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Understanding methods


The purpose of the methods section is to describe (and if necessary defend) the research design and provide sufficient detail for the possible replication of the research. The methods section may occur as an integral part of the article or appear at the end of the paper. The structure of the methods can be determined by the sequence or order of what was done in the research, e.g. in the laboratory or in the field. In other words it tells the reader what happened step by step.

In human biology, the typical purpose of the methods section is to answer these questions:

Who participated in the study?
What types of materials were needed?
What were the participants required to do?
What type of research design was used?

The methods section may contain a number of elements. Not all methods sections contain all possible elements − it depends on the nature of the research. As you saw in the section on the introduction some articles summarise several studies to give a 'state-of-art' review. In such articles, studies are grouped into sub-topics and the methods of each are summarised very briefly, since the focus is usually on the results.

Click on the element to see an explanation of each.

Element in methods Explanation  

Provides a summary of the research design or experiment. Occurs at the beginning of the methods section.

Population / sample

Gives details of the relevant characteristics of the participants or subjects in the research, e.g gender, age, height, weight.

Sampling techniques

Describes how the participants/subjects were selected e.g. statistically by random sampling or non-statistically by asking for volunteers, and how the sample relates to the whole population under study.

Ethical considerations

Describes how human participants gave their consent for the research. May be merged with description of participants.


Gives details of the location of the research and may be comparative across two or more locations.

Research design

Describes how the researchers have set up the research/experiment e.g. a control group and a treatment/experimental group(s) and the variables tested. Possible designs include case studies; pretest-posttest; time-series.


Accounts for any restrictions or limitations of the study e.g. in the sampling technique and the reasons for these.

Describes how human (or animal) participants gave their consent for the research. May be merged with description of participants.


Describes how the study was conducted and the steps involved. This is usually in enough detail so that the study could be replicated.


A factor, trait or condition which can exist in differing amounts or types. Independent variable (IV) − the one that is changed or manipulated by the researcher, typically in experimental research, e.g. the amount of caffeine ingested; Dependent variable (DV) − the response that is measured (as observed by the researcher), e.g. exercise performance. The IV is the presumed cause, while the DV is the presumed effect.

Statistical treatment / measures

Describes what statistical procedures and packages were used to analyse the data.

Materials / equipment

In research involving humans, this can include the test or questionnaire, materials such as blood or dietary supplements and the equipment used such as exercise bikes.

Click Next to see an example of this from the text.