Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Unexpected Rewards of Qualitative Research in Assessment: A Case Example

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Unexpected Rewards of Qualitative Research in Assessment: A Case Example

Article excerpt

This paper reports on the inclusion of an oral component of assessment in science at two tertiary institutions in South Africa. The purpose of this paper is not to report on the results of the assessments conducted, but to focus on some of the unexpected rewards of conducting qualitative research in assessment. Using focus group discussions within a qualitative framework allowed me insights into the thoughts and experiences of the students and assessors, making the benefits of oral assessment apparent. These benefits included how assessment can be used as a learning opportunity, the advantages of homogeneous versus heterogeneous groups, and the benefits of face-to-face interaction, all of which led to improved relationships between students and assessors. Key Words: Action Research, Assessment, Focus Group Discussions, and Oral Assessment


I used questionnaires and focus groups of undergraduate students and assessors to evaluate oral assessment structures devised for assessment in tertiary Science in South Africa. These discussions focused on the strengths, weaknesses, and effectiveness of methods employed in the South African tertiary classroom, and sought to gauge student and assessor responses to oral assessments and mixed-mode (a combination of the oral and written modes) assessments in science.

Usually when one thinks about assessment, one immediately conjures up images of numbers, calculations, and all things quantifiable. My dilemma with this study was how to present my findings in a way that would make a tangible difference to the world of assessment. Sure, I could use statistics, graphs, t-tests, and other quantitative methods of analyses to convey my findings, but, would these findings reflect my richest source of data? Would it reflect the thoughts, feelings and opinions of all the participants in my study? Determining the success of the method of assessment used could be gained from a study of student results, scoring by the assessors, assessor bias and all the other related factors, but it would not inform me or the reader of the opinions of the participants. After all, it was the participants that had first-hand knowledge and experiences of the process under scrutiny, and in my opinion, it would be a waste to ignore this wealth of data. I therefore, had to weigh the option of qualitative against quantitative research carefully.

Qualitative or Quantitative Research?

Elliott (1991) believes that "quantitative methods, which are designed to produce aggregated data in depersonalised and decontexualised form, appear to constitute the perfect solution to the 'insider researchers' dilemma" (p. 64). The researcher is able to produce data that would be quantifiable and unbiased, as they generate "public knowledge" which de-personalises the data.

According to Colon, Taylor, and Willis (2000) qualitative research emphasizes "participant observation" whereas quantitative methods rely on the "research instrument through which measurements are made" (p. 2). Weiler (2001) adds that if teachers want "deeper understandings of their students and their learning," they will not be able to achieve this through quantitative research--they will need to be "intimately involved" in the process (p. 415). Qualitative research would provide this opportunity. As Labuschagne (2003) says, "qualitative data provide depth and detail through direct quotation and careful description of situations, events, interactions and observed behaviours" (p. 1) or what Jones (1997) describes as "empathetic understanding" (p. 3). Winter (2000) concurs that while "quantitative research limits itself to what can be measured or quantified," qualitative research "attempts to 'pick up the pieces' of the unquantifiable, personal, in depth, descriptive and social aspects of the world" (p. 8).

Denzin and Lincoln (1994) aptly noted that "qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality, the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is studied, and the situational constraints that shape inquiry" (p. …

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