Design-Based Research Methods (DBR)

Summary: Design-Based Research is a lens or set of analytical techniques that balances the positivist and interpretivist paradigms and attempts to bridge theory and practice in education. A blend of empirical educational research with the theory-driven design of learning environments, DBR is an important methodology for understanding how, when, and why educational innovations work in practice; DBR methods aim to uncover the relationships between educational theory, designed artefact, and practice.

Originators: A. Brown[1], A. Collins[2], DBR Collective[3], and others

Keywords: design experiments, iterative, interventionist, theory-building, theory-driven

Design-Based Research Methods (DBR)

In recent years, educators have been trying to narrow the chasm between research and practice. Part of the challenge is that research that is detached from practice “may not account for the influence of contexts, the emergent and complex nature of outcomes, and the incompleteness of knowledge about which factors are relevant for prediction”[3].

According to Collins et al., Design-based Research (also known as design experiments) intends to address several needs and issues central to the study of learning[4]. These include the following:

  • The need to address theoretical questions about the nature of learning in context
  • The need for approaches to the study of learning phenomena in the real world situations rather than the laboratory
  • The need to go beyond narrow measures of learning.
  • The need to derive research findings from formative evaluation.

Characteristics of design-based research experiments include:

  • addressing complex problems in real, authentic contexts in collaboration with practitioners
  • applying integrating known and hypothetical design principles to render plausible solutions
  • conducting rigorous and reflective inquiry to test and refine innovative learning environments
  • intertwined goals of (1) designing learning environments and (2) developing theories of learning
  • research and development through continuous cycles of design, enactment, analysis, and redesign
  • research on designs that must lead to sharable theories that help communicate relevant implications to practitioners and other educational designers
  • research must account for how designs function in authentic settings
  • development of such accounts relies on methods that can document and connect processes of enactment to outcomes of interest[3].

Design-based research vs. traditional evaluation

The following excerpt highlights the difference between the goals and contributions of design-based research methods can offer and traditional evaluation:

“In traditional evaluation, an intervention (e.g. a textbook, an instructional program, a policy) is measured against a set of standards. During formative evaluation, iterative cycles of development, implementation, and study allow the designer to gather information about how an intervention is or is not succeeding in ways that might lead to better design. Then the intervention is ‘frozen’, and the rigorous summative evaluation begins….Like formative evaluation, design-based research uses mixed methods to analyze an intervention’s outcomes and refine the intervention. Unlike evaluation research, design-based research views a successful innovation as a joint product of the designed intervention and the context. Hence, design-based research goes beyond perfecting a particular product. The intention of design-based research…is to inquire more broadly into the nature of learning in a complex system and to refine generative or predictive theories of learning. Models of successful innovation can be generated through such work — models, rather than particular artifacts or programs, are the goal”[3].

For more information, see:

  • Cobb, P., diSessa, A., Lehrer, R., Schauble, L. (2003). Design experiments in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(1): 9-13.


  1. Brown, A. L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(2): 141-178.
  2. Collins, A. (1992). Towards a design science of education. In E. Scanlon & T. O’Shea (Eds.), New directions in educational technology (pp. 15-22). Berlin: Springer.
  3. Design-Based Research Collective. (2003). Design-based research: An emerging paradigm for educational inquiry. Educational Researcher, 32(1): 5-8.
  4. Barab, S., & Squire, K. (2004). Design-based research: Putting a stake in the ground. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1).


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