Studies that involve a large population of subjects, seek to answer a big or important question, or will require detailed work over a long period of time have an increased risk of failure. Pilot studies are a smaller version of a researcher’s main study and are meant to test the methods of that study for weaknesses.
In a nutshell, Murphy’s Law states that all things that can go wrong in a given situation will go wrong. If a researcher leaves room for error in his study, such as in the way he will collect or process data, he can be reasonably certain that this weakness will be reflected in less than optimal results.
Questions to Ask
When a researcher is conducting a pilot study, he may ask himself questions similar to the following: Does my hypothesis have a purpose? Will my study answer a currently unanswered question or provide new information? Is my method of collecting data giving me accurate information that I can use? Is the money spent for this study being used as efficiently as possible? Are my results and analysis representing my population of subjects accurately? Do my hypothesis, research methods and objectives match?
Before beginning his main study, a researcher will use his pilot study to check the following: Do the investigators of this study understand the procedures and are they carrying them out in an identical fashion for accuracy? Is any equipment or technology in use operating correctly and what will I do if it fails or breaks? Are any materials, such as drugs or food items, used in the study safe for every participant to use? Is any part of my study too difficult or too easy, or impossible to follow? Would another researcher be able to replicate this study exactly to get similar results?
How to Design a Pilot
A pilot will essentially be a smaller version of the researcher’s main study. If the main study intends to use 200 participants, the pilot may use 20. If the main study intends to conduct face-to-face interviews with subjects, the pilot may use written surveys to get a general idea of how effective the questions are. The same hypothesis and general objectives should be used, however, in order to receive useful feedback from the pilot for the main study.
How to Use Feedback from a Pilot
A pilot study should give the researcher useful information about how much money will be spent and how it will be spent most efficiently, how large the ideal sample size will be for the main study, which methods and measures will be most effective and which are useless, how researchers can get the most useful data in the least amount of time, whether or not tools and materials used on subjects are safe and whether or not findings will provide new information and have a valuable impact. Pilot studies that are conducted safely and successfully also earn the approval of ethical committees with the power to cancel studies that are unnecessarily dangerous to participants. Ultimately this may result in access to grant money and other support from peers.
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