Below I provide an example full mark answer to a methods in context question taken from the AQA’s 2016 Specimen A-level sociology paper 7192 (1) (source below) and provide some running commentary on this model answer.
NB – I also outline why the AQA has miss-marked this exemplar… it SHOULD NOT get full marks, because IT DOES NOT do what the mark scheme says it should do to get 20/20.
However… it’s still a good answer…
Methods in Context Questions:
Methods in Context questions will ask students to evaluate the strengths and limitations of any of the six main research methods for researching a particular topic within the sociology of education, applying material from the item.
Students often struggle with these questions and so it is useful to have exemplars which demonstrate how to answer them.
Methods in Context
Read Item C below and answer the question that follows.
Investigating the influence of the family on pupils’ education
Families have an important influence on pupils’ education. For example, the family’s income may be able to pay for educational materials and experiences as well as for comfortable conditions in which to study. Similarly, parents’ own education, their child-rearing and socialisation practices, and their speech codes and cultural background can influence children’s’ attitudes to school and their ability to succeed. In all these respects, there are significant class and ethnic differences in family life and they help to explain differences in the educational experiences of different pupils.
One way of studying the influence of the family on pupils’ education is to use structured interviews. These are a good way of gathering basic data quickly. Structured interviews also allow researchers to establish patterns and make comparisons. However, they may be less useful when dealing with sensitive or private issues.
Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using structured interviews to investigate the influence of the family on pupils’ education (20).
Mark Scheme (top band only: 17-20)
Answers in this band will show accurate, conceptually detailed knowledge and sound understanding of a range of relevant material on structured interviews.
Appropriate material will be applied accurately and with sensitivity to the investigation of the specific issue of the influence of the family on pupils’ education.
Students will apply knowledge of a range of relevant strengths and limitations of using structured interviews to research issues and characteristics relating to the influence of the family on pupils’ education. These may include some of the following and/or other relevant concerns, though answers do not need to include all of these, even for full marks:
- the research characteristics of potential research subjects, eg individual pupils, parents, other relatives, teachers (eg class and ethnic differences among parents; teachers’ professionalism or attitudes towards pupils’ families)
- the research contexts and settings, eg pupils’ homes, school premises, school gates
- the sensitivity of researching influence of the family on pupils’ education, eg families’ material circumstances or child-rearing practices; eligibility for free school meals; stigmatisation; policy and resource implications for schools; parental consent).
Evaluation of the usefulness of structured interviews will be explicit and relevant. Analysis will show clear explanation. Appropriate conclusions will be drawn.
Indicative Content for the strengths and limitations of the method
Strengths and limitations of structured interviews, as applied to the particular issue in education, may include: time, cost, access, hypothesis-testing, quantitative data, factual data, correlation, reliability, sample size, representativeness, generalisability, inflexibility, superficiality, lack of validity, interviewer bias, social desirability effect, status differences, misunderstanding, ethical issues.
KT’s comments in bold and red beneath each paragraph…
Structured interviews are usually closed-ended interviews which produce reliable, quantitative data. They are relatively quick to carry out and require little training. If the school agrees to the research taking place the researcher would be able to get a large sample of pupils. However, these interviews, although preferred by positivists, are limiting because the questions are fixed. The quantitative nature of the interviews means they are ideal for examining cause and effect such as whether parent attending parents’ evening has an impact on the pupils’ education.
This is a good general introductory paragraph about structured interviews, but it’s really only a mark band level 3 response: because you could replace the phrases ‘school’ and ‘pupils’ with (for example) ‘hospitals’ and ‘patients’ and it would be saying the same thing. The same is true with the final sentence. You could say that about ‘eating 5 pieces of fruit a day’ has an impact on ‘patient recovery rates’.
This is a good example of a paragraph where the candidate may think they’ve said something at level 4 or 5, but really it’s down at level 3!
However, when asking parents about how they bring up their children there could be many problems. Most parents will not want to be thought of as bad parents who do not care about their child. These parents will want to show that they are supportive of their child. The formality of a structured interview will increase parents’ fear and this means that parents may give socially desirable answers, especially as they are face-to-face with the interviewer. They may see the interviewer as a teacher in disguise and this will further encourage choosing answers that may not reflect the true situation of their involvement in their child’s education.
This is a solid ‘mark band level 5’ paragraph – the method applied specifically to the topic under investigation.
Another problem with unstructured interviews is they are inflexible. Closed questions with limited responses will only give the options chosen by the researcher and so may miss vital aspects of home life that could have an impact on a child’s achievement such as temporary housing or domestic abuse. This is likely if the parents are working class and the sociologist is middle class and does not have experience of working class life or know the concerns or worries facing working-class families.
Not quite as solid as the first paragraph, but it does pick up on aspects of home life, so should be at least level 4.
Working-class parents may have lower levels of education and speak in restricted speech code. This means they may not understand a question or they may say something the sociologist does not understand. In a structured interview the sociologist cannot ask for clarification of what has been said. The same problem applies if the parent and the sociologist are of a different ethnic background, in this case there may also be a language barrier if the parent does not speak English or it is not their first language.
Seems like a solid level 5 paragraph again.
Many deprived pupils may have a sense of shame or stigma attached to them. Many do not claim free school meals for this reason and if they are asked about this they may not want to tell the truth. They may lie and they are more likely to lie when they do not feel relaxed or comfortable. This is much more likely in a structured interview as there is no chance to gain rapport. Since the interviewer is present there is an increased risk of social desirable answers. There may be an ethical issue of harm linked to the research due to the nature of the topic and the questions that the interviewer may ask about personal circumstances linked to the pupil’s home background.
The link to free school meals at the beginning should just about clarify this a level 5 response.
A problem with structured interviews with pupils is that most of them will be under 18. This means that they are unable to give their consent and this will cause some ethical concerns. Parents will be unlikely to give their consent because they will feel a sense of shame or they just may not want their child to be part of the research which asked them to give personal details about the parent-child relationship.
This should classify as a standard ‘level 4 response’, about pupils in general.
Structured interviews could be used with teachers to assess their views of the impact of home background. Teachers would be more likely to take part in a structured interview as they are less time consuming. As the questions would be related to children’s home backgrounds teachers may not be able to answer all the questions if they did not have all the details of a pupil’s home situation. Teachers may also give answers that suggest that achievement is linked to factors at home rather than in the school as this takes some of the pressure away from their responsibility.
A clear level 5 response… teachers not knowing about home background… one of the clearest level 5 responses in the whole essay.
The answer shows a wide range of application. Many of the points are linked explicitly to the issue of the influence of the family on pupils’ education. The answer covers a range of characteristics of research subjects; parents, pupils and teachers. There is some consideration of the school as a research setting. There are a number of points that consider the sensitivity of researching this subject and the problematic nature of the presence of the interviewer when carrying out this research.
20/20 marks awarded
This is a solid answer, HOWEVER… this SHOULD NOT get 20/20 because IT DOES NOT DRAW APPROPRIATE CONCLUSIONS. Hence as far as I can see the AQA should have awarded it a maximum of 16/20.