In Search of Themes – Keys to Teaching Qualitative Analysis in Higher Education

By Boström, Petra K. | The Qualitative Report, May 2019 | Go to article overview

In Search of Themes – Keys to Teaching Qualitative Analysis in Higher Education


Boström, Petra K., The Qualitative Report


Introduction

In my role as student supervisor and teacher in qualitative research methods, I have noticed that students tend to struggle when reaching the phase of transforming data into a thematic structure. This becomes obvious for instance during exercises involving thematic analysis of short transcripts. Based on a research question, students search for common themes in transcripts by first identifying and labelling shorter units and then sorting them into higher order themes. This is when students start asking me questions. They might wonder how they ought to think, i.e., "What are we supposed to search for?" "How should I be thinking when I sort quotations?" "What relationships are we looking for in the text?" or sometimes even more desperately, "How are we going to find something if we don't know what we are looking for?" The need for close supervision of student projects also tends to increase during the phase when students search for themes, and students often request instant help to move on with their work.

The most commonly used qualitative methods in psychological research are thematic analysis, grounded theory, narrative analysis, discourse analysis and various forms of phenomenological analyses (Smith, 2015). These methods differ essentially in several aspects, but I would argue that there are also some common traits that could be depicted as a common craft of qualitative methods. The craft of qualitative research includes for instance skills in data collection, transcription, writing field notes and reduction of data through coding. These steps usually precede a process of reorganising data into a new structure of categories or themes that constitute the final results. I choose to call this phase of the analysis searching for themes, although I am aware that the terminology may differ between methods.

The craft of data collection, transcription and coding has been thoroughly described in the literature by Kvale and Brinkman (2014), Mishler (2003), Boyatzis (1998), and many others. However, such thorough descriptions of the transformative process of searching for themes are to my knowledge scarce. I have limited the focus to exploring teaching methods and literature on qualitative analysis in psychology - and specifically the part of the process of searching for themes in qualitative data. In my experience, there is a gap in the literature describing appropriate teaching methods for communicating the skills required. The aim of the present paper was to explore how the process of transforming codes into a thematic structure can be described and communicated through higher education teaching. The process of searching for themes involves identifying patterns in data (verbal, visual, text etc.), with or without the guidance of theory, and shaping these patterns into themes. I would say that it is an essentially creative process during which the results are being formed.

With the aim to better understand the challenges that students encounter, I sometimes return to my own experiences of learning and adopting the skills of qualitative methods. During my path through graduate and doctoral studies towards conducting my own analyses of data and finally publishing articles, I often felt uncertain and frustrated when it came to pinning down the how 's of searching for themes. There were few researchers in my department with experience in qualitative research and I found the literature either too abstract or too concrete to be helpful when trying to learn these new skills. When turning to philosophical references, I had trouble transforming those lines of thought into hands-on practice. The struggles I experienced were of course also counterbalanced by enthusiasm, curiosity and the rewards of finalising the analysis.

During the past decade, I have taught qualitative methods within the social sciences, mostly psychology, at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral level. I have continued to search for texts describing how to search for themes and how to develop teaching methods for communicating these skills. …

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