Report Reader Checklist: Context


Information about the context of a study is usually included at the beginning and end of a report. At the beginning of a report, this context should be provided to describe past research and theory and then explain the focus of the study. At the end of a report, a contextual discussion can relate the findings of the study back to past research and suggest next steps to further understand the topic. When context is missing from a report, you may not understand how the study relates to or informs a general understanding of the topic. For example, you might not have a clear understanding of the background on the topic, how the study advances knowledge on the topic and how the results of the study can be applied. The following are important things to identify as you look for context in research reports:

a. The report describes the larger purpose or need for the study.

The report provides a background on the topic, including relevant definitions, the context within which the study is conducted and a rationale for why the study was conducted.

It is important for you to understand why the study was conducted, what the study attempted to accomplish, why the research is important to the field and how the results could be used.

It is also important for you to know how this study fits into the larger body of research that has been conducted on this topic. If the study is the first study of its kind, that should be mentioned. Otherwise, look to see if the authors include references to studies previously published on the topic. This helps you understand how the study adds to or clarifies understanding of the topic.

b. The report explains the history of the study and/or theoretical frameworks, if appropriate.

Some studies in the field of online teaching and learning are repeated periodically. When this is the case, a report should include information, such as past participant rates, revisions to survey instruments or research protocols, or other changes to the study methodology since the previous findings were released.

Study reports may also include theoretical frameworks. Theories (or theoretical frameworks) associate a study with other studies done on a topic. These studies combined together (often called a body of research) can increase overall understanding of a topic and help you see where a study falls within a line of research. You should be able to understand the basic theoretical framework of a report without prior knowledge. If the study is based in theory, the theory can be described and it should be clear how the theory relates to the main focus of the study.

c. The report includes the research aims or goals addressed by the study.

Research aims or goals are often included toward the beginning of the report after past research and theoretical frameworks have been explained. Research aims or goals (sometimes framed as questions) should be clearly identified in a report and can be written in a way that helps you understand what the study is investigating.

d. The report offers suggestions for further research.

It is not uncommon for one research study to illuminate the need for future studies. Look to see if the report suggests what research might need to be done next to further understand the topic. Unlike other context items (a, b and c), suggestions for further research are often included at the end of a report.


a. The report describes the larger purpose or need for the study.

Bailey, A., Vaduganathan, N., Henry, T., Laverdiere, R., & Pugliese, L. (2018). Making digital learning work: Success strategies from six leading universities and community colleges. The Boston Consulting Group, Inc. [link]
  • See pages 11-14 for an example of a summary of previous research and clear definitions.
Gierdowski, D. C., & Galanek, J. D. (2020). ECAR study of the technology needs of students with disabilities. ECAR. [link]
  • See page 3 for a description of this study’s purpose with citations.

b. The report explains the history of the study and/or theoretical frameworks, if appropriate.

Capranos, D., Dyers, L., & Magda, A. J. (2023). Voice of the Online Learner. Wiley. [link]
  • Pages 5-7 highlight key findings as compared to previous year’s reports. Page 6 features major themes over 12 years of conducting this report.

c. The report includes the research aims or goals addressed by the study.

Aslanian, C. B., & Fischer, S. (2023). Online College Students Report 2023. Education Dynamics.[link]
  • Page 3 features a preface that provides key details about the history of the report and the need for the twelfth edition.

d. The report offers suggestions for further research.

Credential Engine (2018). Counting U.S. secondary and postsecondary credentials: A Credential Engine report. Credential Engine. [link]
  • See pages 9-10 for several recommendations for future research. These recommendations are provided in a way that is digestible for diverse readers.

What are theoretical frameworks?

In research, theories are explanations for the kinds of associations that researchers expect to find in a study. These explanations are based on prior research and understanding of the topic. For example, past research may have suggested that class attendance and higher grades tend to go hand in hand. A researcher might look at this work and decide to do a study to see if giving incentives for class attendance could improve grades. This past research and understanding regarding attendance and grades can provide an explanation for what the researcher expects to happen in their study (e.g., “Since students who attend class often get higher grades, I expect that incentives for attendance will lead to higher attendance, and therefore, improve grades.”). Theories can also provide explanations for the expected association among variables or concepts. For example, students who attend class often may receive higher grades because they interact more with course content by participating in discussions and class exercises. In research, theories are more than guesses that the researchers make personally, but are based on (or situated in) past work and explain why certain patterns and associations may exist in the study.

What are qualitative research methodologies?

Qualitative research methodology generally refers to open-ended approaches that do not include numbers or statistics. Some common qualitative methodologies include open-ended survey items (e.g., “Describe some challenges you encountered when beginning your online program.”), one-on-one interviews, focus groups and participant observation. In qualitative methodology, the data collected includes participant responses (e.g., what they said in response to the interview or survey questions) as well as researcher notes (e.g., notes on behavior the researcher observed). Researchers analyze the data by identifying common themes and patterns in participant responses/behavior. While qualitative methodologies are often used with small sample sizes, they can provide descriptions of phenomena that are in-depth and specific to context.

What are quantitative research methodologies?

Quantitative research methodology generally refers to closed-ended approaches that seek to collect numeric data and often involve statistics. Some common ways to collect quantitative data include closed-ended survey items (e.g., “Rate your satisfaction with your educational experience on a scale from 1 (very dissatisfied) to 10 (very satisfied).”), assessments (e.g., percentage of questions answered correctly on an exam), and frequencies (e.g., number of times students viewed an instructional video). Since quantitative data includes numbers, statistics can be used to answer questions that describe single variables (e.g., “On average, how satisfied are students with their courses?”), differences between groups (e.g., differences in satisfaction between traditional and nontraditional students), and identify relationships between variables (“How does satisfaction relate to exam scores?”). Quantitative methodologies often allow for large sample sizes and can provide a big picture of tendencies and overall associations.

What are mixed methodologies?

Research that utilizes mixed methodologies, or “mixed methods” research, uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to investigate the research question(s). By using mixed methods, researchers can take advantage of what both qualitative and quantitative methods have to offer. A report that uses mixed methodologies will include a description of coding processes and themes (qualitative) as well as a description of statistical analyses completed and results of statistical tests (quantitative). Some studies will use the same participants for both the qualitative and quantitative components (e.g., Thirty participants completed a quantitative questionnaire and qualitative interview.), while other studies may use different groups of participants for each component (e.g., Thirty participants completed a quantitative questionnaire, while eight participants completed qualitative interviews.).

What is validity?

Validity in research refers to whether the study is measuring what is meant to be measured. For example, if a researcher wants to measure academic success, they need to a) define what academic success is, and b) find a way to accurately measure participants’ academic success levels. If a researcher were to define academic success as “performing well in required academic courses,” and then measure participants’ GPA, it would be important for researchers and readers (including you) to evaluate whether GPA measured what the researchers intended to study. A research report should describe how data was collected so you can evaluate whether the study accurately measured what was intended.

What is the difference between a population and a sample?

A population is the entire group of people that researchers hope a study can apply to. For example, if a study intends to inform learning in online higher education, then the population for that study would include all online learners in higher education (across institutions). Typically, it is nearly impossible to recruit everyone from a population to participate in a study. Researchers usually recruit a smaller number of participants within the population’s limits. For example, researchers might recruit 50 online learners from three different institutions in higher education to participate in the example study mentioned earlier. This set of participants that is recruited for the study is called a sample. It is important for research reports to describe the sample (participants in the study) so that you can see how the sample of a study differs from the general population. For example, did the participants of a study come from one institution? Is the race/ethnicity of the participants in the sample similar to that of the population? Often researchers seek to recruit a sample that is representative (or closely resembles) the population so that the results can more accurately apply to everyone in the population.

What is generalizability in research?

In research, generalizability describes whether research findings can apply to a broader population. For example, a study may have been conducted using a sample of 30 undergraduate students. While the findings of that study will apply to those 30 students, it is likely that the researchers hope the findings can apply to a larger population. For example, they may want to apply the findings to all undergraduate students at a particular university, or undergraduate students in general. Research is considered generalizable if the findings can be applied to a broader population than the sample used for the study.

Information about a study’s participants, methods and limitations of the research can help you evaluate whether findings may generalize to broader populations. For example, if a report identifies that their entire sample of participants were recruited from one university, that information can identify a possible limitation to generalizing the findings to university students in general.

What is data visualization?

Data visualization is the method researchers will use to show the data and study’s results. For example, researchers might include a bar graph that compares academic success for different student groups or a line graph of students’ GPA over time. Data visualization should make it easier for you to see the story that the data or research findings tell. Good data visualization should be easy to understand and should complement and add to the descriptions in the text.

What is conflict of interest?

It is important for researchers to do their best to be neutral in the research process. In other words, researchers should not be too invested in any particular outcome of a study. A conflict of interest occurs when a researcher is involved in something that could lead to bias in the research process. For example, if an individual does research at a university and consulting at a company, there would be a conflict of interest if the company they consult for were to fund their university research. While there are steps that can be made to reduce bias if there is a conflict of interest (such as the researcher asking a collaborator to handle the data), it is important for this kind of information to be included in research reports.