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ID 2050-A13 - SOC SCI RES-IQP: Worc Tech Teacher Prep: Special Topics: Semi-Structured Interviews and Qualitative Research

This guide will provide students with relevant resources related to ID 2050-Worcester Tech Teacher Prep

Semi-structured Interviews (Assignment #4)

Assignment #4: Gauging the Impacts of Covid-19 on Education

Goal: Utilize the social science research method of conducting semi-structured interviews to learn about the impacts of Covid on the educational experiences of different individuals

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the research method of semi-structured interviews.
  • Give examples of when and how qualitative data is more appropriate than quantitative data.
  • Discuss the ethics and protocols of personal interviews.
  • Select (and justify the choice of) 2-3 people to interview.
  • Develop prompts for a semi-structured interview about the educational impacts of COVID for different audience.
  • Conduct and write up summaries of semi-structured interviews.
  • Reflect upon the stories of different individuals and how they might help you as a teacher.

Reading assignment: Considerations of 'the bigger picture' of the impact of COVID on students and teachers--

  • The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading
  • Are we at a crisis point with the public teacher workforce? Education scholars share their perspectives

With the help of Jason Cerrato--and as a class--we will learn about the social science research method of semi-structured interviews and when the technique is particularly useful. We will develop some prompts together to explore the impact of Covid-19 on the education experiences of different individuals. We will also collectively brainstorm the audiences we (as educators) would like to hear from.

Assignment: The impact of COVID on a personal level

  • Conduct and write up summaries of your semi-structured interviews of 2-3 people of your choice (~2 pages). Make sure you have a range of different individuals (e.g., not all your roommates or family members).
  • Consolidate the narratives from above (and with your reflections) into 1-2 paragraphs to include in your IQP report/ ePortfolio.

After conducting the interviews, we will share the narratives so that we can learn and reflect on those experiences together.


What is qualitative research?

From The sage handbook of qualitative data collection (Flick, 2018):

"We can identify some common features of qualitative research despite the multiplicity of approaches to qualitative research. First of all, qualitative research is approaching the world(s) ‘out there’ (instead of doing studies in specialized research settings such as laboratories). It intends to understand, describe, and sometimes explain social phenomena ‘from the inside’ in a number of different ways: First, experiences of individuals or groups are analyzed. Experiences can be related to biographical life histories or to (everyday or professional) practices; they may be addressed by analyzing everyday knowledge, accounts, and stories. Second, interactions and communications are analyzed in the making. This can be based on observing or recording practices of interacting and communicating and analyzing this material. Third, documents (texts, images, film, or sounds, and more and more digital documents) or similar traces of experiences or interactions are analyzed."

What are the objects or priorities of qualitive research? "Qualitative researchers take context and cases seriously for understanding an issue under study. A bigger part of the current qualitative research is based on case studies or a series of case studies, and often the case (its history and complexity) is an important context for understanding the issue that is studied. A major part of qualitative research is based on text and writing – from field notes and transcripts to descriptions and interpretations and finally to the presentation of the findings and of the research as a whole."

From Handbook of Qualitative Research (Denzin and Lincoln, 2011):

"Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices transform the world. They turn the world into a series of representations, including field notes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings, and memos to the self. At this level, qualitative research involves an interpretive, naturalistic approach to the world. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them (3)".

Aims of Qualitative Data Collection (Flick, 2018):

"The major aim of collecting qualitative data is to provide materials for an empirical analysis of a phenomenon that a study is about. This has less to do with finding phenomena in the field than with deciding to turn phenomena into something that we can analyze. This ‘turning’ is based on a number of decisions taken by the researchers", including a researcher's method (like surveys, interviews, of other embedded forms of  observation).

On interviewing (From Sage):

"In terms of organization, interviews range from the tightly structured format of standardized survey interviews in which questions are asked in a specific order using the same format, to semi-structured interviews, in which the organization of topics is less tightly formatted. In the semi-structured interview, the same topics form the basis for questioning, yet interviewers’ sequencing of questions is participant-led. At the other end of the spectrum from standardized or structured interviews are unstructured interviews, in which interviews are loosely formatted. Topics are participant-driven, and since the interviewer might not have a pre-formatted interview guide prior to the interview, talk is more likely to resemble everyday conversation."

"In semi-structured interviews, follow-up questions – also referred to as probes – are formulated relative to what interviewees have already said. Researchers sequence questions to generate free-ranging conversations about research topics that are directed by what participants have to say".

On the practice of interviewing--Asking questions:

"[The] literature on qualitative interviewing has proliferated lengthy lists of recommendations for both what to do and what not to do...our recommendation is that interviewers come to interviews well-prepared with respect to the topic of the interview, with a good sense of what they hope to learn from the questions they anticipate asking, and with a willingness to listen carefully and learn from participants (Jacob and Furgerson, 2012; Roulston et al., 2003).

Both novice and more experienced interviewers who talk more than they listen are likely to generate the kinds of data that they seek to find through asking leading questions and contributing their own viewpoints. These sorts of interviews jeopardize the scientific process, since they potentially provide more information about interviewers than interviewees, and inhibit participants from openly expressing their own views.

Formulating an Interview Guide (A loose script w/ themes and sequence):

"Researchers consider the topics of talk about which questions might be asked, how to sequence the questions – usually beginning with broader questions before moving to more specific questions, and formulating open, rather than closed questions. For example, if one were to examine the research topic of online learning, a broad open question asked at the beginning of the interview might be:

  • Tell me about your experiences with online delivery of course work prior to taking this course.

Potential follow-up topics might be suggested in the interview guide should participants not mention those. For example, a follow-up topic related to the question above might focus on tools used".

What makes an interview good?

"From a researcher's perspective, ‘good’ interviewing practice is commonly seen to involve:

  • appropriate preparation.
  • demonstration of respect for interviewees.
  • intensive listening by the interviewer.
  • development of thoughtful interview guides.
  • interview guides that include fewer questions.
  • formulation of short, open-ended questions,
  • flexibility on the part of the interviewer to deviate from prior plans when necessary,
  • effective use of follow-up questions to elicit extended descriptions.
  • ability to help participants tell their stories. (Please review Figure 15.1 

Flick, U. (2018). The sage handbook of qualitative data collection. SAGE Publications Ltd,

Strategies for Qualitative/ Semi-Structured Interviews

A Few General Points:

  • Stop and Think: should interviews be included in your research design?
  • Are there alternative ways of answering your research question through documentary review, observation or unobtrusive measures?
  • Be clear about the possible biases and limitations of interviews
  • The point of a qualitative interview is to let the respondent tell their own story on their own terms.
  • THIS IS NOT A SURVEY!  The guide acts as a prompt, reminding you of necessary topics to cover, questions to ask and areas to probe.  As such, it should be simple so that your primary focus can stay on the respondent.  It’s best to memorize your guide!
  • How much time will you spend with each respondent?  Adjust your guide accordingly (it may take several interviews to judge the correct length). 
  • Try out a new guide (or parts of it) on friends and get their feedback before using it in the field.

A Successful Interviewer is...

1. Knowledgeable: is thoroughly familiar with the focus of the interview; pilot interviews of the kind used in survey interviewing can be useful here.

2. Structuring: gives purpose for interview; rounds it off; asks whether interviewee has questions.

3. Clear: asks simple, easy, short questions; no jargon.

4. Gentle: lets people finish; gives them time to think; tolerates pauses.

5. Sensitive: listens attentively to what is said and how it is said; is empathetic in dealing with the interviewee. 6. Open: responds to what is important to interviewee and is flexible.

7. Steering: knows what he/she wants to find out.

8. Critical: is prepared to challenge what is said, for example, dealing with inconsistencies in interviewees’ replies.

9. Remembering: relates what is said to what has previously been said.

10. Interpreting: clarifies and extends meanings of interviewees’ statements, but without imposing meaning on them.

11. Balanced: does not talk too much, which may make the interviewee passive, and does not talk too little, which may result in the interviewee feeling he or she is not talking along the right lines.

12. Ethically sensitive: is sensitive to the ethical dimension of interviewing, ensuring the interviewee appreciates what the research is about, its purposes, and that his or her answers will be treated confidentially.

Guidelines for Developing Interview Questions 

  • Questions should be simple.  Do not ask more than one question at a time.
  • The best questions are those which elicit the longest answers from the respondent.  Do not ask questions that can be answered with one word. Don’t ask questions that require your respondents to do your analysis for you.  This is YOUR job. 
  • Likewise, do not ask for hearsay or opinions on behalf of the group they are a part of “What do people around here think of x?”  You rarely get anything interesting.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask embarrassing questions.  If you don’t ask, they won’t tell.  
  • Types of questions or other interview talk:
    • Direct questions: ‘Do you find it easy to keep smiling when serving customers?’; ‘Are you happy with the way you and your husband decide how money should be spent?’ Such questions are perhaps best left until towards the end of the interview, in order not to influence the direction of the interview too much. o Indirect questions: ‘What do most people round here think of the ways that management treats its staff?’, perhaps followed up by ‘Is that the way you feel too?’, in order to get at the individual’s own view. 
    • Structuring questions: ‘I would now like to move on to a different topic’.
    • Follow-up questions: getting the interviewee to elaborate his/her answer, such as ‘Could you say some more about that?’; ‘What do you mean by that . . .?’
    • Probing questions: following up what has been said through direct questioning.
    • Specifying questions: ‘What did you do then?’; ‘How did X react to what you said?’
  • Interpreting questions: ‘Do you mean that your leadership role has had to change from one of encouraging others to a more directive one?’; ‘Is it fair to say that what you are suggesting is that you don’t mind being friendly towards customers most of the time, but when they are unpleasant or demanding you find it more difficult?’ 

Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Interview Questions 

1. Write down the larger research questions of the study.  Outline the broad areas of knowledge that are relevant to answering these questions.  

2. Develop questions within each of these major areas, shaping them to fit particular kinds of respondents.  The goal here is to tap into their experiences and expertise.  

3. Adjust the language of the interview according to the respondent (child, professional, etc.).

4. Take care to word questions so that respondents are motivated to answer as completely and honestly as possible.

5. Ask “how” questions rather than “why” questions to get stories of process rather than acceptable “accounts” of behavior.  “How did you come to join this group . . .?”

6. Develop probes that will elicit more detailed and elaborate responses to key questions.  The more detail, the better!

7. Begin the interview with a “warm-up” question—something that the respondent can answer easily and at some length (though not too long).  It doesn’t have to pertain directly to what you are trying to find out (although it might), but this initial rapport-building will put you more at ease with one another and thus will make the rest of the interview flow more smoothly.

8. Think about the logical flow of the interview.  What topics should come first?  What follows more or less “naturally”?  This may take some adjustment after several interviews.  

9. Difficult or potentially embarrassing questions should be asked toward the end of the interview, when rapport has been established.

10. The last question should provide some closure for the interview, and leave the respondent feeling empowered, listened to, or otherwise glad that they talked to you.