importance of
sample size, the value of precise measurement, and the use of unbiased samples. However, Pearson
was only one of several British biometricians around the turn of the century who refined and
extended ideas about correlations (De Landsheere, 1988). In 1897, Yule (Pearsons student)
developed solutions for correlating two, three, and four variables. With Pearson, Yule also advanced
the theory of regression and the ability to predict scores using information based on correlating
correlation coefficients. By 1904, Spearman published ideas about a correlation matrix to display the
coefficients, and he advanced a formula (Spearmans rho) for data that did not fit a normal, bell-
shaped distribution.
After the turn of the 20th century, and for almost 50 years, refinements in educational research
design centered on experimental procedures rather than correlational designs. However, during this
time, Fisher (1935) pioneered significance testing and ANOVA, important statistical ideas for
studying the difference between observed and predicted scores in correlational analysis. It was not
until 1963 that Campbell and Stanley provided new impetus to correlational research, with their
classical treatise on experimental and quasi-experimental designs. In this discussion, they included
correlational research as one of the designs, although they saw it as a less rigorous and valid design
than experiments. In using correlational research, they encouraged investigators to both recognize
and specify the extensive threats to validity inherent in this form of research.
During the 1970s and 1980s, with the advent of computers, improved knowledge about
measurement scales, and the need to study complex associations among many variables,
quantitative researchers initiated correlational studies. Instead of the physical control available to
experimental researchers through techniques such as randomization and matching, correlational
researchers sought control through statistical procedures. With computers, they could statistically
remove the effects of a large number of variables to examine the relationship among a small set of
variables. They could explore the combination of variables (e.g., age, gender, and SAT scores) and an
outcome (e.g., college grade point average). From simple regressionthe analysis of the variability
of a single dependent variable by a single independent variablethe technique of using multiple
regression to analyze the collective and separate effects of two or more independent variables on a
dependent variable emerged ( Pedhazur, 1997 ). Taking regression to the next step by advancing a
theoretical model, collecting data, and estimating the fit of the data to the model led researchers to
advanced correlational techniques of path analysis (Kline, 1998). Today, researchers test elaborate
models containing many variables (Kline, 1998).
Years ago, research method writers specified correlational research as one of the quantitative
designs (e.g., see Campbell & Stanley, 1963). With the sophisticated applications and explicit
procedures of correlations, correlational research can rightfully take its place

From our discussion about the key characteristics of correlational research, we can begin to see
steps emerge that you might use when planning or conducting a study. The following steps illustrate
the process of conducting correlational research.
Step 1. Determine if a Correlational Sudy Best Addresses the Research Problem
A correlational study is used when a need exists to study a problem requiring the identification of
the direction and degree of association between two sets of scores. It is usefull for identifying the
type of association, explaining complex relationships of multiple factors that explain an outcome,
and predicting an outcome from one or more predictors. Correlational research does not "prove" a
relationship; rather, it indicates an association between two or more variables.
Because you not comparing groups in a correlational study, you use research questions rather than
hypotheses. Sample questions in a correlational study might be:
Is creativity related to IQ test scores for elementary children? (associating two variables)
What factors explain a student teacher's ethical behavior during the student-teaching
experience? (exploring a complex relationship)
Does high school class rank predict a college student's grade point average in the first semester of
college? (prediction)