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Pilot Studies and the Aims of Piloting

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Pilot Studies and the Aims of Piloting

Suppose you planned out a larger experiment, but want to run a smaller-scale investigation to identify some problems – maybe you’ve used repeated measures, and it’s not worked well, or the methodology hasn’t been particularly good. This is when you would conduct a so-called pilot study. If everything goes well in the pilot study, you can proceed with the complete research.

This article will examine the notion of a pilot study in research and its methodology and advantages and disadvantages in psychology. However, it would be beneficial to define what pilot studies are and explore their aims initially.

A pilot study is a small-scale preliminary study conducted before undertaking a full-scale research project. It can be considered a trial version of the actual, full-scale study.

Pilot studies and the aims of piloting

Pilot studies are preliminary studies designed to evaluate the research to be conducted.

Pilot studies serve several purposes in psychological research, such as:

  • To test whether the design of a study works.
  • To test whether participants understand the given instructions.
  • To assess whether the study procedure works, which also offers researchers the ability to follow the procedure.
  • To determine the validity of newly constructed measurement tools such as questionnaires.
  • To evaluate the reliability and validity of the research design used to test the hypothesis.
  • To identify areas of the research needing improvements, such as changes in equipment, procedure, participant instructions, or data handling and analysis procedures.
  • To estimate sample size or identify potential target populations or populations to be excluded.
  • Results serve as evidence to show funding bodies whether they should grant funding.

How are pilot studies used in psychology?

Typically, researchers conduct pilot studies before a large-scale study, which allows them to refine the study design, thus increasing the validity and reliability of the study. They can test parts of the study, such as procedures and materials, to ensure they are effective. In psychological research, it is common to test new measures to be used in studies. This procedure is to ensure that they are reliable and valid.

Pilot studies help save time and money by detecting any errors in design. Researchers do not need to test proven measurement methods because their reliability and validity have been tested.

A pilot study in quantitative research

The process of quantitative research is:

  • The formulation of a research question, objectives and a hypothesis.

  • Research design.

  • Pilot study.

  • Research refinement.

  • Full-scale study recruitment of participants.

  • Full-scale study implementation and analysis of the research.

  • Reporting of results.

A pilot study in research methodology

An example of a pilot study in quantitative research methodology is:

  • Sample size and selection the researcher must determine the appropriate sample size and a method for selecting the sample.
    • The sample used in a pilot study is usually not the same as the one in the subsequent research. The sample selection design does not have to be the same as the latter. However, the target sample population must be the same for both the pilot study and the later research.

  • Testing the measurement instruments.
    • Researchers should pilot all measurement instruments, such as interviews and questionnaires. They should conduct them under conditions similar to those used in the research project, e.g., using standardised protocols, under specific research conditions, or in a particular setting.

  • Data entry and analysis.
    • Researchers should replicate the procedure used for data entry and analysis. The researcher should keep data privacy and confidentiality in mind.

Pilot studies in constructing new measures

  • Occasionally, researchers need to create new metrics when researching because:

    • There are no established measures appropriate for testing the hypothesis.

    • The previous metrics do not measure variables in which the researcher is not interested.

    When researchers develop new measurement tools, such as questionnaires, they must ensure their reliability and validity. They conduct pilot studies to verify this.

    New measures are required to meet the scientific criteria of the research for the scientific community of psychologists to accept them. If this is not the case, the scientific community can reject the research.

    A pilot study should measure the reliability and validity of new measures and could do so using the following procedures:

    • High construct validity ensures that the measurement captures the intended variables. An example would be recruiting two groups of participants. One should be more knowledgeable about the phenomenon, and the other should be non-experts. If the results of the two groups are similar, construct validity is high.
    • High internal consistency reliability occurs when researchers measure all aspects of a variable (e.g., a questionnaire assessing bullying experiences must measure all aspects of bullying: physical, verbal, social, and cyberbullying). A statistical test measuring Cronbach’s alpha determines these aspects (a measure of how closely related a set of items are). A value of 0.7 is generally considered acceptable.
    • High test-retest reliability is measured by asking the same participants to complete the measure under the same conditions but on different days. Researchers perform a correlational analysis with the test results. A significant positive correlation refers to a reliable measurement, which shows the results are consistent.

    Advantages and disadvantages of pilot studies in psychology

    Researchers typically conduct pilot studies before a large-scale study. Pilot studies have many advantages, but there are also limitations.

    Advantages of pilot studies

    The advantages of pilot studies are:

    • Avoiding waste of time and resources.
    • Increasing validity of later research projects if conducted properly.
    • Allowing the researcher to determine the most appropriate design and method of data collection to test the hypothesis.
    • The researcher can identify potential ethical issues or obstacles that may affect later research.
    • Researchers can determine if new scales are reliable or valid.

    Disadvantages of pilot studies

    The disadvantages of pilot studies are:

    • They are time-consuming and can be costly.
    • Researchers should not use pilot studies to guess the expected results.
      • Because pilot studies are small, the results are likely to differ from large-scale studies, meaning that pilot studies are sensitive research techniques.
    • Funding may be denied because of the results or researchers’ difficulty recruiting participants.
    • Different participants are likely to be needed for subsequent research because of participant bias, such as demand characteristics.

    Demand characteristics are present when participants behave as they believe the researcher expects them to act. Such behaviour reduces the validity of the results.

    Pilot Studies and the Aims of Piloting - Key takeaways

    • A pilot study is a small-scale, preliminary research effort conducted before conducting a full-scale research project.
      • Researchers need to conduct a pilot study to determine if their research design needs adjusting. This procedure increases the likelihood of reliable and valid results.
    • Pilot studies serve to test research designs.
      • After completing a pilot study, the researcher can identify areas where the research design needs refinement.
    • Researchers must test newly constructed measures before using them in research.
      • They do so via measuring construct validity, internal consistency reliability, and test-retest reliability.

Frequently Asked Questions about Pilot Studies and the Aims of Piloting

The aim of pilot studies is to: 

  • Identify issues in research design.
  • Measure the reliability and validity of new measures.

Pilot studies have multiple purposes in psychology research, such as:


  • Assessing the validity of newly constructed measures, such as questionnaires.
  • Assessing the reliability and validity of the research design used to test the hypothesis.
  • Identifying areas of research that need refining, e.g., changes in equipment, standardised protocols or, data handling and analysis procedures.
  • Estimating sample sizes or identifying potential target populations or populations to be excluded.
  • Results serve as evidence to show funding bodies whether they should grant the funding.

A pilot study is a small-scale preliminary study conducted before undertaking a full-scale research project. It can be considered a trial version of the actual, full-scale study.

The disadvantages of pilot studies are: 

  • Time-consuming and can be costly.
  • Researchers should not use pilot studies to guess the expected results.
    • Because pilot studies are small, the results are likely to differ from large-scale studies, meaning that pilot studies are sensitive research techniques.
  • Funding may be denied because of the results or researchers’ difficulty recruiting participants.
  • Different participants are likely to be needed for subsequent research because of participant bias, such as demand characteristics.

A pilot study is a small-scale preliminary study conducted before undertaking a full-scale research project. It can be considered a trial version of the actual, full-scale study.

Researchers need to pilot a study to identify if their research design needs adjusting, thus increasing the likelihood of reliable and valid results.

Final Pilot Studies and the Aims of Piloting Quiz

Question

What is a pilot study?

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Answer

A pilot study is a small-scale preliminary study conducted before undertaking a full-scale research project. It can be considered a trial version of the actual, full-scale study.

Show question

Question

Which of these can be identified from pilot studies?

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Answer

Construct validity.

Show question

Question

What are the advantages of pilot studies?

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Answer

The advantages of pilot studies are:

  • Avoiding waste of time and resources.
  • Increasing validity of later research projects if conducted properly.
  • Allowing the researcher to determine the most appropriate design and method of data collection to test the hypothesis.
  • The researcher can identify potential ethical issues or obstacles that may affect later research.
  • Researchers can determine if new scales are reliable or valid.

Show question

Question

What are the disadvantages of pilot studies?

Show answer

Answer

The disadvantages of pilot studies are: 

  • Time-consuming and can be costly. 
  • Researchers should not use pilot studies to guess the expected results.  
    • Because pilot studies are small, the results are likely to differ from large-scale studies, meaning that pilot studies are sensitive research techniques. 
  • Funding may be denied because of the results or researchers’ difficulty recruiting participants. 
  • Different participants are likely to be needed for subsequent research because of participant bias, such as demand characteristics.

Show question

Question

Why are pilot studies used in quantitative research? 

Show answer

Answer

Pilot studies are used in quantitative research to identify issues in research design.

Show question

Question

Which of the following describes how construct validity is assessed in pilot studies? 

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Answer

Recruiting two groups, experts and non-experts, and comparing the results from both groups.

Show question

Question

Which of the following describes how test-retest reliability is assessed in pilot studies? 

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Answer

Conducting a statistical test that measures Cronbach's alpha.

Show question

Question

Which of the following describes how internal consistency reliability is assessed in pilot studies? 

Show answer

Answer

Recruiting two groups, experts and non-experts, and comparing results from both groups.

Show question

Question

What details can pilot studies tell about research methodology?

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Answer

  • Sample size and selection.
  • Criteria and how to address research questions.
  • Testing the measurement instruments.
  • Data entry and analysis.

Show question

Question

Which of the following statements is not true?

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Answer

The sample selection design of pilot studies must be the same as later research.

Show question

Question

Is the following statement true or false: ‘Researchers should pilot all measurements, such as interviews and questionnaires. They should conduct them in similar conditions used in the research project.’

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Answer

True.

Show question

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