8.1 Experimental design: What is it and when should it be used?

Learning Objectives

  • Define experiment
  • Identify the core features of true experimental designs
  • Describe the difference between an experimental group and a control group
  • Identify and describe the various types of true experimental designs


Experiments are an excellent data collection strategy for social workers wishing to observe the effects of a clinical intervention or social welfare program. Understanding what experiments are and how they are conducted is useful for all social scientists, whether they actually plan to use this methodology or simply aim to understand findings from experimental studies. An experiment is a method of data collection designed to test hypotheses under controlled conditions. In social scientific research, the term experiment has a precise meaning and should not be used to describe all research methodologies.


Experiments have a long and important history in social science. Behaviorists such as John Watson, B. F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov, and Albert Bandura used experimental design to demonstrate the various types of conditioning. Using strictly controlled environments, behaviorists were able to isolate a single stimulus as the cause of measurable differences in behavior or physiological responses. The foundations of social learning theory and behavior modification are found in experimental research projects. Moreover, behaviorist experiments brought psychology and social science away from the abstract world of Freudian analysis and towards empirical inquiry, grounded in real-world observations and objectively-defined variables. Experiments are used at all levels of social work inquiry, including agency-based experiments that test therapeutic interventions and policy experiments that test new programs.

Several kinds of experimental designs exist. In general, designs considered to be true experiments contain three basic key features:

  1. random assignment of participants into experimental and control groups
  2. a “treatment” (or intervention) provided to the experimental group
  3. measurement of the effects of the treatment in a post-test administered to both groups

Some true experiments are more complex.  Their designs can also include a pre-test and can have more than two groups, but these are the minimum requirements for a design to be a true experiment.

Experimental and control groups

In a true experiment, the effect of an intervention is tested by comparing two groups: one that is exposed to the intervention (the experimental group, also known as the treatment group) and another that does not receive the intervention (the control group). Importantly, participants in a true experiment need to be randomly assigned to either the control or experimental groups. Random assignment uses a random number generator or some other random process to assign people into experimental and control groups. Random assignment is important in experimental research because it helps to ensure that the experimental group and control group are comparable and that any differences between the experimental and control groups are due to random chance. We will address more of the logic behind random assignment in the next section.

Treatment or intervention

In an experiment, the independent variable is receiving the intervention being tested—for example, a therapeutic technique, prevention program, or access to some service or support. It is less common in of social work research, but social science research may also have a stimulus, rather than an intervention as the independent variable. For example, an electric shock or a reading about death might be used as a stimulus to provoke a response.

In some cases, it may be immoral to withhold treatment completely from a control group within an experiment. If you recruited two groups of people with severe addiction and only provided treatment to one group, the other group would likely suffer. For these cases, researchers use a control group that receives “treatment as usual.” Experimenters must clearly define what treatment as usual means. For example, a standard treatment in substance abuse recovery is attending Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. A substance abuse researcher conducting an experiment may use twelve-step programs in their control group and use their experimental intervention in the experimental group. The results would show whether the experimental intervention worked better than normal treatment, which is useful information.


The dependent variable is usually the intended effect the researcher wants the intervention to have. If the researcher is testing a new therapy for individuals with binge eating disorder, their dependent variable may be the number of binge eating episodes a participant reports. The researcher likely expects her intervention to decrease the number of binge eating episodes reported by participants. Thus, she must, at a minimum, measure the number of episodes that occur after the intervention, which is the post-test.  In a classic experimental design, participants are also given a pretest to measure the dependent variable before the experimental treatment begins.

Types of experimental design

Let’s put these concepts in chronological order so we can better understand how an experiment runs from start to finish. Once you’ve collected your sample, you’ll need to randomly assign your participants to the experimental group and control group. In a common type of experimental design, you will then give both groups your pretest, which measures your dependent variable, to see what your participants are like before you start your intervention. Next, you will provide your intervention, or independent variable, to your experimental group, but not to your control group. Many interventions last a few weeks or months to complete, particularly therapeutic treatments. Finally, you will administer your post-test to both groups to observe any changes in your dependent variable. What we’ve just described is known as the classical experimental design and is the simplest type of true experimental design. All of the designs we review in this section are variations on this approach. Figure 8.1 visually represents these steps.


Steps in classic experimental design: Sampling to Assignment to Pretest to intervention to Posttest
Figure 8.1 Steps in classic experimental design

An interesting example of experimental research can be found in Shannon K. McCoy and Brenda Major’s (2003) study of people’s perceptions of prejudice. In one portion of this multifaceted study, all participants were given a pretest to assess their levels of depression. No significant differences in depression were found between the experimental and control groups during the pretest. Participants in the experimental group were then asked to read an article suggesting that prejudice against their own racial group is severe and pervasive, while participants in the control group were asked to read an article suggesting that prejudice against a racial group other than their own is severe and pervasive. Clearly, these were not meant to be interventions or treatments to help depression, but were stimuli designed to elicit changes in people’s depression levels. Upon measuring depression scores during the post-test period, the researchers discovered that those who had received the experimental stimulus (the article citing prejudice against their same racial group) reported greater depression than those in the control group. This is just one of many examples of social scientific experimental research.

In addition to classic experimental design, there are two other ways of designing experiments that are considered to fall within the purview of “true” experiments (Babbie, 2010; Campbell & Stanley, 1963).  The posttest-only control group design is almost the same as classic experimental design, except it does not use a pretest. Researchers who use posttest-only designs want to eliminate testing effects, in which participants’ scores on a measure change because they have already been exposed to it. If you took multiple SAT or ACT practice exams before you took the real one you sent to colleges, you’ve taken advantage of testing effects to get a better score. Considering the previous example on racism and depression, participants who are given a pretest about depression before being exposed to the stimulus would likely assume that the intervention is designed to address depression. That knowledge could cause them to answer differently on the post-test than they otherwise would. In theory, as long as the control and experimental groups have been determined randomly and are therefore comparable, no pretest is needed. However, most researchers prefer to use pretests in case randomization did not result in equivalent groups and to help assess change over time within both the experimental and control groups.

Researchers wishing to account for testing effects but also gather pretest data can use a Solomon four-group design. In the Solomon four-group design, the researcher uses four groups. Two groups are treated as they would be in a classic experiment—pretest, experimental group intervention, and post-test. The other two groups do not receive the pretest, though one receives the intervention. All groups are given the post-test. Table 8.1 illustrates the features of each of the four groups in the Solomon four-group design. By having one set of experimental and control groups that complete the pretest (Groups 1 and 2) and another set that does not complete the pretest (Groups 3 and 4), researchers using the Solomon four-group design can account for testing effects in their analysis.

Table 8.1 Solomon four-group design
Pretest Stimulus Posttest
Group 1 X X X
Group 2 X X
Group 3 X X
Group 4 X

Solomon four-group designs are challenging to implement in the real world because they are time- and resource-intensive. Researchers must recruit enough participants to create four groups and implement interventions in two of them.

Overall, true experimental designs are sometimes difficult to implement in a real-world practice environment. It may be impossible to withhold treatment from a control group or randomly assign participants in a study. In these cases, pre-experimental and quasi-experimental designs–which we  will discuss in the next section–can be used.  However, the differences in rigor from true experimental designs leave their conclusions more open to critique.

Experimental design in macro-level research

You can imagine that social work researchers may be limited in their ability to use random assignment when examining the effects of governmental policy on individuals.  For example, it is unlikely that a researcher could randomly assign some states to implement decriminalization of recreational marijuana and some states not to in order to assess the effects of the policy change.  There are, however, important examples of policy experiments that use random assignment, including the Oregon Medicaid experiment. In the Oregon Medicaid experiment, the wait list for Oregon was so long, state officials conducted a lottery to see who from the wait list would receive Medicaid (Baicker et al., 2013).  Researchers used the lottery as a natural experiment that included random assignment. People selected to be a part of Medicaid were the experimental group and those on the wait list were in the control group. There are some practical complications macro-level experiments, just as with other experiments.  For example, the ethical concern with using people on a wait list as a control group exists in macro-level research just as it does in micro-level research.


Key Takeaways

  • True experimental designs require random assignment.
  • Control groups do not receive an intervention, and experimental groups receive an intervention.
  • The basic components of a true experiment include a pretest, posttest, control group, and experimental group.
  • Testing effects may cause researchers to use variations on the classic experimental design.



  • Classic experimental design- uses random assignment, an experimental and control group, as well as pre- and posttesting
  • Control group- the group in an experiment that does not receive the intervention
  • Experiment- a method of data collection designed to test hypotheses under controlled conditions
  • Experimental group- the group in an experiment that receives the intervention
  • Posttest- a measurement taken after the intervention
  • Posttest-only control group design- a type of experimental design that uses random assignment, and an experimental and control group, but does not use a pretest
  • Pretest- a measurement taken prior to the intervention
  • Random assignment-using a random process to assign people into experimental and control groups
  • Solomon four-group design- uses random assignment, two experimental and two control groups, pretests for half of the groups, and posttests for all
  • Testing effects- when a participant’s scores on a measure change because they have already been exposed to it
  • True experiments- a group of experimental designs that contain independent and dependent variables, pretesting and post testing, and experimental and control groups


Image attributions

exam scientific experiment by mohamed_hassan CC-0



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