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Background to the REQUALLO project

Research methods form a compulsory element of social science disciplines such as sociology, psychology, education, health studies, anthropology and cultural studies as well as business and organisational studies. Qualitative research is a key aspect of this and has been growing in popularity and importance over the last 20 years. Many qualitative approaches, common to a wide range of disciplines, are now available and offered to students.

Qualitative research is as old a quantitative research, but was traditionally taught as a craft skill using an apprenticeship learning model. (Lave & Wenger, 1991) This model of teaching worked well in the traditional context of postgraduate study with its one-to-one supervisory relationship, but it is ill-suited to working with the larger numbers of undergraduates who now have to use the approach. Despite the recent availability of texts that examine how to analyse data generated by qualitative research they still tend to discuss this at a theoretical level. The actual techniques and process of analysis remain inscrutable and hidden.

The problem is that learning how to undertake qualitative data analysis (QDA usually involves the application of considerable interpretation by the researcher. It is thus very difficult to set down guidelines in a generalised way and difficult for learners to appreciate and apply such guidelines. It is the common experience of those teaching QDA that students find the interpretative stages, such as coding and theme development, very challenging. Two of the bidders (Gibbs in sociology, criminology and politics and Crowley in psychology and education) have found this to be an issue in their teaching of undergraduates. Indeed we have found a similar hurdle at postgraduate level. Good quality examples that show students the thinking that lies behind the analysis, that work with the same data set at all stages and show the analysis step-by-step are therefore needed. Lewins has detected a similar difficulty in those researchers attending computer assisted qualitative data analysis (CAQDAS) training sessions who are not very methodologically grounded or are novice qualitative researchers who come to a project and the use of software at same time. They find it hard to grasp the interpretative thinking involved in coding and code development and need to make progress towards thinking analytically and beyond the making of superficial descriptive explanations. In some cases they even erroneously believe that the software can do that for them.

An additional pressure is encountered in those disciplines, such as psychology, where the discipline is still dominated by quantitative approaches but where qualitative methods have recently been made compulsory and interest is growing (British Psychological Society, 2002; QAA, 2002). This not only means that students are typically ill prepared for qualitative work, but often that they apply to their analysis inappropriate ideas which they have mistakenly extrapolated from quantitative methods (Gough et al., 2003). The HE Academy Psychology working group on teaching qualitative research methods at undergraduate level has identified the need for resources (such as exemplars) to support teachers and students especially in a subject like psychology where there is a growing demand from students and professional bodies for such teaching but where staff with expertise are in short supply (Koutsopoulou et al., 2006)

From 2004-5 Gibbs and Lewins worked on an ESRC funded project (RES-333-25-0009) “Online QDA” (http://OnlineQDA.hud.ac.uk) that addressed the need for online materials for researchers learning CAQDAS. We undertook a needs analysis in which we surveyed (n=250) and interviewed (n=16) a range of qualitative researchers including many postgraduate students. (Gibbs, et al. 2005). Many of them, and especially the more recently trained who had not benefited from an apprenticeship approach to acquiring research skills, pointed to the difficulty of learning how to undertake qualitative analysis and in particular of understanding the detailed work that transforms collected data into final analysis and reports. There was a frequent request for illustrative data sets that show learners the detail of the analytic process. What our users identified was not only that for most projects a detailed analysis is not published (and therefore those new to analysis find it hard to learn about it) but also that this process involves many implicit and unstated thought processes, which may not even be recorded in researchers’ field notes and memos. These analytic activities involve the kind of interpretative and creative thought processes, associated with inductive analysis, that even the researchers themselves may not have been aware of at the time and capturing them will necessitate actually interviewing the researchers about them. This fell outside the scope of the 2004-5 Online QDA project.

References
Boyle, T. (2006) “The design and development of second generation learning objects”. Invited talk given at Ed Media 2006, World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications, Orlando, Florida, June 28 2006.
British Psychological Society (2002). Revised syllabus for the Qualifying Examination. Membership and Qualifications Board, Board of Examiners for the Qualifying Examination. Leicester: BPS.
Gibbs, G R, Taylor, C, Fielding, N and Lewins, A (2006) “Qualitative phase of the formative evaluation of learning training needs in computer assisted qualitative data analysis.” Working paper, The Research Methods Programme. [http://www.ccsr.ac.uk/methods/publications/documents/WP28.pdf Accessed 19.10.06]
Gough, B., Lawton, R., Madill, A., and Stratton, P. (2003) Guidelines for the Supervision of Undergraduate Qualitative Research in Psychology. HE Academy Psychology Subject Centre [http://www.psychology.heacademy.ac.uk/html/miniproject_details.asp?id=11 Accessed 2.3.07]
Koutsopoulou, G., Todd, Z., and Forrester, M. (2006) Teaching Qualitative Research Methods at Undergraduate Level. Survey results of current provision in UK Psychology Departments. HE Academy Psychology Report [http://www.psychology.heacademy.ac.uk/html/qual_res_methods.asp Accessed 3.3.07]
Lave, J., and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pailing, M (2002) ‘E-learning: is it really the best thing since sliced bread?’ Industrial and Commercial Training, 34(4) pp. 151-155.
QAA: Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2002). Subject benchmark statements: Academic standards – Psychology. Gloucester: QAA.

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