MethodSpace will explore phases of the research process throughout 2021. In the first quarter will explore design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. Of course sometimes the research design has to be revisited when circumstances change. In this post, guest contributor Louise Couceiro discusses steps she took to re-consider how to conduct a study planned before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. Find the unfolding series here.
I am a PhD student at the University of Glasgow and my research explores how children aged seven to 10 engage with collective biographies about women published since 2016. Like many researchers, the social distancing measures implemented as a result of Covid-19 required that I re-design my study. As I was unable to spend time with children in educational settings, part of my redesigned project involved using Zoom to conduct individual interviews and reading sessions. Here, I reflect upon some of the challenges of facilitating group discussions in the reading sessions and offer ten suggestions for practice.
Why Reading Sessions?
I designed this qualitative study to explore this research question: how do children aged seven to 10 respond to and engage with feminist biographical illustrated books published between 2016 and 2020? One of my supporting research aims has involved exploring how readers collaborate to make meaning of texts. As such, I organised group reading sessions, with groups of four participants taking part in two 45-minute sessions. Prior to the sessions I had conducted individual interviews with each of the participants, where we spoke about their reading habits and experiences. I had also sent each participant the same four books in the post. With close to 200 individual biographies to choose from, I invited each participant to select one biography to discuss in the reading session with the other participants. Each reading session included an icebreaker activity and participants then took turns to let the group know which biography they had chosen. We read each of the chosen biographies as a group and I had prepared some questions for discussion. I hoped that these discussions would provide an opportunity for participants to respond, talk about, and make meaning of the texts, together.
As the first reading session got underway, I felt excited and slightly apprehensive. We all sat behind our respective screens with the four books piled next to us. The setting was a far cry from what I had envisioned when I first conceived of the project. I had imagined children huddled together around tables, flicking through mountains of books, discussing various biographies and illustrations with ease and without prompt. Admittedly, this was likely an overly optimistic imagining, but the resulting reality felt like it was at the entirely opposite end of the spectrum of possibility.
The challenges of using a videoconferencing platform for exploring group interactions quickly became apparent. The conversation felt mechanical and unnatural, and my hopes of interactive exchanges slipped away in place of detached statements and an unrelenting question-answer format led by me. Serendipitous, ad-hoc conversations or engagements could not occur ‘on the side’ as they might do in face-to-face, group settings. As it was impossible to hear more than one person talking at once, turn-taking was a requirement. Although it would not have been desirable for participants to be constantly talking over one another, this type of turn-taking did incite what felt like a more contrived and mechanical structure of conversation. This was often exacerbated by the fact that it was difficult to anticipate when a participant was about to begin speaking, as nonverbal cues were not always easy to discern. I found the 45 minutes exhausting and, at times, excruciating.
Fast forward five months to the end of data gathering… The project received glowing reviews from participants, with a number of them even citing the reading sessions as their favourite part, and I had a stack of data that would enable analysis of how readers make meaning of particular biographies. ‘What a relief, but how on earth did we get here?’ I remember thinking.
It should be noted that whilst I found the first reading session to be exhausting, challenging and not at all what I was expecting, the participants’ experience may have been entirely different (and their feedback suggests that it was). Nonetheless, I realised that the reading sessions needed to be refined if I were to gain an understanding of how children collectively make meaning of these texts. Specifically, I needed to find ways of better facilitating group discussion. After planning and undertaking each reading session I committed myself to reviewing and reflecting, which in turn allowed me to make alterations in preparation for future sessions.
Suggestions for Future Practice
Based on my own reflections I have compiled ten suggestions for researchers aiming to facilitate group discussions with participants on a videoconferencing platform, such as Zoom.
- Set clear expectations for your participants. If participants know what to expect, they are less likely to feel ‘on the spot’ and might feel more confident to engage.
- Be prepared! Whilst you cannot anticipate every twist and turn that might occur, having a number of ideas or techniques up your sleeve to encourage group interaction can be helpful.
- Consider inviting individuals who are already known to one another to participate. Of course, this will not guarantee interaction, but a greater level of familiarity might mean participants are more at ease with one another.
- Depending on your research aims, it might be worthwhile to facilitate a number of sessions so that rapport and trust can be built amongst participants.
- Always use icebreaker activities and try to include ones which involve participants calling on or working with one another.
- Remember that many of the reasons as to why facilitating group interaction can be challenging in face-to-face settings remain relevant for online spaces. Like in an in-person focus group, some participants might not be comfortable verbally expressing their thoughts. What can you do to accommodate alternative ways of communicating?
- Think about your own use of language and how this might facilitate group interaction. For example, consider asking participants if they have any questions that they would like to ask one another or try summarising what a participant has contributed and ask the rest of the group for responses in relation to this, e.g., “Noah has said that Marie Curie is inspiring. What does everyone else think?”
- Although it can feel as though silence is even more deafening on videoconferences than it is in face-to-face interactions, try to embrace it. More often than not someone will say something and, if they don’t, remember that silence is data too!
- Use the built-in features of the platform to encourage interaction, e.g., participants could use the interactive whiteboard on Zoom to create something collectively.
- One of the advantages of using a videoconferencing platform such as Zoom is that, with participant consent, you are able to record and re-watch the meetings. Not only is this an excellent tool for reviewing your own practice, but it can be helpful for observing participants – are participants more responsive to any particular types of question, for example?