Qualitative Research In Education


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Mertens Gallaudet University. Miles, A. Denzin and Michael D. Loya, editors.

Qualitative Research Issues and Methods: an Introduction for Educational Technologists

Eisner ; foreword by Nel Noddings ; prologue by P. McCleary, editors. Jankowski, David W. Marshall, editors. Merriam, Elizabeth J. Dixson University of illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Educational research

Ravitch, Matthew Riggan. Education databases ERIC [electronic resource] : the educational resources information center. Bibliographic database of educational resources including articles, reports, and curriculum. Education full text [electronic resource]. Indexes and abstracts articles of English-language periodicals and books on education from on.

In this article, I provide an overview of the assumptions underlying qualitative research and the role of the researcher in the qualitative process. I then go on to discuss the type of research objectives which are common in qualitative research, then introduce the main qualitative designs, data collection tools, and finally the basics of qualitative analysis.

Overview of Qualitative Research Methods

I introduce the criteria by which you can judge the quality of qualitative research. Many classic references are cited in this article, and I urge you to seek out some of these further reading to inform your qualitative research program. They encompass more than just data collection methodologies [ 1 ].

If You're an Educator

It is easy to assume that the differences between quantitative and qualitative research are solely about how data is collected—the randomized controlled trial versus ethnographic fieldwork, the cohort study versus the semi-structured interview. Why is it important to understand differences in assumptions, or philosophies, of research? Why not just go ahead and do a survey or carry out some interviews? First, the assumptions behind the research tools you choose provide guidance for conducting your research. They indicate whether you should be an objective observer or whether you have a contributory role in the research process.

They guide whether or not you must slavishly ask each person in a study the same questions or whether your questions can evolve as the study progresses. Second, you may wish to submit your work as a dissertation or as a research paper to be considered for publication in a journal. If so, the chances are that examiners, editors, and reviewers might have knowledge of different research philosophies from yours and may be unwilling to accept the legitimacy of your approach unless you can make its assumptions clear.

Third, each research paradigm has its own norms and standards, its accepted ways of doing things. Finally, understanding the theoretical assumptions of the research approach helps you recognize what the data collection and analysis methods you are working with do well and what they do less well, and lets you design your research to take full advantage of their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. In this short article, I will introduce the assumptions of qualitative research and their implications for research questions, study design, methods and tools, and analysis and interpretation.

Readers who wish a comparison between qualitative and quantitative approaches may find Cleland [ 4 ] useful. We start with a consideration of the ontology assumptions about the nature of reality and epistemology assumptions about the nature of knowledge of qualitative research. Qualitative research approaches are used to understand everyday human experience in all its complexity and in all its natural settings [ 5 ]. To do this, qualitative research conforms to notions that reality is socially constructed and that inquiry is unavoidably value-laden [ 6 ].

The first of these, reality is socially constructed, means reality cannot be measured directly—it exists as perceived by people and by the observer.

In other words, reality is relative and multiple, perceived through socially constructed and subjective interpretations [ 7 ]. For example, what I see as an exciting event may be seen as a threat by other people. What is considered a cultural ritual in my country may be thought of as quite bizarre elsewhere. Qualitative research is concerned with how the social world is interpreted, understood, experienced, or constructed. Mann and MacLeod [ 8 ] provide a very good overview of social constructivism which is a excellent starting point for understanding this.

The idea of people seeing things in diverse ways also holds true in research process, hence inquiry being valued-laden. Different people have different views of the same thing depending on their upbringing and other experiences, their training, and professional background.

If You're an Educator

A woman may see things differently to a man. A more experienced researcher will see things differently from a novice. All these viewpoints are valid. Moreover, different researchers can study the same topic and try to find solutions to the same challenges using different study designs—and hence come up with different interpretations and different recommendations. For example, if your position is that learning is about individual, cognitive, and acquisitive processes, then you are likely to research the use of simulation training in surgery in terms of the effectiveness and efficacy of training related to mastery of technical skills [ 9 , 10 ].

However, if your stance is that learning is inherently a social activity, one which involves interactions between people or groups of people, then you will look to see how the relationships between faculty members, participants and activities during a simulation, and the wider social and cultural context, influence learning [ 11 , 12 ]. Whether researchers are explicit about it or not, ontological and epistemological assumptions will underpin how they study aspects of teaching and learning.

Differences in these assumptions shape not only study design, but also what emerges as data, how this data can be analysed and even the conclusions that can be drawn and recommendations that can be made from the study.


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There is increasing expectation that researchers make their worldview explicit in research papers. Common verbs in qualitative research questions are identify, explore, describe, understand, and explain. If your research question includes words like test or measure or compare in your objectives, these are more appropriate for quantitative methods, as they are better suited to these types of aims. Bezuidenhout and van Schalkwyk [ 16 ] provide a good guide to developing and refining your research question.

Do not think formulating a research question is easy. Theory can be applied to qualitative studies at different times during the research process, from the selection of the research phenomenon to the write-up of the results. The application of theory at different points can be described as follows [ 19 , 20 , 21 ]: 1 Theory frames the study questions, develops the philosophical underpinnings of the study, and makes assumptions to justify or rationalize the methodological approach.

Schwartz-Barcott et al. Thus, theory can be the outcome of the research project as well as the starting point [ 22 ]. However, the emerging qualitative researcher may wish a little more direction on how to use theory in practice. I direct you to two papers: Reeves et al.

Different frameworks will emphasise different variables and outcomes.

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"In Search of Themes – Keys to Teaching Qualitative Analysis in Higher " by Petra K. Boström

Other authors suggest that two theories are potentially better than one in exploring complex social issues [ 25 ]. There is an example of this in one of my papers, where we used the theories of Bourdieu [ 26 ] and Engestrom [ 27 , 28 ] nested within an overarching framework of complexity theory [ 29 ] to help us understand learning at a surgical bootcamp. However, I suggest that for focused studies and emerging educational researchers, one theoretical framework or lens is probably sufficient.

So how to identify an appropriate theory, and when to use it? It is crucially important to read widely, to explore lots of theories, from disciplines such as but not only education, psychology, sociology, and economics, to see what theory is available and what may be suitable for your study.

Carefully consider any theory, check its assumptions [ 30 ] are congruent with your approach, question, and context before final selection [ 31 ] before deciding which theory to use. The time you spend exploring theory will be time well spent in terms not just of interpreting a specific data set but also to broadening your knowledge. The second question, when to use it, depends on the nature of the study, but generally the use of theory in qualitative research tends to be inductive; that is, building explanations from the ground up, based on what is discovered.

This typically means that theory is brought in at the analysis stage, as a lens to interpret data. In the qualitative approach, the activities of collecting and analyzing data, developing and modifying theory, and elaborating or refocusing the research questions, are usually going on more or less simultaneously, each influencing all of the others for a useful model of qualitative research design [ 18 ]. The researcher may need to reconsider or modify any design decision during the study in response to new developments.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods in Education

In this way, qualitative research design is less linear than quantitative research, which is much more step-wise and fixed. This is not the same as no structure or plan. Most qualitative projects are pre-structured at least in terms of the equivalent of a research protocol, setting out what you are doing aims and objectives , why why is this important , and how theoretical underpinning, design, methods, and analysis. I have provided a brief overview of common approaches to qualitative research design below and direct you to the numerous excellent textbooks which go into this in more detail [ 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 ].

There are five basic categories of qualitative research design: ethnography, narrative, phenomenological, grounded theory, and case study [ 13 , 32 ].


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Ethnography has its roots in cultural anthropology where researchers immerse themselves within a culture, often for years.

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