Null and Alternative Hypotheses

Converting research questions to hypothesis is a simple task. Take the questions and make it a positive statement that says a relationship exists (correlation studies) or a difference exists between the groups (experiment study) and you have the alternative hypothesis. Write the statement such that a relationship does not exist or a difference does not exist and you have the null hypothesis. You can reverse the process if you have a hypothesis and wish to write a research question.

When you are comparing two groups, the groups are the independent variable. When you are testing whether something affects something else, the cause is the independent variable. The independent variable is the one you manipulate.

Teachers given higher pay will have more positive attitudes toward children than teachers given lower pay. The first step is to ask yourself “Are there two or more groups being compared?” The answer is “Yes.” What are the groups? Teachers who are given higher pay and teachers who are given lower pay. The independent variable is teacher pay. The dependent variable (the outcome) is attitude towards school.

You could also approach is another way. “Is something causing something else?” The answer is “Yes.”  What is causing what? Teacher pay is causing attitude towards school. Therefore, teacher pay is the independent variable (cause) and attitude towards school is the dependent variable (outcome).

By tradition, we try to disprove (reject) the null hypothesis. We can never prove a null hypothesis, because it is impossible to prove something does not exist. We can disprove something does not exist by finding an example of it. Therefore, in research we try to disprove the null hypothesis. When we do find that a relationship (or difference) exists then we reject the null and accept the alternative. If we do not find that a relationship (or difference) exists, we fail to reject the null hypothesis (and go with it). We never say we accept the null hypothesis because it is never possible to prove something does not exist. That is why we say that we failed to reject the null hypothesis, rather than we accepted it.

Del Siegle, Ph.D.
Neag School of Education – University of Connecticut