This section of a research article is often written first since it is usually the most concrete and specific part of the text, and thus easiest to write. In the hourglass described in our post “Academic Writing in Science: An Overview,” the Methods section is the most “narrow” part.
This section is mainly read by experts, who are interested in the procedures used in that particular field or who read the study to gain new information that they can use themselves. Individual sub-sections on separate topics usually begin with a short introduction to orient the reader to the topic. After they have been introduced, materials and procedures are then described in detail.
In fields such as Biology, Chemistry and Medicine, the Methods section is a standard element of a research article. Some fields, particularly those with few established methods, typically highlight this section. However, other fields—such as many engineering disciplines—focus more on the elaboration of a new “product,” which may take the form of an algorithm, a strategy, a model, or a system.
The Methods section may also be signaled by headings such as Study Design, Experimental Procedures, Experimental Setup, Materials and Procedures, and Materials and Methods. Regardless of the name used, this section, presents the materials, procedures, and methods used in a study.
We can give less general advice about the Methods section than about any other part of a research article. This is because more than any other part of the article, the Methods section varies most in their structure and content. Overall, the method describes the steps that you followed in conducting your study and the materials you used in each step. The elements included in the method section and the order in which they are presented may differ from discipline to discipline. However, the following list provides a rough outline:
- Overview of the Experiment
- Restrictions/Limiting Conditions
- Sampling Technique
- Statistical Treatment
Supplier’s information: The manufacturer or supplier’s information of the materials used is usually mentioned alongside the material/instrument at the first occurrence. This information includes the name of the supplier, state, and country. The model number of the instrument, if any, must also be mentioned.
Example: The precipitate was examined using a 1200EX electron microscope (JOEL, Tokyo, Japan) at an acceleration voltage of 100 kV.
The target journal needs to be checked for specific guidelines on whether it is mandatory to include the information.
Variation in Approach
There are two basic approaches that can be taken to write this section: a “condensed” approach and an “extended” approach.
Condensed approach: In the natural science and engineering and in parts of medical research, standard practices and established methods are much more widely available. In these areas, sometimes methods may be largely taken for granted. Therefore, this approach is more succinct in nature dealing with mostly facts. For example: http://www.biochemj.org/bj/246/0325/2460325.pdf
Extended approach: In many of the social sciences, the methodology is very important and is often described in considerable detail. In some cases, the main point of a paper will be to announce some development in the methodology. For example: http://www.ausienet.com/journal/vol2iss2/hockley.pdf
Table 1: Variation in Methods Sections
|Assumes background knowledge||Sees need to provide background|
|Avoids named subsections||Several named subsections|
|Uses acronyms and citations as shorthand||Uses descriptions|
|Running series of verbs||Usually one finite verb per clause|
|Few “by + verb-ing” “how” statements||A number of “how” statements|
|Few definitions and examples||More definition and examples|
|Few justifications||Several justifications (often initial purpose clauses)|
|Few linking phrases||Wide range of linking phrases|
Source: Academic Writing for Graduate Students, The University of Michigan Press
Tense and Voice
The language used in the methods section is slightly different from the tone of the rest of the paper. As this section consists of descriptive facts, it is primarily written in past tense, and in passive voice.
Example on tense
- Avoid Present Tense: The PMA is dissolved in DMSO at a concentration of 1 mg/ml.
- Use Past Tense: The PMA was dissolved in DMSO at a concentration of 1 mg/ml.
Example on voice
- Avoid Active Voice: Bradford assay determines the protein concentration.
- Use Passive Voice: Protein concentration was determined by Bradford assay.
In addition, the number of citations in this section is very low, or negligible. The overall commentary is also restricted compared to other sections of the paper. The following table compares these features across sections of the paper.
Table 2: Frequencies of selected features
|Present tense||Past tense||Passive voice||Citations||Commentary|
With the above information serving as the background, the best way to start writing a Methods section is to read sample papers from the target journal. This will be the best guide on the style and structure (e.g., number of sections) required. In our next post, we will talk about how to report results and some of the key points to remember.
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The method section of an APA format psychology paper provides the methods and procedures used in a research study or experiment. This part of an APA paper is critical because it allows other researchers to see exactly how you conducted your research. This allows other researchers to reproduce your experiment if they want and to assess alternative methods that might produce differing results.
So what exactly do you need to include when writing your method section?
You should provide detailed information on the research design, participants, equipment, materials, variables, and actions taken by the participants. The method section should provide enough information to allow other researchers to replicate your experiment or study.
The Parts of the Method Section
The method section should utilize subheadings to divide up different subsections. These subsections typically include: Participants, Materials, Design, and Procedure.
In this part of the method section, you should describe the participants in your experiment including who they were, how many there were, and how they were selected. Include details about how your participants were chosen, who they were, and any unique features that may set them apart from the general population. If you utilized random selection to choose your participants, it should be noted here.
"We randomly selected 100 children from elementary schools near the University of Arizona."
At the very minimum, this part of your method section must convey who was in your study, the population from which your participants were drawn, and any restrictions on your pool of participants. For example, if your study consists of female college students from a small private college in the mid-West, you should note this in this part of your method section.
This part of your method section should also explain how many participants were in your study, how many were assigned to each condition, and basic characteristics of your participants such as sex, age, ethnicity, or religion. In this subsection, it is also important to explain why your participants took part in your research. Was your study advertised at a college or hospital? Did participants receive some type of incentive to take part in your research?
Be sure to explain how participants were assigned to each group. Were they randomly assigned to a condition or was some other selection method used?
Providing this information helps other researchers understand how your study was performed, how generalizable the result might be, and allows others researchers to replicate your results with other populations to see if they might obtain the same results.
Describe the materials, measures, equipment, or stimuli used in the experiment. This may include testing instruments, technical equipment, books, images, or other materials used in the course of research. If you used some type of psychological assessment or special equipment during the course of your experiment, it should be noted in this part of your method section.
"Two stories from Sullivan et al.'s (1994) second-order false belief attribution tasks were used to assess children's understanding of second-order beliefs."
For standard and expected equipment such as computer screens, television screens, videos, keyboards, and radios, you can simply name the device and not provide further explanation. So if you used a computer to administer a psychological assessment, you would need to name the specific assessment you used, but you could simply state that you used a computer to administer the test rather than listing the brand and technical specifications of the device.
Specialized equipment, especially if it is something that is complex or created for a niche purpose, should be given greater detail. In some instances, such as if you created a special material or apparatus for your study, you may need to provide and illustration of the item that can be included in your appendix and then referred to in your method section.
Describe the type of design used in the experiment. Specify the variables as well as the levels of these variables. Clearly identify your independent variables, dependent variables, control variables, and any extraneous variables that might influence your results. Explain whether your experiment uses a within-groups or between-groups design.
"The experiment used a 3x2 between-subjects design. Theindependent variableswere age and understanding of second-order beliefs."
The next part of your method section should detail the procedures used in your experiment. Explain what you had participants do, how you collected data, and the order in which steps occurred.
"An examiner interviewed children individually at their school in one session that lasted 20 minutes on average. The examiner explained to each child that he or she would be told two short stories and that some questions would be asked after each story. All sessions were videotaped so the data could later be coded."
Keep this subsection concise yet detailed. Explain what you did and how you did it, but do not overwhelm your readers with too much information.
Things to Remember When Writing a Method Section
- Always write the method section in the past tense.
- Provide enough detail that another researcher could replicate your experiment, but focus on brevity. Avoid unnecessary detail that is not relevant to the outcome of the experiment.
- Remember to use proper APA format. As you are writing your method section, keep a style guide published by the American Psychological Association on hand, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
- Take a rough draft of your method section to your university's writing lab for additional assistance.
- Proofread your paper for typos, grammar problems, and spelling errors. Do not just rely on computer spell checkers. Always read through each section of your paper for agreement with other sections. If you mention steps and procedures in the method section, these elements should also be present in the results and discussion sections.
A Word From Verywell
The method section is one of the most important components of your APA format paper. The goal of your paper should be to clearly detail what you did in your experiment. Provide enough detail that another researcher could replicate your study if he or she wanted.
Finally, if you are writing your paper for a class or for a specific publication, be sure to keep in mind any specific instructions provided by your instructor or by the journal editor. Your instructor may have certain requirements that you need to follow while writing your method section.
American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: The American Psychological Association; 2010.