Best practice for interviews
At the root of interviewing is an interest in understanding the lived experiences of other people (Seidman, 2006). Interviews invite the participant to make sense of their own experiences and to share these experiences with the researcher. Interviews are therefore an appropriate method when researchers want to learn from and understand the experiences of others. Important educational issues facing Imperial College include the wellbeing of staff and students, and their experiences of new curricula and pedagogies such as active learning and technologically-enhanced learning. Interviews offer powerful insight into individual experiences of these issues, which can help Imperial improve overall.
If you are new to interviewing, it might seem like an unnatural situation. However, interviews are great opportunities for collecting rich data. Participants open up their lives for us to investigate. The data that emerge from interviews is qualitative, often in the form of text from interview transcripts. This data can help us to describe people, explain phenomena, and understand experiences, among other things (Jacob & Furgerson, 2012).
Even if you have experience of interviews, these tips can help you make the most out of your interview.
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Create a comfortable environment in the interview setting
Establishing an environment and setting where the participant will be comfortable is paramount to conducting a successful interview. The location of the interview itself should be comfortable for the participant (Herzog, 2012). If possible, try to conduct the interview somewhere that the participant knows well. Choose a quiet, private place (Jacob & Furgerson, 2012). For example, it would not be appropriate to conduct an interview discussing sensitive topics like a student’s sense of belonging in a very public setting like the Junior Common Room, where there is an increased chance that your interview might be overheard, and the participant may not feel comfortable to speak freely about the topic as a result (Elwood & Martin, 2000).
Establish trust and rapport with the participants
It is important that your participants feel comfortable being honest with you in their responses to your questions. When building rapport, be especially aware of your tone when you ask questions: convey that you are interested, and ask questions in a way that invites all types of responses.
To help participants feel more at ease:
- Start by asking for some background information about the participant, like where they are from, what they are studying, and other background questions that are relevant to the study (Jacob & Furgerson, 2012).
- Make yourself more relatable to the participant by sharing some personal information about yourself. For example, if a participant seems hesitant perhaps ask him or her about something that they've expressed interest in earlier in the interview. Then, you can redirect the conversation to the interview questions that you've already established.
Be cautious of “over rapport,” which happens if a participant tries to please the interviewer by saying what he or she thinks is expected of them (Grinyer & Thomas, 2012).
Follow an interview protocol
The interview protocol includes your interview questions, but it can also be much more than that (Jacob & Fuergerson, 2012). A good interview protocol will remind you to conduct proper procedures such as collecting informed consent (see below), checking that audio equipment is working and that the participant is happy to be recorded. Also, in addition to your main interview questions, the protocol could include some prompts for you to use if the participant struggles to understand the question or to provide answers, or if the participant’s responses stray from the topic. It may also include a script for you to read off to open and close the interview. You don’t always need to include all of the above on your interview protocol, but it is advised to at least have your list of interview questions written down.
Collect informed consent
Most often, this is done by providing the participant with a participant information sheet explaining the research and detailing the risks and benefits associated with their participation in the interview, and a consent form for the participant to sign which indicates that they have understood the participant information sheet and they agree to participant in the interview with you. Please consult the Imperial College London Education Ethics Review Process (EERP) webpage for resources on participant information sheets and informed consent forms.
Be an active listener
Remember to maintain eye contact to convey compassion and that you are listening (boyd, 2015). If a participant’s response seems unclear, do not be afraid to ask for clarification. Try to make the interview feel like a natural conversation. This means that you should refrain from taking too many notes during the interview. It is advisable to audio or video record the interview with the permission of the participant so that you can focus on the conversation. However, it is advisable to prepare note-taking equipment (Talmage, 2012), both as a back-up to recording equipment and to make certain key notes during the interview. These could be key conceptual ideas that spring to mind during the interview or simply points that you would like to ask more about later in the interview. You may also want to tick things off your interview protocol. Consider a backup recording option - for example, if you use an audio recorder as your primary device, consider preparing your phone or tablet to record the interview as a backup option.
Be mindful of power relations
Social roles shape the interview process (DiCicco-Bloom & Crabtree, 2006). If you are a member of staff interviewing students or colleagues, there are likely to be power relations and these may affect the interview (Wang & Yan, 2012). For example, a student you are interviewing might feel they need to give you the ‘right’ answer because you are in a position of authority in the Imperial context. Reassure participants that there are no right or wrong answers (Greene & Hogan, 2005), that their experiences are important, and that their participation is completely voluntary and that there will be absolutely no negative consequences of withdrawing from the interview. If you are interviewing students to evaluate a particular module, you may wish to emphasise that their participation in the interview will have no impact on their grades.
Consider the ethical implications of interviewing students within your class or department. It is better to have a neutral/external interviewer to interview your students instead, particularly if you are using interviews to evaluate your teaching practice or the effectiveness of your module.
Check your bias
Be careful not to let your own assumptions get in the way of their hearing perspectives or stories that you do not expect to hear (Johnson & Rowlands, 2012). Have an open mind, and pay equal attention to all of your interview participants to collect and make the most of rich data.
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