Qualitative Research Courses

Last week, I wrote about my struggles in getting to teach the introductory qualitative research course. These were not my struggles in teaching it. It was the about the difficulties I faced in just getting to teach it a single time. But lately I’ve been thinking about the courses we (as in just the doctoral program that exists at my university) offer in qualitative research and what I think we should be doing differently.

First, I’m not sure that we require all our doctoral students to take a qualitative research course. Don’t quote me on that. I make any student I advise take qualitative and quantitative methods courses. They might take more of one than the other (depending on their interests), but if I’m working with you then you’re gonna be taking some of both.

Second, we offer a qualitative research certificate.  To get a sense of the qualitative methods courses that are available, go here.

The Isolation of Courses

It’s interesting that I’m listed as affiliated faculty for the certificate given that I have almost no real involvement with the courses. I do qualitative research, but I don’t think that qualifies me to be an affiliate. I’m not sure if I asked to have my name there or not. Probably I OKed it. I think I might have to ask to have it taken down.

Anyways….here are the issues I see with the courses. Again, based on my limited and narrow view of the situation:

  • I don’t think we talk to each other. Do the folks who teach the introductory course (EDUC 830) talk to the folks who teach the advanced one (EDUC 868)? In my experience, no. Although to be fair I didn’t reach out and try to make this happen when I taught the intro course. We need to do this though. These two courses need to blend together in some fashion. I’m not saying that we have to have a defined syllabus for either of them. But I think it would help to know if there are core readings/assignments/expectations and what those are for both. If I’m teaching the intro, I should understand how what I am doing will serve students when they get to the next course. If you are teaching the next course, then you should be able to have reasonable expectations about what students learned in the intro one.


  • What’s going on with the rest of the courses that serve as options beyond these two? How do these courses serve the overall goal of the certificate? Most of these courses don’t have links with information about them. Many have links with basic information and no current syllabus. I’m ok with the omission of a syllabus. I don’t think they are that great anyways. But more information would be useful here about what goes on in each course. How am I supposed to advise students on what courses to take once they reach a certain point when I have very limited information?

Things I Don’t Get

While this may apply to my own institution (I don’t really know), I think it’s something that cuts across. Here’s my question: What is the point of having students write a fake research proposal in a qualitative methods course? By fake, I mean one that they likely will never use. I have heard of students having to write up research questions and then imagine where they will collect their data and what kinds of data they will collect. I am very confused by this assignment for a few reasons:

  • As a student, I think it’s difficult to write strong research questions. If I have a a class of 20-ish students, it’s impossible for me to give them good feedback to help them write high quality research questions.


  • It’s also difficult, as a student, to try to make up a fake study when you have limited to no experience doing research

That said, I don’t think the experience is invaluable, I just think it needs tweaking. I think students do need practice in thinking through research design (which could be a separate class by the way, but we don’t offer it). If we need to create fake research design experiences as part of a course then here are my thoughts (which I have never implemented):

  • Have students generate questions. This can be done in any configuration (individually, groups, pairs). It doesn’t matter what context the questions are situated in. Students will come from a variety f backgrounds and with different interests. The questions will reflect that.
  • Evaluate the questions. As the instructor, take a couple of questions. Put them on the board. Do a think aloud on them. Talk to the people who wrote them. Show students the thinking process for revising questions (and that questions do need to be revised!).
  • Have students revise their questions. First, they can do this with the group they wrote them with or with people who share their general interests. Then have them work with people from different areas. Each should talk through and give feedback on the other’s question
  • Now that we have some ok questions (I don’t think they need to be perfect), let’s take a look a some to figure out research design. Here, I might put up a question of my own or chose one that fits my own background as it might result in better modeling. Start talking about study design. From there, move into data collection. Highlight the places where your work is limited because this is a fake proposal. Show students where you are making educated guesses about how data collection would look. Again, we’re doing a think aloud here and making the process visible.
  • Next do some guided practice with the class. Get a question up on the board and, as a class, make some decisions about it. Do the exact same thing again but this time letting the students have the final say. Raise questions and highlight limitations as needed. If you need to, repeat with another question
  • Now have students get in groups, select a question, and do the process as a group. Have the groups get feedback from one other group and/or share their work with the entire class for feedback.

I like this approach better than sending students off to write up their own proposals. At the end, I would not have students write up their own proposals. I know this means that they miss out on some things (like a literature review and theory) but the point of the class is to get them up to speed on thinking about qualitative research methods.  It gets their feet wet, and it also opens them up to the idea that this work is constantly open for discussion and revision. It’s easy to do research in relative isolation. This structure sheds that AND it makes them share their work when their work is fragile and not necessarily what they would consider high quality.

And I think that’s awesome.

I think the overall process of developing a research study can be useful to students – even those in a beginning methods class – when we find ways to make the process visible and get them talking about their ideas. Doing so can help them see how any project will have strengths and limitations. It can also help them get used to talking about their ideas – particularly when they are underdeveloped – and seeing the benefits of doing so.


One Year Ago Today

Next Week: Why we need to have our doctoral students thinking about the role of technology in data collection.