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Study Design 101: Randomized Controlled Trial

Randomized Controlled Trial


A study design that randomly assigns participants into an experimental group or a control group. As the study is conducted, the only expected difference between the control and experimental groups in a randomized controlled trial (RCT) is the outcome variable being studied.


  • Good randomization will "wash out" any population bias
  • Easier to blind/mask than observational studies
  • Results can be analyzed with well known statistical tools
  • Populations of participating individuals are clearly identified


  • Expensive in terms of time and money
  • Volunteer biases: the population that participates may not be representative of the whole
  • Loss to follow-up attributed to treatment

Design pitfalls to look out for

An RCT should be a study of one population only.

Was the randomization actually "random", or are there really two populations being studied?

The variables being studied should be the only variables between the experimental group and the control group.

Are there any confounding variables between the groups?

Fictitious Example

To determine how a new type of short wave UVA-blocking sunscreen affects the general health of skin in comparison to a regular long wave UVA-blocking sunscreen, 40 trial participants were randomly separated into equal groups of 20: an experimental group and a control group. All participants' skin health was then initially evaluated. The experimental group wore the short wave UVA-blocking sunscreen daily, and the control group wore the long wave UVA-blocking sunscreen daily.

After one year, the general health of the skin was measured in both groups and statistically analyzed. In the control group, wearing long wave UVA-blocking sunscreen daily led to improvements in general skin health for 60% of the participants. In the experimental group, wearing short wave UVA-blocking sunscreen daily led to improvements in general skin health for 75% of the participants.

Real-life Examples

van Der Horst, N., Smits, D., Petersen, J., Goedhart, E., & Backx, F. (2015). The preventive effect of the nordic hamstring exercise on hamstring injuries in amateur soccer players: a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(6), 1316-1323.

This article reports on the research investigating whether the Nordic Hamstring Exercise is effective in preventing both the incidence and severity of hamstring injuries in male amateur soccer players. Over the course of a year, there was a statistically significant reduction in the incidence of hamstring injuries in players performing the NHE, but for those injured, there was no difference in severity of injury. There was also a high level of compliance in performing the NHE in that group of players.

Natour, J., Cazotti, L., Ribeiro, L., Baptista, A., & Jones, A. (2015). Pilates improves pain, function and quality of life in patients with chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Clinical Rehabilitation, 29(1), 59-68.

This study assessed the effect of adding pilates to a treatment regimen of NSAID use for individuals with chronic low back pain. Individuals who included the pilates method in their therapy took fewer NSAIDs and experienced statistically significant improvements in pain, function, and quality of life.

Related Formulas

Related Terms


When the groups that have been randomly selected from a population do not know whether they are in the control group or the experimental group.


Being able to show that an independent variable directly causes the dependent variable. This is generally very difficult to demonstrate in most study designs.

Confounding Variables

Variables that cause/prevent an outcome from occurring outside of or along with the variable being studied. These variables render it difficult or impossible to distinguish the relationship between the variable and outcome being studied).


A relationship between two variables, but not necessarily a causation relationship.

Double Blinding/Masking

When the researchers conducting a blinded study do not know which participants are in the control group of the experimental group.

Null Hypothesis

That the relationship between the independent and dependent variables the researchers believe they will prove through conducting a study does not exist. To "reject the null hypothesis" is to say that there is a relationship between the variables.


A group that shares the same characteristics among its members (population).

Population Bias/Volunteer Bias

A sample may be skewed by those who are selected or self-selected into a study. If only certain portions of a population are considered in the selection process, the results of a study may have poor validity.


Any of a number of mechanisms used to assign participants into different groups with the expectation that these groups will not differ in any significant way other than treatment and outcome.

Research (alternative) Hypothesis

The relationship between the independent and dependent variables that researchers believe they will prove through conducting a study.


The relationship between what is considered a symptom of an outcome and the outcome itself; or the percent chance of not getting a false positive (see formulas).


The relationship between not having a symptom of an outcome and not having the outcome itself; or the percent chance of not getting a false negative (see formulas).

Type 1 error

Rejecting a null hypothesis when it is in fact true. This is also known as an error of commission.

Type 2 error

The failure to reject a null hypothesis when it is in fact false. This is also known as an error of omission.

Now test yourself!

1. Having a volunteer bias in the population group is a good thing because it means the study participants are eager and make the study even stronger.

2. Why is randomization important to assignment in an RCT?