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Hypothesis Testing

When you conduct a piece of quantitative research, you are inevitably attempting to answer a research question or hypothesis that you have set. One method of evaluating this research question is via a process called hypothesis testing, which is sometimes also referred to as significance testing. Since there are many facets to hypothesis testing, we start with the example we refer to throughout this guide.

Hypothesis Testing

An example of a lecturer's dilemma

Two statistics lecturers, Sarah and Mike, think that they use the best method to teach their students. Each lecturer has 50 statistics students who are studying a graduate degree in management. In Sarah's class, students have to attend one lecture and one seminar class every week, whilst in Mike's class students only have to attend one lecture. Sarah thinks that seminars, in addition to lectures, are an important teaching method in statistics, whilst Mike believes that lectures are sufficient by themselves and thinks that students are better off solving problems by themselves in their own time. This is the first year that Sarah has given seminars, but since they take up a lot of her time, she wants to make sure that she is not wasting her time and that seminars improve her students' performance.

Hypothesis Testing

The research hypothesis

The first step in hypothesis testing is to set a research hypothesis. In Sarah and Mike's study, the aim is to examine the effect that two different teaching methods – providing both lectures and seminar classes (Sarah), and providing lectures by themselves (Mike) – had on the performance of Sarah's 50 students and Mike's 50 students. More specifically, they want to determine whether performance is different between the two different teaching methods. Whilst Mike is skeptical about the effectiveness of seminars, Sarah clearly believes that giving seminars in addition to lectures helps her students do better than those in Mike's class. This leads to the following research hypothesis:

Research Hypothesis: When students attend seminar classes, in addition to lectures, their performance increases.

Before moving onto the second step of the hypothesis testing process, we need to take you on a brief detour to explain why you need to run hypothesis testing at all. This is explained next.

Hypothesis Testing

Sample to population

If you have measured individuals (or any other type of "object") in a study and want to understand differences (or any other type of effect), you can simply summarize the data you have collected. For example, if Sarah and Mike wanted to know which teaching method was the best, they could simply compare the performance achieved by the two groups of students – the group of students that took lectures and seminar classes, and the group of students that took lectures by themselves – and conclude that the best method was the teaching method which resulted in the highest performance. However, this is generally of only limited appeal because the conclusions could only apply to students in this study. However, if those students were representative of all statistics students on a graduate management degree, the study would have wider appeal.

In statistics terminology, the students in the study are the sample and the larger group they represent (i.e., all statistics students on a graduate management degree) is called the population. Given that the sample of statistics students in the study are representative of a larger population of statistics students, you can use hypothesis testing to understand whether any differences or effects discovered in the study exist in the population. In layman's terms, hypothesis testing is used to establish whether a research hypothesis extends beyond those individuals examined in a single study.

Another example could be taking a sample of 200 breast cancer sufferers in order to test a new drug that is designed to eradicate this type of cancer. As much as you are interested in helping these specific 200 cancer sufferers, your real goal is to establish that the drug works in the population (i.e., all breast cancer sufferers).

As such, by taking a hypothesis testing approach, Sarah and Mike want to generalize their results to a population rather than just the students in their sample. However, in order to use hypothesis testing, you need to re-state your research hypothesis as a null and alternative hypothesis. Before you can do this, it is best to consider the process/structure involved in hypothesis testing and what you are measuring. This structure is presented next.

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