top of page

Exploratory Research 101

What is exploratory research?

  • To explore: to study, examine, analyze, or investigate something.

  • More specifically: “become familiar with something by testing it or experimenting with it” (Stebbins, 2001, p. 2).

  • By carrying out an exploratory study, the researcher can get familiar with the topic, typically because it is a new interest or the topic of study is relatively new (Babbie, 2007).

  • Because it is a new topic, literature reviews in exploratory research are carried out to demonstrate that little or no work has been done on the topic under consideration (Stebbins, 2001).

  • Exploration is conducted by “inventors” or “innovators” for the purposes of discovery.

  • It attempts to find out what is happening without trying to support any particular hypothesis.

  • The approach to exploratory research is open-ended, that is, more research will be needed to confirm the results.

  • Exploratory research receives criticism due to its open-ended nature and the lack of confirmatory results. However, it is necessary to break new grounds and to generate hypotheses.

  • The goal of exploratory research is to present a set of hypotheses knitted together as grounded theory, with the entire ensemble to be confirmed later.

  • Exploratory research is often qualitative in nature, although some studies may include a mix-method approach.

Why carry out an exploratory research?

  • Babbie (2007) identifies 3 main purposes to carry out exploratory research:

1) to satisfy the researcher’s curiosity and desire for better understanding;

2) to test the feasibility of undertaking a more extensive study;

3) to develop the methods to be employed in any subsequent study.

  • Due to the lack of any vigorous theory or precise expectations, one of the purposes to carry out exploratory research is to identify the possible relevant variables, which can be further investigated in future confirmatory research.

  • Exploratory studies are important in scientific research, especially when a researcher is breaking new grounds. They yield new insights into a topic for research.

“Exploratory studies are also a source of grounded theory” (Babbie, 2007, p.89). For example, Spielmann & Radnofsky (2001) investigate the role of “tension” (rather than language anxiety) in the process of instructed L2 acquisition. They say “...our goal was to develop a grounded theory - one that is inductively based on the data rather than deductively derived from a predetermined hypothesis…” (p. 260).

From Exploratory to Confirmatory Results: Exploratory Sequential Design

Creswell, Clark, Gutman and Hanson (2003) state that a sequential design is particularly best suited to:

  • develop an instrument for data collection;

  • help develop or inform the quantitative study (from the qualitative phase);

  • generalize qualitative findings to a larger sample in future research.

Main reasons for using a sequential design:

  • Instruments may not be available

  • The variables are not known

  • Key points

It is a two-phase process: qualitative data to explore a phenomenon and then results can be used as instruments for the quantitative phase.

– Qualitative and quantitative data are collected at different times.

– Qualitative results can help and inform the second quantitative phase.

For example, a mixed design research question could be:

– In what ways do the quantitative results confirm the qualitative findings?

  • Procedure

– First, collect and analyze qualitative data.

– Develop quantitative study based on what you learn from qualitative results.

– Collect and analyze quantitative data.

In sum, this process uses qualitative data to explore a phenomenon and then results can be used as instruments for the quantitative phase. The results of the first method (qualitative) informs, develops and helps the second method (quantitative). This method is based on the premise that there is need for exploration because the instruments may not be available, the variables are unknown and / or there is no guiding framework or theory.

The Question of Validity in Exploratory Research

McCall & Simmons (1969) have pointed out three main concerns regarding validity in exploratory research:

  • Reactive effects of the observer's presence or activities on the phenomenon being observed;

  • Distorting effects of selective perception and interpretation on the observer's part;

  • Limitations on the observer's ability to witness all relevant aspects of the phenomenon in question (p. 78).

Validity is often overlooked in exploratory research. The most effective way to ensure validity is to carry out research projects in the same area of study: separate studies by different researchers; same or related groups, processes, etc. More solid and convincing validations will emerge from this body of research (Stebbins, 2001).


  • Exploratory research is intended to be innovative and break new grounds as it is intended to discover new topics or constructs.

  • It generates new grounded theories and new hypotheses.

  • If exploratory research was never carried out, many fewer new ideas would become available on the intellectual realm (Stebbins, 2001).

  • The exploratory sequential design typically emphasizes the qualitative aspect, and the inclusion of a quantitative component can make the qualitative approach more acceptable to quantitative-biased audiences.

  • This design is easily applied to multiphase research studies in addition to single studies.


  • Exploratory studies rarely provide satisfactory answers to research questions, though they can hint at the answers and can suggest which research methods could provide definite ones (Babbie, 2009).

  • Exploration rarely, if ever, leads to predictions as precise as numerical proportions. Rather, it leads to vaguer predictions. Precision is added in the confirmatory phase, where appropriate research designs, sampling techniques, and measuring instruments are available for this.

  • It lacks theory or precise expectations and some skeptics might question the utility of exploratory research.

  • In the sequential design, the two-phase approach requires considerable time for implementation. Researchers need to recognize this factor and build time into their study's plan.

  • For the instrument development model: the researcher needs to decide which data to use from the qualitative phase to build the quantitative instrument and how to use these data to generate quantitative measures.

  • Procedures should be undertaken to ensure that the scores developed on the instrument are valid and reliable.

The Future of Exploratory Research

  • Blumer (1986) observes: “Considering the crucial need and value of exploratory research in the case of social and psychological sciences, it is an odd commentary on these sciences that their current methodological preoccupations are practically mute on this type of research” (p.42).

  • This neglect is starting to fade and more exploratory studies are being carried out.


Exploratory Research Literature

Babbie, E. (2007). The practice of social research (11th ed.) Belmont, NJ: Wadswoth.

This book presents a comprehensive guide to research as practiced by social scientists. It provides information on how to apply research concepts practically, as both a researcher and a consumer. There is emphasis on how to design and carry out research. Babbie answers critical questions about research methods (i.e.: how to conduct online surveys and analyze both qualitative and quantitative data).

Blumer, H. (1986). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall

This book is a good read for researchers in the humanities. It provides a more philosophical perspective of the researcher as a social actor. The book stresses the importance of the self-conscious social actor and how he 'defines his situation' and acts accordingly due to his possession of 'self'.

Creswell, J. W. , Plano Clark, V. L., Gutmann, M. L. & Hanson, W. E. (2003). Advanced mixed methods research design. In Tashakkori, A. & Teddlie, C. (Eds.), Handbook of mixed methods in social & behavioral research (p. 209-240). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

This chapter provides an overview of advanced mixed methods design, from data collection procedures to instrument development. It is useful for researchers who are interested in carrying out an exploratory study and need more information on procedures of data collection.

McCall, G. J., & Simmons, J. L. (Eds.). (1969). Issues in participant observation: A text and reader. New York: Random House.

This edited work provides insight into research interpretation and validity. A good read for researchers, mainly in the social sciences.

Perry, F. L. (2005). Research in applied Linguistics: Becoming a discerning consumer. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

This book provides invaluable information for readers who want to understand and critically analyze research in applied linguistics. Perry’s audience is mainly MA students in linguistics or TESOL as well as teachers of research methods course. Theresa Ann Hyland reviewed this book

(TESL Canada Journal, vol. 26, number 1, winter 2008) and highly recommends it to the target audience.

Spielmann, G. & Radnofsky, M. L. (2001). Learning language under tension: New directions from a qualitative study. The Modern Language Journal, 85, 259-277.

This ethnographic study provides a good example of exploratory research with the intent to

develop a grounded theory. It examines the role of tension in the process of instructed second/foreign language acquisition. It challenges the current research paradigm on “language anxiety,” as it shifts the focus on the negative (anxiety) to a study of tension, defined as an unstable phenomenon that may be generated by any situation or event and may be perceived differently by each individual experiencing it. Future research is needed to confirm the awareness that anxiety and stress are neither one-dimensional variables nor inherent to a person or situation, and that simply reducing or suppressing them does not constitute an end in itself.

Stebbins, R. A. (2001). Exploratory research in the social sciences. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

This book builds upon the topic of exploration on how to write an exploratory research. It is easy to read and a great reference for students and researchers if they plan to carry out this type of research.

Exploratory Studies in Second Language Education

Casado, M. A. & Dereshiwsky, M. I. (2004). Exploratory comparative study between U.S. and Spanish first-semester university students. College Students Journal, 38(1), 23-35.

Numerous reports and articles have pointed out the mediocrity of U.S. students' second language skills, implying, for example, that students abroad may perform better because of an established educational framework with an 'early start' and 'well-articulated teaching strategies.' If this were the case, students overseas should demonstrate lower levels of anxiety in the second language classroom than students of similar educational level in the U.S. This exploratory study investigates and compares the perceived second language anxiety in a random setting of first-semester university students, in the U.S. and Spain, as measured by a foreign language anxiety scale (FLCAS). This study did not control for factors that may influence language apprehension.

Galante, A. (2012). The effects of drama on oral fluency and language anxiety: An exploratory study (Unpublished masters thesis). Brock University, St. Catharines. Retrieved from

Previous research has suggested that drama has positive effects on learners' oral communication and anxiety; however, it is unclear which dimensions, or to what extent, they are affected by drama. This research narrows the investigation by examining how a drama-based EFL program impacts three dimensions of oral communication: fluency, comprehensibility, and accentedness, and one anxiety factor - foreign language speaking anxiety (FLSA) -, over time. Further research is needed to confirm that drama indeed improves L2 learner’s oral fluency and language anxiety.

Politzer, R. L. & McGroarty, M. (1985). An exploratory study of learning behaviors and their relationship to gains in linguistic and communicative competence. TESOL QUARTERLY, 19(1), 103-123.

This study investigates presumed good learning behaviors and their relation to gains on four English language proficiency measures: linguistic competence; auditory comprehension; overall oral proficiency; and communicative competence, conceptualized here primarily as the ability to convey information. Considerable further research is needed to explain which behaviors are helpful for learners at various levels and to relate these behaviors to current second language learning theories.

Follow Us
Recent Posts
bottom of page