Students share their perspective on undertaking a StudentShapers project within Educational research.
The educational research project we participated in
This academic year, we took part in a StudentShapers collaborative research project, which explores the views and expectations of what it means to be a university student, from the perspective of students and staff at Imperial College London. We conducted focus groups with students across various degrees and year groups, further analysing our data with NVivo 12 thematic coding. Our aims for conducting the focus groups were to create a comfortable environment, where conversation could flow and the students would be able to bounce ideas off each other.
Our reflections on the role of Researcher
As STEM students, we have largely been exposed to quantitative research, which usually involves forming a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, followed by statistical analysis of the data collected to draw conclusions about the hypothesis. An aspect that certainly differentiated qualitative research from this was the fact that there were no initial hypotheses or expectations, which we felt gave us greater freedom in the exploration of the topic. Hypotheses are data-driven and often emerge during the research process. For example, during our focus groups, the natural flow of the conversation prompted by quite open-ended questions often diverted to different subjects depending on the participants. We know that there would not be a right or wrong answer, so in this sense, qualitative research is more flexible, and our results are less precise, helping us to recognise trends rather than draw definitive conclusions.
We also felt that our roles as researchers were more important in qualitative research in the sense that our behaviour had a greater potential to impact the obtained data. This is because the researcher often actively participates in the process of qualitative data collection by interacting directly with the participants, forming an integral part of the data. We realised that there was more room for the exploration of varied approaches, with each focus group proving to be a challenge in a different way as the extent to which participants opened up was dependent on our ability to make them feel comfortable or display interest in topics they brought up. While the role of the researcher within quantitative research is also crucial, a large part of it is concentrated around the correct design and implementation of laboratory protocols, or accurate utilisation of machinery–tasks not demanding a ‘personal approach’.
The data collected is often numerical for quantitative research but non-numerical for qualitative research. Therefore, there exists differences in how the data is analysed. We found that the subjective nature of the approach makes it very difficult to analyse the data with utmost certainty of what it really means. Having taken part in the focus group discussions ourselves, it was important to keep reminding ourselves to remain objective in our data analysis. However, since the data can be interpreted in different ways depending on the researcher, each of our analyses could still differ from that of the next person. It is therefore important to come together and discuss our analyses to enhance the credibility of qualitative research.
Reliability of Qualitative Data
We began the project with an entirely open mind, so we did not have “expectations” of what qualitative research would be. Mostly it was curiosity that we felt, wanting to know what the rules and procedures were in this new way of working, especially all the ways in which reliability and repeatability could be translated. The way of assessing error and quality of research in a quantitative field seemed so intuitively simple to us, so we wanted to understand what framework was used to uphold and judge qualitative research, when that research could cover such a vast range of topics, perspectives and sources. The NVivo software and coding process surprised us quite positively – we found the various downstream data analysis functions helpful in the identification of recurrent themes within the conversation. While we feel that the coding analysis on its own would not be enough to gain a full overview of what we discovered during the project, it was certainly a valuable tool in the process.
We have also learnt a little bit more about the numerous guidelines for unbiased and ethical research. However, there is constantly the awareness that good practice is not a hard rule-book, but rather a set of principles that have to be applied and moulded to your research objective.
This StudentShapers experience gave us all an opportunity to explore work beyond our degrees, as we gained exposure to a range of new situations and processes, and acquired skills every step of the way. One of the most important skills we learnt and practised during this project was communication, with both team members, and within the focus groups. Running the focus groups themselves were a lesson in leading discussion, encouraging conversation that is open and honest, and adapting to different audiences. All the while, learning how to improve the quality of discussion and extract key themes from these open-ended meetings. We also had to update the research team throughout the process, effectively communicating our expectations and progress, so that everyone was on the same page and able to learn from each other. Reflection is another skill that we consistently practised, with time set aside for this at almost every meeting. It’s been a brilliant way to really absorb and understand the progress that each of us have made, and helped us organize and fully elaborate on our thoughts at every stage of research. The ability to be self-aware of individual behaviours and how they impacted focus group data quality, especially, was an important check in the validity of our eventual data. There are a host of other skills we have each picked up, including invaluable experience in applied coding and data analysis through the use of NVivo, and the more holistic experience in managing time as we juggled this research with our respective degree work. All of these individual developments came together to strengthen the team as a whole, and improve our collaborative work.
A partnership is defined as the coming together of two or more parties to work towards a common goal. Our StudentShapers experience has fulfilled all aspects of what a partnership is, and more. We held mutual respect for each other throughout the project with the understanding that as students, we relied on our staff partners Tiffany and Magda for guidance, while they depended on us for our ability to understand a student’s perspective more vividly.
Communication was key in this project and we felt we were able to express our opinions in a transparent manner and we were listened to without being appraised. What surprised us most from this project was that the lines normally separating student and staff members were blurred, and we were able to establish an equal relationship not based on hierarchy. We were given plenty of independence and trust in how we worked, in turn allowing us to explore the subjective nature of the topic more thoroughly, hence improving the quality of our data. Overall, we had such an enjoyable time as we were not only committed to the project and willing to help one other, but we also cared about getting to know each other beyond formalities. As the saying goes, the people make the place. But in this case, the people made the project