Learning to be a Qualitative Researcher: Tips from the Literature

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The MethodSpace focus for August is on teaching research methods. We will follow on in September, with a focus on mentoring, supervising, and guiding researchers. You can find the whole series here, including information about the September 12 webinar,”Nurturing the Researchers of Tomorrow.” Register now and find the time in your zone here.

How do students learn to design and conduct qualitative research?

Here are a few viewpoints on ways to support student learning, gleaned from a selection of articles. As with any complex topic, this post offers a mere snapshot of perspectives offered by scholars who reflect on their own teaching or study pedagogy in the context of methods instructions. I was looking for specific, practical tips that instructors could adopt. While drawing from different disciplines, I looked for instructional ideas that are not discipline-specific. These articles focused on teaching the traditional qualitative methods that entail interviews and observations. In follow-up posts, we will explore the same questions in the context of learning to be a quantitative researcher, and in learning to use emerging and digital methods. Please note that some, but not all, of the articles in the reference list are accessible without a subscription.

Develop Skills and Knowledge Specific to Qualitative Research

To better understand ways to foster qualitative research in the management field, Cassell et al. interviewed 45 instructors, editors, professional association chairs and others with an interest in an improvement in research, quality (Cassell, Bishop, Symon, Johnson, & Buehring, 2009). This is a brief summary of their findings:

  • Skills: Participants identified four different types of procedural, how-to skills as significant regardless of the underpinning philosophical paradigm. Not surprisingly, they identified skills associated with data collection, data analysis, writing, and critique and evaluation (p. 519-520).
  • Knowledge: In order to make informed choices about the methodologies and methods appropriate for a particular study, students need a broad understanding of qualitative design options. Essential knowledge identified by research participants included “knowledge of the range of qualitative techniques available; knowledge of philosophical approaches; and an understanding of the complexities associated with conducting qualitative research” (p. 522).

Learn-by-Doing with Active Projects

After teaching qualitative research courses, Drisko conducted an interdisciplinary literature review to gain a sense of practices in use (Drisko, 2015). He deemed 10 broad topics is important to include when teaching qualitative researchers. He noted that qualitative research has a “discovery orientation,” that requires curiosity and self-awareness. It is notoriously hard to teach someone to be curious using didactic approaches to instruction. Active learning, one the other hand, allows students to experience a sense of discovery for themselves. Individual or group projects that include interview-based and participant observation-based exercises will expose students to the key questions and elements of qualitative research (Drisko, 2015, p. 313).

Stark and Watson (1999) asked their students to weigh in on what worked best in undergraduate research courses. Based on what they learned from students, they saw the need to balance how-to instruction with the chance to do interviews or observations. Instruction without practice was inadequate: “having taught the students how to do interviews, the spontaneity and “chatlike” potential of most of the interviews were strangled into a mental list of ‘do’s and don’ts’”(Stark & Watson, 1999, p. 723).

Use Class Time Wisely

Time in the face-to-face or online classroom can help meld theory and practice. Drisko points out that full-scale research projects might not fit into a semester, but as Lareau (1987) notes, even more conventional lessons can incorporate observations, interviews, and other research skill development. Lareau (1987) suggests ways that classroom activities can complement field research projects as well:

Courses should use classroom activities to develop a social context for learning. This social context of learning provides supervision in some court as they prepare to enter the field and go through the steps of a research project. In addition, the social context provides a forum for students to analyze the daily process of research. A social context also helps to transform the private process of learning field research to a more collective process. (Lareau, 1987, p. 89)

Use Extant Resources for Study and Analytic Practice

Roulston (2019) discusses an approach for using existing records as the basis for teaching and learning about methods generally, and reflexivity in particular. She offers an example based on a study of records from the 1930s Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a New Deal effort to counter the Great Depression in the United States. Materials from the FWP Former Slave Project provided the basis for comparing and contrasting interview methods then and now, as well as for understanding how historical contexts and norms influence choices made about the design and conduct of research. Roulston suggests:

For example, these records can be used by contemporary qualitative researchers—both novice and expert—to consider how historical contexts and how the race of interviewers and interviewees complicated the conduct of research at that time. When the Former Slave Project was conducted in the 1930s, fieldworkers were not called upon to examine their subject positions (i.e., such as race, gender, class, ability etc.) as they are today via the concept of researcher reflexivity. (Roulston, 2019, p. 2)

Emphasize Reflexivity

Hsiung (2008) suggests that using published works and other media can also be an effective means to begin teaching reflexivity. Hsiung defined reflexivity and described why it is important for qualitative researchers:

Reflexivity is a process that challenges the researcher to explicitly examine how his or her research agenda and assumptions, subject location(s), personal beliefs, and emotions enter into their research… Unless students are actively encouraged to be reflexive, they are unlikely to welcome the vulnerability of admitting to errors or imperfections that reflexivity requires. Thus, teaching reflexivity calls for a pedagogical design that effectively facilitates an examination of students’ experiences and ‘conceptual baggage.’” (Hsiung, 2008, p. 212).

Hsiung described one part of the process:

I select “good examples” from the data set to illustrate essential elements to qualitative interviewing including what exploring and active listening entail, how to handle sensitive issues, and how to ask specific, but open-ended questions. By comparing and contrasting the “good mistakes” and “good examples,” students learn that framing interview questions is not a purely technical skill, solely within the methodological realm. Instead, it has epistemological implications for the quality and validity of interview data. This prepares students to engage in epistemological discussions about conceptual baggage in qualitative interviewing. (Hsiung, 2008, p. 217)

Be prepared to learn when you teach!

In an article about post-qualitative inquiry, Kuby and colleagues point out that moving past methodological binaries also means moving past the binary that differentiates teaching from learning (Kuby et al., 2015). They state: “Instead of focusing on a specific teaching technique or learning engagement, we are interested instead in emergences, the forces of becoming as teachers/students teach ↔ learn from/to/with each other” (p. 3). Kuby subsequently co-edited a special issue of Qualitative Inquiry; the introduction redefines pedagogy “as something that happens as we move through the world, regardless of whether we’re in formal learning environments, informal situations, or simply in the midst of what many educators might refer to as a ‘teachable moment.’ Oftentimes…it is we, as teachers and researchers, who are the ones being taught” (Ulmer, Kuby, & Christ, 2019, p. 3). As teachers and learners, researchers and practitioners, keeping an open mind means we continue to develop our knowledge and skills.

References

Cassell, C., Bishop, V., Symon, G., Johnson, P., & Buehring, A. (2009). Learning to be a qualitative management researcher. Management Learning, 40(5), 513-533. doi:10.1177/1350507609340811

Drisko, J. W. (2015). Teaching qualitative research: Key content, course structures, and recommendations. Qualitative Social Work, 15(3), 307-321. doi:10.1177/1473325015617522

Hsiung, P.-C. (2008). Teaching reflexivity in qualitative interviewing. Teaching Sociology, 36(3), 211-226. doi:10.1177/0092055X0803600302

Kuby, C. R., Aguayo, R. C., Holloway, N., Mulligan, J., Shear, S. B., & Ward, A. (2015). Teaching, troubling, transgressing: Thinking with theory in a post-qualitative inquiry course. Qualitative Inquiry, 22(2), 140-148. doi:10.1177/1077800415617206

Roulston, K. (2019). Using archival data to examine interview methods: The case of the former slave project. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, 1609406919867003. doi:10.1177/1609406919867003

Stark, S., & Watson, K. (1999). Passionate pleas for “passion please”: Teaching for qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research, 9(6), 719-730. doi:10.1177/104973299129122234

Ulmer, J. B., Kuby, C. R., & Christ, R. C. (2019). What do pedagogies produce? Thinking/teaching qualitative inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry, 1077800419869961. doi:10.1177/1077800419869961

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