31 8.2 Quasi-experimental and pre-experimental designs

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and describe the various types of quasi-experimental designs
  • Distinguish true experimental designs from quasi-experimental and pre-experimental designs
  • Identify and describe the various types of quasi-experimental and pre-experimental designs

 

As we discussed in the previous section, time, funding, and ethics may limit a researcher’s ability to conduct a true experiment. For researchers in the medical sciences and social work, conducting a true experiment could require denying needed treatment to clients, which is a clear ethical violation. Even those whose research may not involve the administration of needed medications or treatments may be limited in their ability to conduct a classic experiment. When true experiments are not possible, researchers often use quasi-experimental designs.

Quasi-experimental designs

Quasi-experimental designs are similar to true experiments, but they lack random assignment to experimental and control groups. Quasi-experimental designs have a comparison group that is similar to a control group except assignment to the comparison group is not determined by random assignment. The most basic of these quasi-experimental designs is the nonequivalent comparison groups design (Rubin & Babbie, 2017).  The nonequivalent comparison group design looks a lot like the classic experimental design, except it does not use random assignment. In many cases, these groups may already exist. For example, a researcher might conduct research at two different agency sites, one of which receives the intervention and the other does not. No one was assigned to treatment or comparison groups. Those groupings existed prior to the study. While this method is more convenient for real-world research, it is less likely that that the groups are comparable than if they had been determined by random assignment. Perhaps the treatment group has a characteristic that is unique–for example, higher income or different diagnoses–that make the treatment more effective.

Quasi-experiments are particularly useful in social welfare policy research. Social welfare policy researchers often look for what are termed natural experiments, or situations in which comparable groups are created by differences that already occur in the real world. Natural experiments are a feature of the social world that allows researchers to use the logic of experimental design to investigate the connection between variables. For example, Stratmann and Wille (2016) were interested in the effects of a state healthcare policy called Certificate of Need on the quality of hospitals. They clearly could not randomly assign states to adopt one set of policies or another. Instead, researchers used hospital referral regions, or the areas from which hospitals draw their patients, that spanned across state lines. Because the hospitals were in the same referral region, researchers could be pretty sure that the client characteristics were pretty similar. In this way, they could classify patients in experimental and comparison groups without dictating state policy or telling people where to live.

 

Matching is another approach in quasi-experimental design for assigning people to experimental and comparison groups. It begins with researchers thinking about what variables are important in their study, particularly demographic variables or attributes that might impact their dependent variable. Individual matching involves pairing participants with similar attributes. Then, the matched pair is split—with one participant going to the experimental group and the other to the comparison group. An ex post facto control group, in contrast, is when a researcher matches individuals after the intervention is administered to some participants. Finally, researchers may engage in aggregate matching, in which the comparison group is determined to be similar on important variables.

Time series design

There are many different quasi-experimental designs in addition to the nonequivalent comparison group design described earlier. Describing all of them is beyond the scope of this textbook, but one more design is worth mentioning. The time series design uses multiple observations before and after an intervention. In some cases, experimental and comparison groups are used. In other cases where that is not feasible, a single experimental group is used. By using multiple observations before and after the intervention, the researcher can better understand the true value of the dependent variable in each participant before the intervention starts. Additionally, multiple observations afterwards allow the researcher to see whether the intervention had lasting effects on participants. Time series designs are similar to single-subjects designs, which we will discuss in Chapter 15.

Pre-experimental design

When true experiments and quasi-experiments are not possible, researchers may turn to a pre-experimental design (Campbell & Stanley, 1963).  Pre-experimental designs are called such because they often happen as a pre-cursor to conducting a true experiment.  Researchers want to see if their interventions will have some effect on a small group of people before they seek funding and dedicate time to conduct a true experiment. Pre-experimental designs, thus, are usually conducted as a first step towards establishing the evidence for or against an intervention. However, this type of design comes with some unique disadvantages, which we’ll describe below.

A commonly used type of pre-experiment is the one-group pretest post-test design. In this design, pre- and posttests are both administered, but there is no comparison group to which to compare the experimental group. Researchers may be able to make the claim that participants receiving the treatment experienced a change in the dependent variable, but they cannot begin to claim that the change was the result of the treatment without a comparison group.   Imagine if the students in your research class completed a questionnaire about their level of stress at the beginning of the semester.  Then your professor taught you mindfulness techniques throughout the semester.  At the end of the semester, she administers the stress survey again.  What if levels of stress went up?  Could she conclude that the mindfulness techniques caused stress?  Not without a comparison group!  If there was a comparison group, she would be able to recognize that all students experienced higher stress at the end of the semester than the beginning of the semester, not just the students in her research class.

In cases where the administration of a pretest is cost prohibitive or otherwise not possible, a one-shot case study design might be used. In this instance, no pretest is administered, nor is a comparison group present. If we wished to measure the impact of a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina for example, we might conduct a pre-experiment by identifying  a community that was hit by the hurricane and then measuring the levels of stress in the community.  Researchers using this design must be extremely cautious about making claims regarding the effect of the treatment or stimulus. They have no idea what the levels of stress in the community were before the hurricane hit nor can they compare the stress levels to a community that was not affected by the hurricane.  Nonetheless, this design can be useful for exploratory studies aimed at testing a measures or the feasibility of further study.

In our example of the study of the impact of Hurricane Katrina, a researcher might choose to examine the effects of the hurricane by identifying a group from a community that experienced the hurricane and a comparison group from a similar community that had not been hit by the hurricane. This study design, called a static group comparison, has the advantage of including a comparison group that did not experience the stimulus (in this case, the hurricane). Unfortunately, the design only uses for post-tests, so it is not possible to know if the groups were comparable before the stimulus or intervention.  As you might have guessed from our example, static group comparisons are useful in cases where a researcher cannot control or predict whether, when, or how the stimulus is administered, as in the case of natural disasters.

As implied by the preceding examples where we considered studying the impact of Hurricane Katrina, experiments, quasi-experiments, and pre-experiments do not necessarily need to take place in the controlled setting of a lab. In fact, many applied researchers rely on experiments to assess the impact and effectiveness of various programs and policies. You might recall our discussion of arresting perpetrators of domestic violence in Chapter 2, which is an excellent example of an applied experiment. Researchers did not subject participants to conditions in a lab setting; instead, they applied their stimulus (in this case, arrest) to some subjects in the field and they also had a control group in the field that did not receive the stimulus (and therefore were not arrested).

 

Key Takeaways

  • Quasi-experimental designs do not use random assignment.
  • Comparison groups are used in quasi-experiments.
  • Matching is a way of improving the comparability of experimental and comparison groups.
  • Quasi-experimental designs and pre-experimental designs are often used when experimental designs are impractical.
  • Quasi-experimental and pre-experimental designs may be easier to carry out, but they lack the rigor of true experiments.

 

Glossary

  • Aggregate matching – when the comparison group is determined to be similar to the experimental group along important variables
  • Comparison group – a group in quasi-experimental design that does not receive the experimental treatment; it is similar to a control group except assignment to the comparison group is not determined by random assignment
  • Ex post facto control group – a control group created when a researcher matches individuals after the intervention is administered
  • Individual matching – pairing participants with similar attributes for the purpose of assignment to groups
  • Natural experiments – situations in which comparable groups are created by differences that already occur in the real world
  • Nonequivalent comparison group design – a quasi-experimental design similar to a classic experimental design but without random assignment
  • One-group pretest post-test design – a pre-experimental design that applies an intervention to one group but also includes a pretest
  • One-shot case study – a pre-experimental design that applies an intervention to only one group without a pretest
  • Pre-experimental designs – a variation of experimental design that lacks the rigor of experiments and is often used before a true experiment is conducted
  • Quasi-experimental design – designs lack random assignment to experimental and control groups
  • Static group design – uses an experimental group and a comparison group, without random assignment and pretesting
  • Time series design – a quasi-experimental design that uses multiple observations before and after an intervention

 

 

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