Pre-experiments are the simplest form of research design. In a pre-experiment either a single group or multiple groups are observed subsequent to some agent or treatment presumed to cause change.
A single group is studied at a single point in time after some treatment that is presumed to have caused change. The carefully studied single instance is compared to general expectations of what the case would have looked like had the treatment not occurred and to other events casually observed. No control or comparison group is employed.
A single case is observed at two time points, one before the treatment and one after the treatment. Changes in the outcome of interest are presumed to be the result of the intervention or treatment. No control or comparison group is employed.
A group that has experienced some treatment is compared with one that has not. Observed differences between the two groups are assumed to be a result of the treatment.
An important drawback of pre-experimental designs is that they are subject to numerous threats to their validity. Consequently, it is often difficult or impossible to dismiss rival hypotheses or explanations. Therefore, researchers must exercise extreme caution in interpreting and generalizing the results from pre-experimental studies.
One reason that it is often difficult to assess the validity of studies that employ a pre-experimental design is that they often do not include any control or comparison group. Without something to compare it to, it is difficult to assess the significance of an observed change in the case. The change could be the result of historical changes unrelated to the treatment, the maturation of the subject, or an artifact of the testing.
Even when pre-experimental designs identify a comparison group, it is still difficult to dismiss rival hypotheses for the observed change. This is because there is no formal way to determine whether the two groups would have been the same if it had not been for the treatment. If the treatment group and the comparison group differ after the treatment, this might be a reflection of differences in the initial recruitment to the groups or differential mortality in the experiment.
As exploratory approaches, pre-experiments can be a cost-effective way to discern whether a potential explanation is worthy of further investigation.
Pre-experiments offer few advantages since it is often difficult or impossible to rule out alternative explanations. The nearly insurmountable threats to their validity are clearly the most important disadvantage of pre-experimental research designs.
Research Connections is supported by grant #90YE0104 from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The contents are solely the responsibility of the National Center for Children in Poverty and the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, the Administration for Children and Families, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.