Working with qualitative data

Why do we need to work with qualitative data?

As with quantitative data, qualitative data are best used for a clearly identified purpose. When we use qualitative data we are often interested in aspects of context, or the experiences, feelings and thoughts of specific individuals. Engaging with this data can help to uncover insights or perspectives in which quantitative data alone may not reveal.

For example, when we want to gain insights into how students feel about their learning in class, we might observe them and make notes about how they respond and interact, or ask them particular questions to elicit this information.   


How to collect qualitative data?

The collection of qualitative data should be guided by the question or issue you are exploring to ensure these are meaningful and relevant.

There are a variety of ways teachers might collect qualitative data. Common approaches include interviews, focus groups, observations, teacher reflections, or case studies. Additional useful information can be found in written documents such as school policies, student records, reports, and work samples.


How to analyse qualitative data?  

Analysing qualitative data involves organising, describing and interpreting them to elicit meaning. It aims to capture information about contexts or people using their own words and perspectives.  

While there are different approaches to analysing this type of data, the most common one in the school context is thematic analysis. This involves examining and identifying themes in the data.

The basic process involves identifying and grouping common ideas, and then looking for broader patterns or themes in the data. In more complex datasets, a more formal approach known as coding can be undertaken. This process is described in detail in the Moving beyond numbers: Using qualitative data online course.  

For example, after reviewing observation notes of students completing learning activities, we notice that some engage with peers to help improve their understanding, others rely solely on the teacher for assistance, whilst a third group work independently. Peer help and teacher help explain a particular kind of strategy that students use to support their learning. These ideas can be grouped together into a theme called seeking help. Independent learning is a theme on its own.

Thematic analysis can be conducted on paper using highlighters and post-it notes, or electronically using Microsoft Word and Excel.


For more rigorous learning on using qualitative data, access the following AISNSW professional learning courses:

Moving beyond numbers: Using qualitative data

Conducting interviews and focus groups

Getting ready for robust research