Chapter 4: Writing the Methods Section

Methods Goal 2: Describe the Study

The second goal of writing your Methods section is to Describe the Study. This is the primary portion of the Methods section and is the place for you to include details of what you actually did to conduct the research. To accomplish this goal, you will need to explain how, when, and where you obtained the data, and you should describe that data. If your study involves the use of variables, then part of the objective for this goal is to highlight their purpose. Usually, authors explain why they did or did not include certain variables along with detailing their experimental procedures and noting tools, instruments, materials, or equipment that may have been used. Finally, another purpose of this goal is to provide a rationale for the decisions that were made along the way of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting the data.

Now let’s look at some examples from published studies, where Goal 2 is bolded:


  • The sulfur atom is located in a bridging position between two paired Mo atoms. Besides, each Mo atom is surrounded by one Ni atom. Oxygenated molecules can thus interact either with the sulfur-deficient Mo sites (Fig. 1a and b) or with the Ni sites, while hydrogen atoms can interact either with metal centers to form hydridic species or with the S atom to form protonic species. The following parameters, x = 12.29 A, y = 12.80 A and z = 27.01 A, are used for the supercell, which ensures a vacuum interlayer of 15.00 A (in z direction) and is sufficient to avoid spurious interactions between two edges belonging to neighboring supercells . In this work, we focus on the metallic edge (M-edge) for both systems. We complementarily used the DMol3 package [34] to determine Hirshfeld charges [35] of relevant active sites and atoms in studied molecules.[1]
  • A phenomenological approach was used to map out people’s experiences of pleasantness on different levels of bodily functioning. Phenomenology as a distinct method of inquiry is based upon the classic philosophical works of Husserl and Heidegger (Moustakas, 1994). It provides a structured approach to investigate subjective experience, allowing the discovery of shared ideas and common experiences among people (Maggs-Rapport, 2008). A traditional data collection method for phenomenological inquiry is the qualitative, in-depth interview (Lopez & Willis, 2004). Since this method can be time-intensive, interviews are often semi-structured, hereby maximizing researcher efficiency while still allowing people’s freedom of expression (Barriball & While, 1994). In order to increase the scientific rigor of phenomenological research, balanced integration is promoted (de Witt & Ploeg, 2006). Balanced integration relates to “…the general philosophical theme and its fit with the researcher and the research topic, in depth intertwining of philosophical concepts with the study methods and findings, and a balance between the voice of the participants and the philosophical explanation…” (p. 224). Our inquiry goals were to investigate the pleasantness of everyday activities experienced within the human body in relation to the aesthetics of interaction paradigm, using a biological perspective on human functioning. In order to reach these goals, we set out to obtain in-depth understanding of a large variety of pleasant, everyday experiences. During the recruitment of participants, we tried to maximize diversity in responses by searching for people who used different sensory modalities in their professional work and who had different demographic characteristics. Participants were 12 Dutch citizens varying in age, background, income, and level of education. Their occupations were: Disk jockey, music conductor, preacher, psychology student, Reichian body worker, physiotherapist, maitre/sommelier, manager in the perfumery industry, architecture student, dance teacher, fashion design student and secretarial worker. Participants were selected through professional listing services and through our social networks. Care was given that interviewers were not personally acquainted with any of the participants. Participants’ ages ranged from 20 to 72 years. Six participants were women and six were men.[2]


So, Goal 2 paints a picture of the data and the tools/resources/materials used in the study. Most of your Methods section will be used to accomplish this goal. As such, Goal 2, Describing the Study, includes outlining all the processes you (the researcher) used from start to finish. There are several strategies you can implement that will allow you to accomplish this goal.

Strategies for Writing about Methods Goal 2: Describing the Study

  • Acquiring the data
  • Describing the data 
  • Identifying variables 
  • Describing experimental/study procedures
  • Describing tools/instruments/materials/equipment 
  • Rationalizing experiment decisions 
  • Reporting incrementals
We’ll now discuss each of these and provide some examples from published research.


Methods Goal 2 Strategy: Acquiring the Data

Acquiring the data refers to a writer’s description of the collection and data-recording process. This strategy enables an author to illustrate how the data were obtained (e.g., via sampling, selecting, or measuring processes) and also what was done to the data (including, but not limited to, preparing, tabulating, or estimating the data).
Here are two examples taken from published research articles:


  • In the present study, 12 Australian university students of Japanese were recruited, who in turn invited their Japanese contacts to participate. In total, data was collected from 30 participants, and some Japanese participants were contacts of more than one Australian participant. In contrast to many previous studies, volunteers were not paired with NSs in order to complete tasks, but instead data was collected from participants in existing relationships. [3]
  • The high-quality fluorescent particles, typically used in microfluidics, generally provide high-quality particle images, with acceptable SNR up to high levels of defocusing, and are particularly well suited for this type of application. In figure 2 the peak intensities and particle image diameters, obtained from different types of tracer particles, are shown as a function of their distance z from the in-focus plane. The tracer particles are polystyrene latex spheres with diameters of dp = 1, 2, 5 and 10 __mu__m, fabricated by Microparticles GmbH.[4]


Overall, this strategy illustrates the process of collecting and/or recording data that comes from any source — primary or secondary. It answers the questions: when, where, and how did you acquire the samples that you are using. It can also include your basic measurement strategies and what you did to the data to prepare it for analysis. At the end of the chapter, we’ll provide examples of some common language that can be used to implement this strategy.

Methods Goal 2 Strategy: Describing the Data

Describing the data typically follows the previous strategy of explaining how the data were acquired. When you describe data, you elaborate on features such as measurement units, scales, qualities, or quantities.
Consider these excerpts from published research articles:


  • The relative quantification of the samples was determined using the Bio-Rad CFX Manager software, integrating primer efficiencies calculated from a standard curve. For the gene, the sample showing the highest intensity level was used as reference with a value of 1. The final data result from averages of three biological replicates and at least two technical repetitions.[5]
  • Age was weakly and typically not significantly related to performance on outcome measures at pre- and posttest and, therefore, was not included in analyses. Table 1 presents demographic and screening data, arranged by study condition and MD subtype. (We note that we conducted supplementary analyses to determine whether adding ESL, IQ, or WRAT Arithmetic altered the nature of the findings. Because none did, we did not include these variables as covariates in the analyses described below.)[6]


Overall, the use of this strategy enables researchers to fully illustrate their data sample for the reader. This strategy is particularly important as a means of justifying the quality of your sample, so be sure to pay close attention to detail at this stage of your writing.

Methods Goal 2 Strategy: Identifying Variables

The strategy of identifying variables distinguishes which parts of your data were manipulated or used to influence the findings. Some common labels include constant versus subject-to-change conditions or factors during the time the experiment was carried out. Here are two examples taken from published research articles:


  • In a typical experiment, a range of 0.01-10.0 mL of ZnO NCs (1.22 x 10-11 to 1.22 x 10-8 mol) were added to 10 vials each containing 3.8 x 10-6 M (4.2 x 10-8 mol) 1-CO2H in ethanol. A control vial had the same amount of 1-CO2H as the other vials but contained 5 __mu__L of 0.100 M NMe4OH5H2O to deprotonate the molecule. Ethanol was added until all vials contained 11.0 mL.[7]
  • Because of the marked differences between nurture group and control samples in the very few reported studies that have included control groups, this study adopted a highly formalised procedure for selecting controls. While this did not eliminate the almost unavoidable differences between experimentals and controls in a quasi-experimental study, it was successful in significantly reducing any differences.[8]


Now that you have sufficiently identified and described your variables, you can move on to explaining what you actually did to conduct the experiment: the methods/procedures.

Methods Goal 2 Strategy: Describing Experimental Study Procedures

Describing experimental study procedures describes what you did to cause an outcome related to or leading to specific results. It also illustrates the steps you used and provides a description that is detailed enough for future replication of the study. You can accomplish this strategy by outlining what was done for the actual study or experiment in step-by-step actions.

Here are two examples taken from published research articles:


  • At the initial login, participants were asked to record their steps for 4 days over the following week. [9]
  • The mold was then attached to the bottom pedestal of the test cell, the membrane stretched over the bottom end platen and sealed using two o-rings. [10]


When describing procedures in the Methods section, authors use both active and passive voice. Very frequently, the verbs in the active and passive voice are used in the past tense (as in the examples above). However, in some disciplines, authors may choose to use the present simple tense to describe the experimental steps of their study (e.g., I exclude small state-owned banks from the sample).

Methods Goal 2 Strategy: Describing Tools / Instruments / Materials / Equipment

Describing tools/instruments/materials/equipment explains the materials (physical or abstract) used in data acquisition or experimental procedures. This information is useful for the reader in case the study may be replicated by another researcher. Sometimes the overall goal of a sentence is to describe tools, but other times there are overarching goals. It must be noted that while the origin or nature of the tools/instruments/materials/equipment may be described, this strategy does not include the process of obtaining or creating them, nor does it explain how they were used or what specific actions were taken with them in the course of the study.

It is also worth mentioning that this description of tools/instruments/materials/equipment may not only appear in the description of experimental procedures, but also when you are discussing other parts of the data acquisition or analysis process.

Examples of this strategy are in the box below:


  • The basic liquid medium (BLM) used for the activation of the cultures consisted of chicken feather meal 20; NaCl, 0.5; KH2PO4, 1.0 and K2HPO4, 6.0 at pH 7.5.[11]
  • The MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test) is usually administered in two versions–full and short. Since the short version contains all sections relevant to vocabulary learning, it was the version selected for the current research.[12]


Note that in the first example, the past tense is used to describe materials specifically designed or chosen for the study and that may not be familiar to the readers. However, the present tense (used in the second example) can be used to describe standard or conventional tools or equipment that are likely to be familiar to the readers.

Once the variables, procedures, and materials have been sufficiently explained, you will need to justify the decisions you made that contributed to the selection of them.

Methods Goal 2 Strategy: Rationalizing Experiment Decisions

Rationalizing experiment decisions provides reasoning or explanation for choices made in the experimental process (e.g., in data collection or preparation, experimentation, or tool selection). This strategy is useful for justifying choices, connecting choices to research purposes and questions, establishing credibility, and indicating the objective for certain experimental steps.

The following examples illustrate this step:


  • Moreover, since one aim of the study was to investigate students’ impressions regarding the process enacted during the Role Play, it was decided that the same dimensions and indicators could be used to address this issue.[13]
  • Yield was not determined by combine harvesting because of the wide range of harvest maturity dates within the study.[14]


This strategy of providing a justification or rationale for your decisions is extremely important in making the research process transparent for your readers.

Methods Goal 2 Strategy: Reporting Incrementals

Reporting incrementals, the last potential strategy in Goal 2, reports the preliminary findings, results of observations, and/or measurements. It may serve as a way for the author to promote understanding of the next steps taken or choices made in the experiment. These incremental reports can clarify your methods and/or justify the use of a particular technique or procedure. This strategy results in a brief reporting of what occurred in the experimental process. It helps your readers understand why you completed the experimental procedures or made certain choices in a particular way.

Examples of the reporting incrementals strategy are as follows:


  • The final R- and R-free values after data refinement (details in the Supplementary Methods) were 21.6% and 28.7%, respectively.[15]
  • Although the same amounts of reactants were used to produce the 508 and 625 nm particles, slight differences in stirring speed likely contributed to the size variations.[16]


There is one important caveat for reporting incrementals; this strategy should not be confused with actual study results. This strategy is simply a small mention of incremental findings or observations that you believe to be noteworthy, and they may or may not be directly connected to the final study results.

Language Suggestions for Goal 2 Strategies

Some common vocabulary that is associated with this strategy includes the following, as noted in the Academic Phrasebank website:

Sequence phrases

  • To begin this process, …
  • The first step in this process was to …
  • The second method used to identify X involved …

Passive voice verbs

  • All participants were sent …
  • The data were normalized using …
  • Ethical approval was obtained from …

Expressing purpose with for

  • For the attitude questions, a Likert scale was used.
  • For the purpose of analysis, two segments were extracted from each …
  • For the estimation of protein concentration, 100 µL of protein sample was mixed with …

Adverbs of manner

  • The medium was then aseptically transferred to a conical flask.
  • A sample of the concentrate was then carefully extracted from …
  • The tubes were methodically collected by …

Using + instruments

  • Data were collected using two high spectral resolution Xs.
  • Semi-automated genotyping was carried out using X software and …
  • Using the X-ray and looking at the actual X, it was possible to identify …

Linguistic research on language structure and use in Methods sections of research articles has shown common trends in the forms and structure of the section across disciplines. There is a predominant use of the present and present perfect tenses, verbs in the past passive and past active voice, and modifiers such as adjectives and adverbs. These common characteristics may work together to strengthen the author’s claims by calling attention to the contributions of the current work and downplaying uncertainty perhaps arising in the attainment and analysis of data. Writers also may choose how to represent themselves in their writing. The personification of the authors is sometimes seen by the use of the pronouns “we,” or “I,” though the context and rationale for its use seem inconsistent among the disciplines.

Key Takeaways

Goal 2 of writing the Methods section is related to Describing the Study. There are seven possible strategies that you can use to accomplish this goal:

  • Acquiring the data and/or
  • Describing the data and/or
  • Identifying variables and/or
  • Describing experimental/study procedures and/or
  • Describing tools/instruments/materials/equipment and/or
  • Rationalizing experiment decisions and/or
  • Reporting incrementals

Remember: You do not need to include all of these strategies — they are simply possibilities for reaching the goal of Describing the Study.

  1. Dupont, C., Lemeur, R., Daudin, A., & Raybaud, P. (2011). Hydrodeoxygenation pathways catalyzed by MoS2 and NiMoS active phases: A DFT study. Journal of Catalysis279(2), 276-286.
  2. Rozendaal, M. C., & Schifferstein, H. N. (2010). Pleasantness in bodily experience: A phenomenological inquiry. International Journal of Design4(2), 55-63.
  3. Pasfield-Neofitou, S. (2011). Online domains of language use: Second language learners’ experiences of virtual community and foreignness. Language Learning & Technology, 15(2), 92-108.
  4. Cierpka, C., Rossi, M., Segura, R., & Kähler, C. J. (2010). On the calibration of astigmatism particle tracking velocimetry for microflows. Measurement Science and Technology, 22(1), 015401.
  5. Tian, J., Shen, H., Zhang, J., Song, T., & Yao, Y. (2011). Characteristics of chalcone synthase promoters from different leaf-color Malus crabapple cultivars. Scientia Horticulturae129(3), 449-458.
  6. Powell, S. R., Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., Cirino, P. T., & Fletcher, J. M. (2009). Effects of fact retrieval tutoring on third‐grade students with math difficulties with and without reading difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice24(1), 1-11.
  7. Rossini, J. E., Huss, A. S., Bohnsack, J. N., Blank, D. A., Mann, K. R., & Gladfelter, W. L. (2011). Binding and static quenching behavior of a terthiophene carboxylate on monodispersed zinc oxide nanocrystals. The Journal of Physical Chemistry C115(1), 11-17.
  8. Reynolds, S., MacKay, T., & Kearney, M. (2009). RESEARCH SECTION: Nurture groups: a large‐scale, controlled study of effects on development and academic attainment. British Journal of Special Education36(4), 204-212.
  9. Booth, A. O., Nowson, C. A., & Matters, H. (2008). Evaluation of an interactive, Internet-based weight loss program: a pilot study. Health Education Research23(3), 371-381.
  10. Alshibli, K. A., Batiste, S. N., & Sture, S. (2003). Strain localization in sand: plane strain versus triaxial compression. Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering, 129(6), 483-494.
  11. Liang, J. D., Han, Y. F., Zhang, J. W., Du, W., Liang, Z. Q., & Li, Z. Z. (2011). Optimal culture conditions for keratinase production by a novel thermophilic Myceliophthora thermophila strain GZUIFR‐H49‐1. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 110(4), 871-880.
  12. Nikolova, O. R. (2002). Effects of students' participation in authoring of multimedia materials on student acquisition of vocabulary. Language Learning & Technology, 6(1), 100-122.
  13. Pozzi, F. (2011). The impact of scripted roles on online collaborative learning processes. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 6(3), 471-484.
  14. Kahlon, C. S., Board, J. E., & Kang, M. S. (2011). An analysis of yield component changes for new vs. old soybean cultivars. Agronomy Journal, 103(1), 13-22.
  15. Masterson, L. R., Cheng, C., Yu, T., Tonelli, M., Kornev, A., Taylor, S. S., & Veglia, G. (2010). Dynamics connect substrate recognition to catalysis in protein kinase A. Nature Chemical Biology, 6(11), 821-828.
  16. Kramb, R. C., & Zukoski, C. F. (2008). A metastable van der Waals gel: Transitioning from weak to strong attractions. Langmuir, 24(14), 7565-7572.


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