Ultimately researchers would like to design experimental studies that can establish causal relationships among variables. However, as associate professor Del Siegle of the University of Connecticut points out, to design experimental studies it is necessary to have enough background information to formulate specific hypotheses. For topics about which little is known, it is necessary to first conduct exploratory and descriptive research which differ in the questions they ask, flexibility and research methods.
Exploratory research addresses more open-ended questions than does descriptive research. For example, if an education researcher wished to begin a line of inquiry uninfluenced by past theories of education, she might simply ask: “What happens in a typical day in a middle school classroom?” She would then develop ways to collect data that addresses that question. Students and teachers might be asked to write a page or two about what they do in a day. The researcher might sit in a classroom and observe what happens throughout the day to get the beginning of an answer to this very open-ended question.
Exploratory research is more flexible when implemented than is descriptive research. Continuing with our classroom example, the researcher might modify data collection as the day progresses. For example, she might develop categories of student and teacher behaviors she would like to particularly note, such as how many students leave the room each period or how many students leave their seats. With a descriptive study, a more specific question would be the focus so the research would be compelled to collect data that addresses the specific question and would not have the luxury of altering the focus of the data being collected.
Exploratory research makes use of more qualitative approaches than does descriptive research. Descriptive research, designed to answer more specific questions, tends to use quantitative methods. For example, the researcher might know enough to formulate the question: “Does leaving your seat during class have any relationship to completing homework assignments or to grades?” The researcher would then note which students leave their seats and how often they do so and then use the teacher’s records to learn the students' homework consistency and/or grades. Determining the correlation among variables is sometimes the goal of descriptive research.
Pentti Routio of the University of Art & Design in Helsinki points out that the amount of information that is already known about a topic is the major determinant of whether to conduct an exploratory or descriptive study When nothing or almost nothing is known, exploratory search is called for. Once relevant variables have been uncovered, the researcher moves on to descriptive and experimental studies to determine correlational and causal relationships among those variables.