Research projects: Investigating qualities as well as quantities

Written by: Dr Andrew K Shenton | Published:
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The world of qualitative research is not one we usually tackle during secondary education, but this misses the chance to teach useful skills and knowledge, says Dr Andrew K Shenton

The world of qualitative research is one that a lot of young people do not explore until their time at university, and perhaps not even then.

The problem

Young people tend to be trained in the rudiments of formal, empirical investigation from an early age. This may involve tossing a coin, rolling a dice or twisting a spinner many times and noting the outcomes, with the frequencies ultimately presented in a table or more visually.

Another early form of data collection and analysis project may be a “traffic census”, with participants recording the numbers of vehicles of different types or cars of different colours that pass their school over a given period.

Essentially, these are basic examples of research, although the students are likely to see them in these terms only with hindsight. As they mature, students may gather data in relation to questions asked in a questionnaire they have designed themselves but, even by the point they leave secondary school, many have scarcely progressed beyond the analysis of responses that amount to predictable outcomes, where answers are typically provided either numerically or via multiple-choice.

Despite the significant work in this area that has been done by Professor Mary Kellett of the Open University (and in particular her excellent 2005 book, How to Develop Children as Researchers), the world of qualitative research – which deals with matters that are not amenable to such hard and fast measurement – is one that a lot of young people do not explore until their time at university, and perhaps not even then.

Promoting qualitative inquiry

There are undoubtedly several reasons for this neglect in schools – teachers’ own lack of familiarity with the qualitative paradigm and the difficulty in imposing rigour on a form of inquiry that may seem softer than traditional research quickly spring to mind.

In contrast to quantitative data, the qualitative equivalent can seem imprecise, unwieldy and unpredictable.

Undoubtedly, investigation based on statistics is likely to come more easily to any teacher with a reasonable background in mathematics and the primary motivation for devising a quantitative research project for students may derive from the teacher’s knowledge that it encourages the execution of important mathematical skills; qualitative inquiry does not service any single curricular area as obviously.

We should not forget, though, the limitations of quantitative research. It derives its credibility from large sample sizes and, very often, students lack the resources that allow them to attract the necessary number of participants.

There are certainly sound arguments as to why we should train our students in the collection and analysis of qualitative data. They can be used to explore the experiences and ideas of people who share a highly particular context and, consequently, the number of informants can justifiably be restricted to something manageable.

Qualitative inquiry can bring to life people’s experiences through their own words in ways that figures cannot. Responses may be vivid and relatable. In short, they may strike a chord.

Moreover, not only does the work broaden youngsters’ understanding of the research landscape and the range of options available to them in scholarly investigation, it fosters skills such as categorising, comparing, summarising and drawing conclusions, alongside the promotion of abstract/critical thought more generally.

The pedagogical challenges

From a pedagogical perspective, a major challenge lies in cultivating the relevant abilities progressively, in a series of carefully conceived stages. We may begin by taking a questionnaire that a student has already designed and show how a more open-ended treatment may be applied to a particular question.

Instead of offering a set of predetermined answers and then counting the frequencies with which each emerges, we may ask the respondent to give their reaction to the question in their own language, and then model the following steps of analysis.

  1. Each response is scrutinised in turn for the concept(s) within it.
  2. Whenever a new concept is found, a new code (or label) is assigned to it.
  3. If a concept that has already been discovered re-emerges, the same code is allocated.
  4. All the data sharing the same code are brought together.
  5. A statement which summarises the data embraced by the same code is formulated.
  6. Extracts that may make insightful quotations in the final report are highlighted.
  7. Relationships between the identified concepts are investigated.
  8. The report is written in a way that combines summary statements and examples.
  9. Conclusions are drawn according to where the balance of the data would seem to lie.

For demonstration purposes, it is helpful if, in the early stages, only a single concept is apparent in each response, as this enables just one code to be attached to each contributor’s data. Physically, the grouping process can then be done easily, via a card sorting approach. Students should receive training in following the nine steps above, initially with very basic data and progressing to the use of material where an individual contribution may include several concepts.

The sophistication of the categories generated by the person and the complexity of the links they forge between them will obviously be heavily dependent on the stage of the individual’s intellectual development. Where there is great variation in the contributors of the data, the providers may also be grouped.

Extending the scope

Traditionally, the coding and categorising processes outlined above have been taught in relation to data that have been gathered first-hand for a research project. In order to convey the range of academic situations to which the skills may be applied and afford learners practice in deploying them in different contexts, students may be invited to analyse existing documents in the same way.

Social media posts and, in particular, reviews of products sold by suppliers such as Amazon often form worthwhile source material in this respect. One such activity involves asking students to conduct research that draws on Amazon reviews to determine how a pop album of the student’s choice has been received by consumers, although the item could just as easily be a book, film or television series.

Attractive possibilities emerge for extending the research, perhaps most obviously a comparison of the views of the album-buying public and the opinions of professional critics who write for newspapers, magazines or websites. Possible reasons for any significant differences can also be explored.

The fact that the work allows the learners to select a favourite album gives them some ownership of the task and stimulates motivation, but they may struggle to carry out an impartial analysis if they hold highly enthusiastic views on the item.

A student who is unable to put their personal feelings aside in order to be objective should at least be willing to acknowledge their own preconceptions. Where the chosen product has stimulated many reviews, the youngster will need to limit the material they examine by, for instance, looking only at the most recent or a small number selected at random.

An alternative may be to sample until the point of redundancy is reached, i.e. scrutiny of the reviews continues until no new concepts are seen to be emerging. Reviews are appealing in that they provide a ready source of differing shades of opinion.

While the concepts may broadly be divided into “praise” and “negatives”, there will, of course, be a range even within these divisions. Nevertheless, the problem arises that, with everyone thinking about a different product, it can be difficult for the teacher to draw strands of the work together at the end, except on a general level.

Moreover, if each student is allowed to undertake their own, unique project, differentiation can be imposed only in the most arbitrary ways and, if the reviews are so diverse that no common strands of meaning within the sample seem apparent, the category-generation process becomes hugely challenging, with the individual having to abstract to an extremely high level – a task that may be beyond the students’ cognitive abilities.

Final thoughts

Students can learn much from developing some sort of understanding of qualitative research and the skills associated with it. In addition to improving their knowledge of the subject at the heart of their investigation, they will find themselves developing ways of thinking that will serve them well in many contexts.

This transferability may be emphasised by using as raw material sources as varied as personally collected data and existing documents of a range of kinds.

Yet, all too often, the potential of qualitative inquiry goes ignored in our schools, even in the upper phases, when students of sixth form age especially could benefit significantly from approaching their subject from a different perspective, honing their current skills, acquiring new ones, and putting themselves in a position where they can begin their time at university – or indeed in employment – with a more complete appreciation of academic research and investigation.

  • Dr Andrew K Shenton is curriculum and resource support at Monkseaton High School in Whitley Bay and a former lecturer at Northumbria University. To read his previous articles for SecEd, go to


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