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Using interviews to research education

Interviews are one of the most commonly used qualitative research methods in the sociology of education. In this post I consider some of the strengths and limitations of using interviews to research education, focussing mainly on unstructured interviews.

This post is primarily designed to get students thinking about methods in context, or ‘applied research methods’. Before reading through this students might like to brush up on methods in context by reading this introductory post. Links to other methods in context advice posts can be found at the bottom of the research methods page (link above!)

Practical issues with interviews  

Gaining access may be a problem as schools are hierarchical institutions and the lower down the hierarchy an individual is, the more permissions the interviewer will require to gain access to interview them. For example, you might require the headmaster’s permission to interview a teacher, while to interview pupils you’ll require the headmasters and their parent’s permission.

However, if you can gain consent, and get the headmaster onside, the hierarchy may make doing interviews more efficient – the headmaster can instruct teachers to release pupils from lessons to do the interviews, for example.

Interviews tend to take more time than questionnaires, and so finding the time to do the interviews may be a problem – teachers are unlikely to want to give up lesson time for interviews, and pupils are unlikely to want spend their free time in breaks or after school taking part in interviews. Where teachers are concerned, they do tend to be quite busy, so they may be reluctant to give up time in their day to do interviews.

However, if the topic is especially relevant or interesting, this will be less of a problem, and the interviewer could use incentives (rewards) to encourage respondents to take part. Group interviews would also be more time efficient.

Younger respondents tend to have more difficulty in keeping to the point, and they often pick up on unexpected details in questions, which can make interviews take longer.

Younger respondents may have a shorter attention span than adults, which means that interviews need to be kept short.

Validity issues

Students may see the interviewer as the ‘teacher in disguise’ – they may see them as part of the hierarchical structure of the institution, which could distort their responses. This could make pupils give socially desirable responses. With questions about homework, for example, students may tell the interviewer they are doing the number of hours that the school tells them they should be doing, rather than the actual number of hours they spend doing homework.

To overcome this the teacher might consider conducting interviews away from school premises and ensure that confidentiality is guaranteed.

Young people’s intellectual and linguistic skills are less developed that adults and the interviewer needs to keep in mind that:

  • They may not understand longer words or more complex sentences.
  • They may lack the language to be able to express themselves clearly
  • They may have a shorter attention span than adults
  • They may read body language different to adults

Having said all of that, younger people are probably going to be more comfortable speaking rather than reading and writing if they have poor communication skills, which means interviews are nearly always going to be a better choice than questionnaires where younger pupils are concerned.

To ensure greater validity in interviews, researchers should try to do the following:

  • Avoid using leading questions as young people are more suggestible than adults.
  • Use open ended questions
  • Not interrupt students’ responses
  • Learn to tolerate pauses while students think.
  • Avoid repeating questions, which makes students change their first answer as they think it was wrong.

Unstructured interviews may thus be more suitable than structured interviews, because they make it easier for the researcher to rephrase questions if necessary.

The location may affect the validity of responses – if a student associates school with authority, and the interview takes place in a school, then they are probably more likely to give socially desirable answers.

If the researcher is conducting interviews over several days, later respondents may get wind of the topics/ questions which may influence the responses they give.

Ethical issues

Schools and parents may object to students being interviewed about sensitive topics such as drugs or sexuality, so they may not give consent.

To overcome this the researcher might consider doing interviews with the school alongside their PSHE programme.

Interviews may be unsettling for some students – they are, after all, artificial situations. This could be especially true of group interviews, depending on who is making up the groups.

Group interviews

Peer group interviews may well be a good a choice for researchers studying topics within the sociology of education.

Advantages 

  • Group interviews can create a safe environment for pupils
  • Peer-group discussion should be something pupils are familiar with from lessons
  • Peer-support can reduce the power imbalance between interviewer and students
  • The free-flowing nature of the group interview could allow for more information to come forth.
  • The group interview also allows the researcher to observe group dynamics.
  • They are more time efficient than one on one interviews.

Disadvantages

  • Peer pressure may mean students are reluctant to be honest for fear of ridicule
  • Students may also encourage each other to exaggerate or lie for laffs.
  • Group interviews are unpredictable, and very difficult to standardise and repeat which mean they are low in validity.
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