GuidesResearch methodsThe use and interpretation of quasi-experimental design

The use and interpretation of quasi-experimental design

Last updated

6 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

What is a quasi-experimental design?

A quasi-experimental study (also known as a non-randomized pre-post intervention) is a research design in which the independent variable is manipulated, but participants are not randomly assigned to conditions.

Commonly used in medical informatics (a field that uses digital information to ensure better patient care), researchers generally use this design to evaluate the effectiveness of a treatment – perhaps a type of antibiotic or psychotherapy, or an educational or policy intervention.

Even though quasi-experimental design has been used for some time, relatively little is known about it. Read on to learn the ins and outs of this research design.

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When to use a quasi-experimental design

A quasi-experimental design is used when it's not logistically feasible or ethical to conduct randomized, controlled trials. As its name suggests, a quasi-experimental design is almost a true experiment. However, researchers don't randomly select elements or participants in this type of research.

Researchers prefer to apply quasi-experimental design when there are ethical or practical concerns. Let's look at these two reasons more closely.

Ethical reasons

In some situations, the use of randomly assigned elements can be unethical. For instance, providing public healthcare to one group and withholding it to another in research is unethical. A quasi-experimental design would examine the relationship between these two groups to avoid physical danger.

Practical reasons

Randomized controlled trials may not be the best approach in research. For instance, it's impractical to trawl through large sample sizes of participants without using a particular attribute to guide your data collection.

Recruiting participants and properly designing a data-collection attribute to make the research a true experiment requires a lot of time and effort, and can be expensive if you don’t have a large funding stream.

A quasi-experimental design allows researchers to take advantage of previously collected data and use it in their study.

Examples of quasi-experimental designs

Quasi-experimental research design is common in medical research, but any researcher can use it for research that raises practical and ethical concerns. Here are a few examples of quasi-experimental designs used by different researchers:

Example 1: Determining the effectiveness of math apps in supplementing math classes

A school wanted to supplement its math classes with a math app. To select the best app, the school decided to conduct demo tests on two apps before selecting the one they will purchase.

Scope of the research

Since every grade had two math teachers, each teacher used one of the two apps for three months. They then gave the students the same math exams and compared the results to determine which app was most effective.

Reasons why this is a quasi-experimental study

This simple study is a quasi-experiment since the school didn't randomly assign its students to the applications. They used a pre-existing class structure to conduct the study since it was impractical to randomly assign the students to each app.

Example 2: Determining the effectiveness of teaching modern leadership techniques in start-up businesses

A hypothetical quasi-experimental study was conducted in an economically developing country in a mid-sized city.

Scope of the research

Five start-ups in the textile industry and five in the tech industry participated in the study. The leaders attended a six-week workshop on leadership style, team management, and employee motivation.

After a year, the researchers assessed the performance of each start-up company to determine growth. The results indicated that the tech start-ups were further along in their growth than the textile companies.

Reasons why this is a quasi-experimental study

The basis of quasi-experimental research is a non-randomized subject-selection process. This study didn't use specific aspects to determine which start-up companies should participate. Therefore, the results may seem straightforward, but several aspects may determine the growth of a specific company, apart from the variables used by the researchers.

Example 3: A study to determine the effects of policy reforms and of luring foreign investment on small businesses in two mid-size cities

In a study to determine the economic impact of government reforms in an economically developing country, the government decided to test whether creating reforms directed at small businesses or luring foreign investments would spur the most economic development.

Scope of the research

The government selected two cities with similar population demographics and sizes. In one of the cities, they implemented specific policies that would directly impact small businesses, and in the other, they implemented policies to attract foreign investment.

After five years, they collected end-of-year economic growth data from both cities. They looked at elements like local GDP growth, unemployment rates, and housing sales.

Reasons why this is a quasi-experimental study

The study used a non-randomized selection process to determine which city would participate in the research. Researchers left out certain variables that would play a crucial role in determining the growth of each city. They used pre-existing groups of people based on research conducted in each city, rather than random groups.

Advantages of a quasi-experimental design

Some advantages of quasi-experimental designs are:

  • Researchers can manipulate variables to help them meet their study objectives.

  • It offers high external validity, making it suitable for real-world applications, specifically in social science experiments.

  • Integrating this methodology into other research designs is easier, especially in true experimental research. This cuts down on the time needed to determine your outcomes.

Disadvantages of a quasi-experimental design

Despite the pros that come with a quasi-experimental design, there are several disadvantages associated with it, including the following:

  • It has a lower internal validity since researchers do not have full control over the comparison and intervention groups or between time periods because of differences in characteristics in people, places, or time involved. It may be challenging to determine whether all variables have been used or whether those used in the research impacted the results.

  • There is the risk of inaccurate data since the research design borrows information from other studies.

  • There is the possibility of bias since researchers select baseline elements and eligibility.

What are the different quasi-experimental study designs?

There are three distinct types of quasi-experimental designs:

  • Nonequivalent

  • Regression discontinuity

  • Natural experiment


This is a hybrid of experimental and quasi-experimental methods and is used to leverage the best qualities of the two. Like the true experiment design, nonequivalent group design uses pre-existing groups believed to be comparable. However, it doesn't use randomization, the lack of which is a crucial element for quasi-experimental design.

Researchers usually ensure that no confounding variables impact them throughout the grouping process. This makes the groupings more comparable.

Example of a nonequivalent group design

A small study was conducted to determine whether after-school programs result in better grades. Researchers randomly selected two groups of students: one to implement the new program, the other not to. They then compared the results of the two groups.

Regression discontinuity

This type of quasi-experimental research design calculates the impact of a specific treatment or intervention. It uses a criterion known as "cutoff" that assigns treatment according to eligibility.

Researchers often assign participants above the cutoff to the treatment group. This puts a negligible distinction between the two groups (treatment group and control group).

Example of regression discontinuity

Students must achieve a minimum score to be enrolled in specific US high schools. Since the cutoff score used to determine eligibility for enrollment is arbitrary, researchers can assume that the disparity between students who only just fail to achieve the cutoff point and those who barely pass is a small margin and is due to the difference in the schools that these students attend.

Researchers can then examine the long-term effects of these two groups of kids to determine the effect of attending certain schools. This information can be applied to increase the chances of students being enrolled in these high schools.

Natural experiment

This research design is common in laboratory and field experiments where researchers control target subjects by assigning them to different groups. Researchers randomly assign subjects to a treatment group using nature or an external event or situation.

However, even with random assignment, this research design cannot be called a true experiment since nature aspects are observational. Researchers can also exploit these aspects despite having no control over the independent variables.

Example of the natural experiment approach

An example of a natural experiment is the 2008 Oregon Health Study.

Oregon intended to allow more low-income people to participate in Medicaid.

Since they couldn't afford to cover every person who qualified for the program, the state used a random lottery to allocate program slots.

Researchers assessed the program's effectiveness by assigning the selected subjects to a randomly assigned treatment group, while those that didn't win the lottery were considered the control group.

Differences between quasi-experiments and true experiments

There are several differences between a quasi-experiment and a true experiment:

  • Participants in true experiments are randomly assigned to the treatment or control group, while participants in a quasi-experiment are not assigned randomly.

  • In a quasi-experimental design, the control and treatment groups differ in unknown or unknowable ways, apart from the experimental treatments that are carried out. Therefore, the researcher should try as much as possible to control these differences.

  • Quasi-experimental designs have several "competing hypotheses," which compete with experimental manipulation to explain the observed results.

  • Quasi-experiments tend to have lower internal validity (the degree of confidence in the research outcomes) than true experiments, but they may offer higher external validity (whether findings can be extended to other contexts) as they involve real-world interventions instead of controlled interventions in artificial laboratory settings.

Despite the distinct difference between true and quasi-experimental research designs, these two research methodologies share the following aspects:

  • Both study methods subject participants to some form of treatment or conditions.

  • Researchers have the freedom to measure some of the outcomes of interest.

  • Researchers can test whether the differences in the outcomes are associated with the treatment.

An example comparing a true experiment and quasi-experiment

Imagine you wanted to study the effects of junk food on obese people. Here's how you would do this as a true experiment and a quasi-experiment:

How to carry out a true experiment

In a true experiment, some participants would eat junk foods, while the rest would be in the control group, adhering to a regular diet. At the end of the study, you would record the health and discomfort of each group.

This kind of experiment would raise ethical concerns since the participants assigned to the treatment group are required to eat junk food against their will throughout the experiment. This calls for a quasi-experimental design.

How to carry out a quasi-experiment

In quasi-experimental research, you would start by finding out which participants want to try junk food and which prefer to stick to a regular diet. This allows you to assign these two groups based on subject choice.

In this case, you didn't assign participants to a particular group, so you can confidently use the results from the study.


When is a quasi-experimental design used?

Quasi-experimental designs are used when researchers don’t want to use randomization when evaluating their intervention.

What are the characteristics of quasi-experimental designs?

Some of the characteristics of a quasi-experimental design are:

  • Researchers don't randomly assign participants into groups, but study their existing characteristics and assign them accordingly.

  • Researchers study the participants in pre- and post-testing to determine the progress of the groups.

  • Quasi-experimental design is ethical since it doesn’t involve offering or withholding treatment at random.

Quasi-experimental design encompasses a broad range of non-randomized intervention studies. This design is employed when it is not ethical or logistically feasible to conduct randomized controlled trials. Researchers typically employ it when evaluating policy or educational interventions, or in medical or therapy scenarios.

How do you analyze data in a quasi-experimental design?

You can use two-group tests, time-series analysis, and regression analysis to analyze data in a quasi-experiment design. Each option has specific assumptions, strengths, limitations, and data requirements.

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