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Extending guidance on qualitative research

Last Friday Fiona Aubrey-Smith asked me a great question about the table that attempted to summarise the main points in some guidance that I had written for Computers & Education about qualitative research. It was great because it extended my thinking. Fiona's question was 'If you were putting another row on the table below for the 'output' of studies, what would be in it?' She went on to ask if the nature of findings and recommendations/conclusions/next steps would be different depending upon the approach taken.

Table 1 Summary of key research terms and contrasting stances

Table showing key research terminology and approaches

The lack of that final row is clearly a shortcoming of the table - and Fiona is of course correct in thinking that the 'outcomes' from quantitative and qualitative research are different.

Quantitative research is intended to be generalisable (at least to the population that the sample was claimed to be representative of). Quantitative research usually relies heavily on statistical analysis. Not withstanding claims about lies, damn lies and statistics, the outcome of statistics is a finding that a relationship (probably) exists between two or more variables. Thus, quantitative research can show that a relationship (probably) exists, but it cannot explain that relationship - it cannot answer the 'why' question.

Qualitative research on the other hand does not claim that findings are generalisable. To quote from my original paper:

There are two ways in which the findings from qualitative research may be applied across contexts. Firstly, if the research setting is similar to another setting, the findings may resonate (Kuper, Lingard, et al., 2008); they may help to highlight, illustrate or suggest explanations for phenomena in the other setting. Secondly, qualitative research can extend its relevance beyond the particular study through the development of theory (Avenier & Thomas, 2015).

(Twining et al. 2017, p.A7)

Importantly, qualitative research can attempt to answer the 'why' question.

Here is a revised version of the table, with the 'Outcomes' row added.

Table showing key research terminology and approaches plus outcomes

Both quantitative and qualitative research will often conclude that further research is needed. In the case of quantitative research this may be in order to try to address the 'why' question (using a qualitative approach). Whereas for qualitative research it may be trying to extend the contexts within which the emerging findings (explanations) seem to apply.

I have to admit that I often think that these claims for further research in education are more to do with the self-interest of academics than with the need for further research. We know a great deal about education and how it might be enhanced - the challenge is not lack of research, it is lack of the political will to implement the changes that would make education fit for purpose today (and in the future).

Related post:  Ontology, epistemology and theory - big words for simple ideas

You can download the Computers & Education paper from the OU's research repository

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