Qualitative Research Characteristics

The key characteristics of qualitative research:

A key characteristic of qualitative research is studying behavior as it occurs naturally within the setting.  A natural setting is one that the researcher does not manipulate or control.  In Schempp’s study, the setting is the physical education classrooms in Hillcrest High School, in Hillcrest, a small rural community in the Pacific Northwest.  The physical education classrooms in the high school were natural settings because the researcher was studying the experienced physical education teacher and his ability to acquire knowledge necessary to teach.  The physical education teacher taught in the physical education classrooms, therefore making them his natural setting and thus where Schempp could naturally observe his behavior without altering or interfering with his environment.

Direct data collection is also a key characteristic of qualitative research studies; narrative data is collected over long periods of time from observations and interviews and analyzed using interpretive techniques (the researcher personally collects the data and then interprets what the data means and why).   In Schempp’s study, he collected data directly using various techniques, including nonparticipant observations, artifact and document analysis, stimulated recall using videotaped classes, and formal and informal interviews.  The physical education teacher was interviewed, as well as other school personnel (Kathy, students, teachers, administrators).  Field notes were recorded during and after observations and a summary statement was made off site after each day of data collection.  Direct data collection is important in qualitative research studies because by observing naturally occurring behavior over many hours or days, the researcher hopes to obtain a rich understanding of the phenomenon being studied.  Schempp spent about four months observing the physical education teacher (daily for the first month and then on average twice a week after that); this significant amount of time makes it more likely that his data will be valid and credible.

A key characteristic of qualitative research studies is having rich narrative descriptions; the reader needs to understand the context of the study in detail in order to better understand the phenomena being studied.  In Schempp’s study, he describes the setting in detail, including the type of community (rural, small) as well as detailed information regarding the school’s history of educational excellence and to what extend physical education classes are required for the students.  The study also specifies the content of the physical education teacher’s classes and their specific curriculum (gymnastics, outdoor education, etc).  Schempp gives a detailed description of the physical education teacher, including the number of years of experience, his routines in the classroom, the daily schedule (take attendance, begin warm up exercises, etc), and his teaching behavior (well-rehearsed, time-worn rituals).  This detail gives the reader an idea of the participant and the environment in which he interacts and provides in-depth understanding of contexts and behaviors (can picture it in your head). 

Process orientation is also a key characteristic of qualitative research studies.  Process orientation focuses on why and how behaviors occur.  In Schempp’s study, the physical education teacher, from years of contact with many sources of occupationally useful information, seemed to have a clear sense of both the expectations others held for him and his own purpose for being in the school.  After years of service, the physical education teacher had a well developed set of criteria to guide his acquisition of occupational knowledge.  These criteria allowed him to identify gaps in his knowledge and to assess new knowledge in light of its potential contribution to his teaching.  Because the teacher acquired new knowledge based on his experiences, interests, values, beliefs, and orientations, his professional knowledge appeared personal and idiosyncratic.  In other words, the teacher taught the way he did because after years of experience, he was set in his ways and therefore taught the curriculum of his classes according to his knowledge base and perhaps personal preferences.

Another key characteristic of qualitative research studies is inductive data analysis; generalizations induced from synthesizing gathered information.  Once data is collected and summarized, the researcher looks for relationships among the categories and patterns that suggest generalizations, models, and conclusions. Based on the data collected, the researcher interprets the findings.   In Schempp’s study, he found that the physical education teacher had constructed a comfortable set of criteria for evaluating and selecting knowledge necessary for his day-to-day classroom operation.  In other words, the teacher increased his knowledge base based on his interests and what he needed to know in order to instruct his class.  The researcher generalized that the teacher was set in his ways after many years of teaching and therefore expanded his knowledge base primarily for his own educational benefit (what he was interested in that also fit into the class’s curriculum requirements).  Though the teacher was set in his ways, he did acquire knowledge necessary to teach. The researcher did find that classroom order and operation held the highest priority in the teacher’s knowledge; subject matter was chosen based on his personal interests and workplace conditions.  

Participant perspectives (focus on participant’s understanding and meaning) is a key characteristic of qualitative research studies. Participant perspectives are important because each participant could understand things differently and do things differently than another because there are multiple realities.  In order for a researcher to obtain a valid participant perspective, they must develop a long-term and trusting relationship with the participants.  Schempp collected data from students, teachers, and administrators to obtain multiple perspectives regarding the physical education teacher’s ability to acquire new knowledge necessary to teach his classes.  Schempp also developed a relationship with the teacher by observing him for a long period of time (one year) and building an open relationship with him.  When a trusting relationship is build, the participants may be more likely to be “themselves”, thereby increasing the validity of your data and findings.

A key characteristic of qualitative research studies is emergent research designs; the research design evolves and changes as the study takes place.  In Schempp’s study, the research design changed in the sense that the researcher observed daily for a month and then only twice a week for the rest of the study length.  Schempp analyzed data during the study, which allowed data collection techniques to be tailored to gather data that were amenable to testing and understanding the emerging themes (techniques included triangulation of methods, member checks, etc).  The overall data collected showed that little changed in the observable practices of Bob’s day-to-day activities as a teacher and he became predictable in his course of action.  The study did state that the students and staff underestimated how much the teacher screened and reviewed information pertaining to increasing his knowledge base for the class.

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One Response to “Qualitative Research Characteristics”

  1. Susanne Says:

    I like the insight displayed when you write, “Because the teacher acquired new knowledge based on his experiences, interests, values, beliefs, and orientations, his professional knowledge appeared personal and idiosyncratic.” The core of qualitative research is the situated and contextual nature of knowledge and action; you have hit on it quite well here. :)

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