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Overview of study designs

Research study designs can be grouped into into two broad categories -- descriptive or analytic -- with subgroups underneath. The study design 'tree' is shown below.

Image source: Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.

Study designs for quantitative research

Click the blue button below to open a 1-page PDF overview of study designs commonly used for quantitative research, along with their strengths, limitations, and links to example papers.

Quantitative study designs - Overview

Additional resource

"In many ways the design of a study is more important than the analysis. A badly designed study can never be retrieved, whereas a poorly analysed one can usually be reanalysed." (Swinscow, 1997)

Selecting a study design

Selecting the most appropriate study design for your research depends primarily on three factors:

  • Your research question
  • The available time and resources
  • Ethical implications

Read the following paper by Craig M. Mellis (2020) for guidance on selecting a study design and the advantages and disadvantages of each. 

Article - How to choose your study design

Additional resources

What are experimental studies?

Put simply, experimental studies test new interventions and analyse the effects.

Experimental study designs

In health and medical research, experimental studies are largely trials. 

  • Clinical trials
    • Randomised controlled trials
    • Non-randomised controlled trials
    • Cross-over clinical trials
    • Cluster randomised crossover trials
    • Factorial trial
  • Community trials
  • Field trials

Clinical trials are closely regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs)

RCTs are prospective studies which test the effectiveness of a new intervention --- such as a new drug, lifestyle intervention, or medical device. Importantly, these interventions are randomly allocated to the participants, reducing potential bias. 

 Although RCTs are the 'gold standard' for measuring effectiveness, they are resource-intensive and the findings are not always generalisable (read more).

Randomized Control Trial (RCT) - Simply Psychology

Image source

Australian Clinical Trial Handbook

The TGA's Australian Clinical Trial Handbook is an essential resource covering legislative, regulatory, and Good Clinical Practice (GCP) requirements.

Australian Clinical Trial Handbook

What are they?

In an observational study, researchers collect data without intervening or manipulating any variables. Instead, they analyse naturally occurring relationships between variables or characteristics.

Observational study designs

The most common types of observational study designs are:

  • Cohort studies 
  • Case-control studies
  • Cross-sectional studies
  • Case studies

Refer to the first four rows of our 1-page PDF overview for a summary of these study designs. Click the blue button below to open the PDF.

Quantitative study designs - Overview

Cohort studies: A brief overview (5 mins 33 secs)

A/Prof Terry Shaneyfelt, from the University of Alabama School of Medicine, discusses the pros and cons of cohort studies, and where they sit in the hierarchy of evidence.

Study Design Part 3 - Cross Sectional Studies (5 mins 30 secs)


Observational studies

Cohort studies

Case-control studies

Cross-sectional studies

Systematic reviews & meta-analyses

These studies are a type of evidence synthesis.

"Evidence synthesis is a type of research method that allows researchers to bring together all relevant information on a research question. This can be useful to identify gaps in knowledge, establish an evidence base for best-practice guidance, or help inform policymakers and practitioners." -- Centre for Evaluation (n.d.)

Visit our Systematic Review Guide for more information about how to conduct a systematic review and/or meta-analysis.

Systematic Review Guide

What are systematic reviews? (3 mins 23 secs)

Published by Cochrane, this video outlines the steps involved in a systematic review.

A three minute primer on meta-analysis (3 mins 2 secs)

This animation briefly explains the purpose of meta-analyses. Published by the Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group (TARG) at the University of Bristol.

Qualitative study designs

"The goal of qualitative research is the development of concepts which help us to understand social phenomena in natural (rather than experimental) settings, giving due emphasis to the meanings, experiences, and views of all the participants." --- Pope (1995)

The image below displays examples of qualitative study designs.

Types of Qualitative Research Design

Image source:

Qualitative research methods

Qualitative data can be collected via various methods -- the 1-page PDF linked below provides an overview of common methods.

Qualitative research methods - Overview

 Qualitative data can also be collected for mixed-methods studies, to complement quantitative data and investigate questions related to experiences, perspectives, or meaningfulness.

Introductory article to qualitative research

Yale University online modules

Yale University offers a series of YouTube videos covering the fundamentals of qualitative methods. Modules are:

Click the blue button below to view the whole YouTube playlist.

Fundamentals of Qualitative Research Methods

Relevant eBooks & books

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