Thinking pedagogically about qualitative research in HE

There is a growing recognition across the sector that the institutional (student or staff) survey has limitations as a single source of data.  The default method to ‘make sense of’ quantitative data seems to be the trusty focus group.   A well designed and facilitated focus group can be a useful way of gathering qualitative data to deductively investigate survey findings or for an inductive exploration of new areas of interest.  In principle, the focus group can offer the following:

  • a focus for a session, where group discussion is based on an item or experience about which all participants have some knowledge
  • an emphasis on the interaction within the group as a means of eliciting information and moving towards a consensus view

(adapted from Denscombe 2010)

Focus groups should be designed and conducted with due care and attention to the role of the moderator, the size of the group, the environment/setting, and ethical procedures for ensuring consent and confidentiality.  In addition, this blog challenges those working within HE to utilise their pedagogic knowledge to design focus groups which actively engage the participants, in the same way that we might adopt strategies for engagement in our teaching.

In a recent workshop at Edinburgh Napier University, Stella Jones-Devitt and Liz Austen discussed creative approaches to qualitative (pedagogic) research.  In this session we provided an overview of four approaches and outlined the use and purpose alongside examples and useful links.  We also designed a series of activities for those who want to engage with the practicalities of these approaches.  These overviews are available as open access resources to help others develop their research practices.  Each approach could be used within the parameters of a focus group to facilitate engagement and assist in the production of good quality qualitative data.  Click on the links below to find out more about each one:


1. Using caricature to animate creative and critical pedagogic thinking. This activity helps to support gathering evidence concerning the art of what might be possible, aiming to enable effective scenario modelling/constructing possible futures which are evidence informed.


2. Using game playing as effective pedagogic research. This activity helps to developing pedagogic opportunities that animate critical thinking processes from within a culture of experimentation and play.  The purpose is to facilitate problem-solving processes for anything from straightforward decision-making to examining complex subject matters in a variety of contexts. Game-playing aligns with the work of Vygotsky (1978) as a process exploring the zone of proximal development, in which the distance between learners’ ability to perform tasks collectively with peer support and individuals’ ability to solve problems independently is blurred and reduced, leading to increasing reciprocal autonomy.


3. Using multi-modal visual methods for storytelling. This activity helps to develop digital reflective accounts of a wide range of experiences within HE.  The purpose of this is to enable the digital capture of personal stories, controlled by the storyteller. These stories are supported by a combination of text, audio recordings, images, music and animations to create short films with duration of typically two to five minutes. Digital storytelling exists in numerous different formats, from multimedia online videos to image-only stories, podcasts or blogs entries, all of which contain some form of narrative produced and shared digitally.



4. Using integrative review for exploring complex phenomena. This activity helps to build a body of evidence from a variety of sources and test iteratively with identified expert stakeholders.  This enables the thorough exploration of complex phenomena using a critical appraisal of evidence. The process is grounded in a review of the existing evidence which is then contextualised and critiqued by an expert reference group.  This critique is also collated and analysed as data to add to the integrative review (IR).  This process may be iterative until theoretical saturation/the limits of proportionality have been reached.


Whilst exploring these creative approaches do take some time to think about data capture – do you need a note taker? how effective will an audio transcription be? Pilot sessions would also be beneficial.


Your may also be interested in “If you really have to do a survey with students, read this first” for more guidance from STEER on institutional research methodology.