I have a shelf full of great qualitative research methods texts. They cover every phase of the process—from conceptualizing and designing the study, to collecting the data, analyzing it, and writing up the report. But if I am a new researcher, or want to try a new research approach, I might still have some questions. How should these design pieces be fit together into a coherent research proposal I can defend to those who must approve it? I’d want to know about the real experience—what is it like to actually do research? And what are my options if/when something goes wrong, when my pristine design hits the messy real world? Research method cases offer one way to gain a holistic and realistic view of qualitative inquiry and allow us to learn from the trials and errors of successful researchers.
While MethodSpace is a community of researchers, many of us also find ourselves in the role of instructor. The Learning to Research/Researching series will explore juxtapositions of research methods and instruction. See previous posts:
Cases offer the potential for active, engaged, problem-based learning. Problem-based learning, or PBL, is defined as “a student-centered instructional approach that is derived from constructivist epistemology. It is based upon ill-structured real-world problems with the goal of strengthening and developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills in learners” (Nelson, 2010). Case studies encapsulate one or more problems. They offer a snapshot of a dilemma, situation or process at a specific point in time. Case methods involve systematically dissecting a problem from perspectives of the players and its surrounding circumstances, then conducting further research, proposing, analyzing, and selecting solutions.
Let’s walk through a systematic case analysis we could use in a research methods course. Using an 8-step process, the case we will explore is: “Biographical interviewing: The case of non-traditional students in higher education”(Bron & Thunborg, 2015).
- Understand the research approach.
- Invite students to begin by identifying the research approach, the theoretical frameworks, data collection and analysis methods used in the case. In the case by Bron and Thunborg (2015), research questions related to the experiences of non-traditional students in higher education, and factors associated with retention. This case uses a qualitative approach and biographical interview
- Assign additional reading to help students build an understanding of the approaches used in the case. The case authors provided a list of some supplementary readings and students can also read relevant course texts. They might conduct library research to look for books or articles about similar approaches such as life history interviews or narrative methods.
- In a discussion or a written assignment, asks students to summarize key points from this initial stage to create a context for the next stage of analysis.
- State the problem.
- Ask students to identify a problem or obstacle faced by the case author in conducting the research. Then, they can determine whether the problem relates to research design, research site, case author preparation or skills, research approach, or something outside the researcher’s control.
- One problem Bron and Thunborg (2015) discussed was that sometimes the participants “got stuck” and stopped talking (p. 7). The researchers described the strategies they used to prompt and encourage participants when this happened.
- Broaden the inquiry; research the problem.
- Ask students to compare and contrast the identified problem with issues researchers have described in other studies, texts, and readings for this course: Is the problem widespread or limited to approach portrayed in the case? Does the problem represent larger issues that other researchers need to understand and be prepared to address?
- Dig deeper into the case, including “Practical Lessons” Bron and Thunborg (2015) discussed on page 11.
- Using resources identified in the first stage of this process, students should look for other examples where interview researchers encountered reluctant or nonresponsive participants. In discussions or written assignments, they can compare and contrast the ways Bron and Thunborg (2015) handled this problem with other possible tactics.
- For an experiential activity, students can practice interviewing each other and developing ways to prompt interviewees. They could use the question central to the biographical interview study: “Would you please tell us how it happened that you began your study at [your institution]?” After the practice interviews, debrief as a class and highlight successful interview approaches.
- Offer alternative solutions and approaches to the problem.
- Working individually or in teams, encourage students to offer two or more alternative solutions for addressing the problem of nonresponsive or stalled participants. They can use what they’ve learned from reading about and discussing issues from the case, and/or practicing interview skills.
- Evaluate each alternative.
- Ask students to describe the key steps for implementation and implications for each alternative. Advise them to consider the researcher’s preparation, skills and roles, characteristics of the target population, sensitivity about the research topic and/or external factors such as interview setting or timing. Once again, encourage students to utilize course texts and other resources to support their evaluative process.
- Offer your best recommendation.
- Based on their evaluations from Step 5, offer the best recommendation for Bron and Thunborg (2015) in particular, and for interview researchers generally.
- Recommendations should note any implications for the research design, conduct, and analysis as a whole.
- Recommendations could also include suggestions for teaching or training interview researchers.
- Describe implementation.
- Summarize the likely result from using the recommended approach and strategy for overcoming any obstacles.
- Use identified obstacles, including anxiety students express about conducting their own research, as a teachable moment and basis for further practice or study.
- Finalize the case analysis.
- The final stage of case analysis process could include submission of a paper, a class presentation, or a team demonstration of interview techniques.
- If members of the class have conducted analyses of different cases, or different problems drawn from the same case, at this stage they can compare and contrast what they discovered and recommended.
This example offers a way to develop a series of assignments, individual paper or group project, based on an active analysis of a research case. The approach can be used in an online, on-ground, or blended learning course. Steps can be customized to instructional needs depending on the level of the program, and whether students are trying to simply grasp basic research concepts or preparing to conduct their own inquiries.
How have you used cases to teach research methods? Use the comment area to share your approaches or links to relevant resources.
Bron, A., & Thunborg, C. (2015). Biographical interviewing: The case of non-traditional students in higher education doi:10.4135/978144627305014549309
This post complements Janet’s presentation for the Just in Case, Just in Time: The Role of the Library in Active Learning Initiatives panel offered at the Electronic Resources & Libraries conference in Austin, Texas on April 4.