Exploratory Research | Definition, Guide, & Examples

Exploratory research is a methodology approach that investigates topics and research questions that have not previously been studied in depth.

Exploratory research is often qualitative in nature. However, a study with a large sample conducted in an exploratory manner can be quantitative as well. It is also often referred to as interpretive research or a grounded theory approach due to its flexible and open-ended nature.

Note: Be careful not to confuse exploratory research with explanatory research, which is also preliminary in nature but instead explores why a well-documented problem occurs.

When to use exploratory research

Exploratory research is often used when the issue you’re studying is new or when the data collection process is challenging for some reason.

You can use this type of research if you have a general idea or a specific question that you want to study but there is no preexisting knowledge or paradigm with which to study it.

Example: Exploratory research problem
Your university dining hall is considering adding vegan versions of its meals to its daily menu, something it has never offered before. However, the university is hesitant to do so because of concerns that the items will not be sufficiently popular, leading to increased food waste.

Your university is eco-conscious and will not add the items if this will increase food waste. As there is also a cost associated with developing the recipes, the plan will only proceed if there is concrete proof that the vegan meals will be successful.

Exploratory research questions

Exploratory research questions are designed to help you understand more about a particular topic of interest. They can help you connect ideas to understand the groundwork of your analysis without adding any preconceived notions or assumptions yet.

Here are some examples:

  • What effect does using a digital notebook have on the attention span of primary schoolers?
  • What factors influence mental health in undergraduates?
  • What outcomes are associated with an authoritative parenting style?
  • In what ways does the presence of a non-native accent affect intelligibility?
  • How can the use of a grocery delivery service reduce food waste in single-person households?

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Exploratory research data collection

Collecting information on a previously unexplored topic can be challenging. Exploratory research can help you narrow down your topic and formulate a clear hypothesis, as well as giving you the ‘lay of the land’ on your topic.

Data collection using exploratory research is often divided into primary and secondary research methods, with data analysis following the same model.

Primary research

In primary research, your data is collected directly from primary sources: your participants. There is a variety of ways to collect primary data.

Some examples include:

  • Survey methodology: Sending a survey out to the student body asking them if they would eat vegan meals
  • Focus groups: Compiling groups of 8–10 students and discussing what they think of vegan options for dining hall food
  • Interviews: Interviewing students entering and exiting the dining hall, asking if they would eat vegan meals

Secondary research

In secondary research, your data is collected from preexisting primary research, such as experiments or surveys.

Some other examples include:

  • Case studies: Health of an all-vegan diet
  • Literature reviews: Preexisting research about students’ eating habits and how they have changed over time
  • Online polls, surveys, blog posts, or interviews; social media: Have other universities done something similar?

For some subjects, it’s possible to use large-n government data, such as the decennial census or yearly American Community Survey (ACS) open-source data.

Step-by-step example of exploratory research

How you proceed with your exploratory research design depends on the research method you choose to collect your data. In most cases, you will follow five steps.

We’ll walk you through the steps using the following example.

Example: Exploratory research topic
You teach English as a second language (ESL). The current methods for oral proficiency all focus on reducing the learner’s non-native accent, but you suspect that having an accent doesn’t actually reduce intelligibility.

Therefore, you would like to focus on improving intelligibility instead of reducing the learner’s accent.

However, the relationship between someone’s accent and their intelligibility hasn’t been studied yet. You decide to come up with an exploratory research design to investigate this relationship without spending too many resources or too much time doing so.

Step 1: Identify your problem

The first step in conducting exploratory research is identifying what the problem is and whether this type of research is the right avenue for you to pursue. Remember that exploratory research is most advantageous when you are investigating a previously unexplored problem.

Example: Problem definition 
You have noticed that people who speak with a non-native accent accent are often as intelligible as people who speak with a native accent. In addition to the difficulty of reducing a non-native accent, it is also often undesirable to do so, since the accent can be part of the learner’s identity.

However, all current teaching methods focus on reducing the accent instead of improving intelligibility. You think this may not be the most efficient approach to helping people learn English as a second language.

Step 2: Hypothesise a solution

The next step is to come up with a solution to the problem you’re investigating. Formulate a hypothetical statement to guide your research.

Example: Hypothetical solution
You expect that learners of English as a second language would benefit more from an increased focus on improving intelligibility rather than reducing a non-native accent. You think it would be best if the educational methods for oral proficiency reflected this.

Step 3. Design your methodology

Next, conceptualise your data collection and data analysis methods and write them up in a research design.

Example: Methodology
You decide to informally interview other teachers of English as a second language and ask them questions related to training oral proficiency. You make sure that your questions concern the relationship between the strength of a non-native accent and the degree of intelligibility.

Step 4: Collect and analyse data

Next, you proceed with collecting and analysing your data so you can determine whether your preliminary results are in line with your hypothesis.

In most types of research, you should formulate your hypotheses a priori and refrain from changing them due to the increased risk of Type I errors and data integrity issues. However, in exploratory research, you are allowed to change your hypothesis based on your findings, since you are exploring a previously unexplained phenomenon that could have many explanations.

Example: Preliminary results
After conducting and analysing the interviews, you determine that other teachers agree with your hypothesis. They also suspect that non-native accent reduction does not contribute to the speaker’s intelligibility.

Step 5: Avenues for future research

Decide if you would like to continue studying your topic. If so, it is likely that you will need to change to another type of research. As exploratory research is often qualitative in nature, you may need to conduct quantitative research with a larger sample size to achieve more generalisable results.

Example: Future research ideas
Your preliminary results were in line with your expectations, but you need to officially test your hypothesis by conducting a more extensive study. You list suggestions for future research to further investigate the relationship.

You suggest an experiment during which participants listen to speech samples of speakers with non-native accents in varying degrees. Participants are asked to fill in the missing words in transcripts. This way, you can investigate whether people with a stronger non-native accent are indeed as intelligible as speakers with a native accent.

Exploratory vs explanatory research

It can be easy to confuse exploratory research with explanatory research. To understand the relationship, it can help to remember that exploratory research lays the groundwork for later explanatory research.

Exploratory research investigates research questions that have not been studied in depth. The preliminary results often lay the groundwork for future analysis.

Explanatory research questions tend to start with ‘why’ or ‘how’, and the goal is to explain why or how a previously studied phenomenon takes place.

Advantages and disadvantages of exploratory research

Like any other research design, exploratory research has its trade-offs: it provides a unique set of benefits but also comes with downsides.

Advantages

  • It can be very helpful in narrowing down a challenging or nebulous problem that has not been previously studied.
  • It can serve as a great guide for future research, whether your own or another researcher’s. With new and challenging research problems, adding to the body of research in the early stages can be very fulfilling.
  • It is very flexible, cost-effective, and open-ended. You are free to proceed however you think is best.

Disadvantages

  • It usually lacks conclusive results, and results can be biased or subjective due to a lack of preexisting knowledge on your topic.
  • It’s typically not externally valid and generalisable, and it suffers from many of the challenges of qualitative research.
  • Since you are not operating within an existing research paradigm, this type of research can be very labour-intensive.

Frequently asked questions about exploratory research

What is the definition of exploratory research?

Exploratory research is a methodology approach that explores research questions that have not previously been studied in depth. It is often used when the issue you’re studying is new, or the data collection process is challenging in some way.

When should I use exploratory research?

Exploratory research is often used when the issue you’re studying is new or when the data collection process is challenging for some reason.

You can use exploratory research if you have a general idea or a specific question that you want to study but there is no preexisting knowledge or paradigm with which to study it.

What’s the difference between exploratory and explanatory research?

Exploratory research explores the main aspects of a new or barely researched question.

Explanatory research explains the causes and effects of an already widely researched question.

What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to test a hypothesis by systematically collecting and analysing data, while qualitative methods allow you to explore ideas and experiences in depth.

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students. A well-designed natural experiment is her favorite type of research, but she also loves qualitative methods of all varieties.

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