Measuring Variables

When conducting quantitative research, one of the earliest things a researcher does is determine what their variables are. This involves developing an operational definition of the variable which description of how you define the variable as well as how you intend to measure it.

After developing an operational definition of the variable(s) of a study, it is now necessary to measure the variable in a way that is consistent with the operational definition. In general, there are five forms of measurement and they are…

  • Performance measures
  • Attitudinal measures
  • Behavioral observation
  • Factual Information
  • Web-based data collection

All forms of measurement involve an instrument which is a tool for actually recording what is measured.

Performance Measures

Performance measures assess a person’s ability to do something. Examples of instruments of this type include an aptitude test, intelligence test, or a rubric for assessing an essay. Often these form of measurement leads to “norms” that serves as a criterion for the progress of students.

Attitudinal Measures

Attitudinal measures assess peoples’ perception They are commonly associated with Lickert Scales (strongly disagree to strongly agree). This form of measurement allows a research access to the attitudes of hundreds instead of the attitudes of few as would be found in qualitative research.

Behavioral Observation

Behavioral observation is the observation of behaviors of interest to the researcher. The instrument involved is normally some sort of checklist. When the behavior is seen it is notated using tick marks.

Factual Information

Data that has already been collected and is available to the public is often called factual information.  The researcher takes this information and analyzes it to answer their questions.

Web-Based Data Collection

Surveys or interviews conducted over the internet are examples of web-based data collection. This is still relatively new. There are still people who question this approach as there are concerns over the representativeness of the sample.

Which Measure Should I Choose?

There are several guidelines to keep in mind when deciding how to measure variables.

  • What form of measurement are you able to complete?  Your personal expertise, as well as the context of your study, affected what you are able to do. Naturally, you want to avoid doing publication quality research with a measurement form you are unfamiliar with or do research in an uncooperative place.
  • What are your research questions? Research questions shape the entire study. A close look at research questions should reveal the most appropriate form of measurement.

The actual analysis of the data depends on the research questions. As such, almost any statistical technique can be applied for all of the forms of measurement. The only limitation is what the researcher wants to know.


Measuring variables is the heart of quantitative research. The approach taken depends on the skills of the researcher as well as the research questions. Ever form of measurement has its place when conducting research.

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