As a Ph.D. trained anthropologist, I spent many years learning how to shape individual stories and detailed observations into larger patterns that help us understand social and cultural aspects of human life. Thus, I was initially taken aback when I realized that program staff or program officers often initially think of qualitative evaluation as “just anecdotal.” Even people who want “stories” in their evaluation reports can be surprised at what is revealed through a systematic analysis of qualitative data.
Here are a few tips that can help lead to credible findings using qualitative data. Examples are drawn from my experience evaluating ATE programs.
- Organize your materials so that you can report which experiences are shared among program participants and what perceptions are unusual or unique. This may sound simple, but it takes forethought and time to provide a clear picture of the overall range and variation of participant perceptions. For example, in analyzing two focus group discussions held with the first cohort of students in an ATE program, I looked at each transcript separately to identify the program successes and challenges raised in each focus group. Comparing major themes raised by each group, I was confident when I reported that students in the program felt well prepared, although somewhat nervous about upcoming internships. On the other hand, although there were multiple joking comments about unsatisfactory classroom dynamics, I knew these were all made by one person and not taken seriously by other participants because I had assigned each participant a label and I used these labels in the focus group transcripts.
- Use several qualitative data sources to provide strength to a complex conclusion. In technical terms, this is called “triangulation.” Two common methods of triangulation are comparing information collected from people with different roles in a program and comparing what people say with what they are observed doing. In some cases, data sources converge and in some cases they diverge. In collecting early information about an ATE program, I learned how important this program is to industry stakeholders. In this situation, there was such a need for entry-level technicians that stakeholders, students, and program staff all mentioned ways that immediate job openings might have a short-term priority over continuing immediately into advanced levels in the same program.
- Think about qualitative and quantitative data together in relation to each other. Student records and participant perceptions show different things and can inform each other. For example, instructors from industry may report a cohort of students as being highly motivated and uniformly successful at the same time that institutional records show a small number of less successful students. Both pieces of the picture are important here for assessing a project’s success; one shows high level of industry enthusiasm, while the other can provide exact percentages about participant success.
The following two sources are updated classics in the fields of qualitative research and evaluation.
Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldana, J. (2014). Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice: The definitive text of qualitative inquiry frameworks and options (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.