Written By: Sandra Mathison, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia
The smell of fall is in the air and the new academic year begins with anticipation and hope. Like every year I am preparing to meet with a new crop of graduate students in my Introduction to Qualitative Research course. For me, the challenge is to squeeze as much content and experience as I can into one short semester and I know the challenge for students is to comprehend and practice new and often quite unfamiliar research knowledge and skills.
At the beginning of each term I tell students I hope they come to appreciate the diversity and complexity of qualitative research. I tell them I hope they engage genuinely in understanding interpretive and critical research approaches on their own terms. While this may seem self-evident, it is not—the deep and usually unreflective socialization in neo-positivism that many students have requires a sort of ‘re-education’ about what counts as inquiry. But, I tell them that understanding research genres is not a religious experience, it is an intellectual one and whether they are social constructivists or neo-positivists at heart they can and should know about the complexity and beauty of social inquiry in all its manifestations.
Each term, a handful of students blossom wide-eyed into enthusiastic, albeit novice, qualitative researchers. It is exhilarating to witness the thrill of becoming a qualitative researcher and I use the strategies of teaching by example and teaching by doing to foster understanding and to awaken those nascent qualitative research proclivities.
Early in the course I introduce students to what “good” qualitative research looks like by having them read a book length research study. This is an opportunity to learn by example. The students in my class come from many disciplines—education, social work, dentistry, food science, forestry, and computer science. So choosing a single text to introduce students to the richness and complexity of qualitative research is never easy and can never fit neatly with the variety of research interests in the student group. I tend to choose a book that is about education, partly because that is what I know about, but because everyone, regardless of his or her current chosen discipline, has experience with education. No study is perfect (a good thing in terms of the teachability of a text) but I try to select works that are exemplary.
Students sometimes resist the careful critique of a book length work. They ask, “Why can’t we read articles and learn about different approaches?” This is a critical resistance to overcome. Book length research reports provide the detail, rich description, theorizing and nuance that are inevitably forsaken when researchers write within journal constraints. Students will have plenty of opportunity in other contexts to read journal articles. What is key in the context of my course is a serious, sustained and detailed engagement with all aspects of qualitative research. Choosing the text is therefore an important decision.
What makes a good teachable text for learning by example? Overall, the study needs to be well designed and executed, but not perfect. Every research study has flaws and contradictions and a teachable text has imperfections that highlight this is a productive way. It is really helpful if the text includes explicit researcher reflection on the research study and/or their role. When the subject matter or context of the research is at least a bit controversial this provides an opportunity to explore ethical issues. Currently I am using C. J. Pascoe’s Dude You’re A Fag, but over the years I have used many other texts that embody these teachable attributes. I am always looking for new options.
In one short semester I also create opportunities to learn by doing. Over decades of teaching similar courses I have tried many strategies for immersing students in the practice of qualitative research—some have worked better than others. Because no single course can adequately prepare students to be proficient researchers, I have adopted a more focused hands-on approach. There is a wide range of research methodologies, but I have distilled key data collection strategies that are fundamental to most methodologies. Qualitative researchers talk and listen to people (interviewing), watch what people do (observing), and collect human artifacts. I, therefore, focus on targeted research practice around these three strategies, building in ways for students to explore their own research interests (for example, by analyzing a cultural artifact) and to collaborate (for example, group interviewing activities).
Of course, I do much more in my course than what I have highlighted here, including explorations of philosophical foundations, introducing a wide range of research methodologies, discussing ethics both within institutional contexts and in research practice, introducing students to the basic structures of data analysis, and illustrating the complexity and potential of different forms of representation.
There is a substantial literature on teaching and learning qualitative research, a testament to the enthusiasm and thoughtfulness of those charged with the task of preparing future generations of social inquirers. A comprehensive bibliography has been compiled by Ronald Chenail and can be found at: