The Interview is one of the many useful methods in gathering qualitative data in educational research. In this post I will be looking at interview types, developing interview questions and exploring issues to consider in carrying out an interview for educational research.
Interviews can be used on their own or to support other methods of research, such as observation (Maxwell, 2013). When used with other methods of research, interviews are often quoted as offering triangulation to validate the other method(s). However, it is interesting to read the Greene (2007) argues against using triangulation, as it is overemphasised in generating any validity. Instead, Greene suggests the research views the interview and the other research method(s) as different viewpoints of the same data.
There are a number of different interview types (Turner, 2010):
- Informal Conversational Interview
- General Interviews
- Standardised Open-Ended Interviews
In an Informal Conversational Interview the interviewer relies on the interaction with the participant to generate spontaneous questions. This allows the interview to be flexible and explore different issues as they arise. However, it does mean the data is unreliable and inconsistent across interviews.
The General interview has prepared questions that are used to guide the interview and to cover the relevant topics, making it more structured than the Informal Conversational Interview. This has the benefit of a more consistent coverage of the topic across interviews and supports the interviewer through the process. However, spontaneity is lost and therefore some useful insights may be missed from the research.
The Standardised Open-Ended Interview has a specific set of questions that are discussed in every interview conducted. This does differ from a questionnaire, as all of the questions are designed to illicit open-ended responses to gather detailed information. Interviewing in this way does generate consistency across interviews and ensures all of the key aspects of the research are discussed. However, as the data collected is discursive it is difficult to code to look for themes and patterns.
When designing any questions for an interview it is good practice to ask a fact question before an open question, to help contextualise the data and put the participant at ease (Boyce and Neale, 2006). The interview questions should focus on specific events (Maxwell, 2013) and not make any assumptions of the participant’s values, thoughts and feelings (Turner, 2010).
Weiss (1994) suggests that interview questions should be presented by the interviewer in past tense, as this recalls specific memory of events. For example, what happened when you used that…? Rather than present tense, which can create a more generalised response. For example, what happens when you use…? The questions should also allow the interviewer to supplement with more probing questions (Boyce and Neale, 2006). For Example, would you give me an example of that? Or, could you explain that further?
There needs to be a consideration of who is going to carry out the interview. Interviewing is a skill and it is possible to hire professional interviewers. However, this does cost money and may not be practical for small-scale educational research. The researcher acting as the interviewer would avoid any costs, but their interest in the study may bias the data gathered.
Along with the moral dilemma of bias, there are also ethical considerations in conducting interviews. These range from the question ‘who has the power in the interview relationship?’, being honest about the where the data will be stored and presented, and the vulnerability of the interviewer. Ebbut (1981) highlights that it may not be the interviewer that has the power, as one would expect, but the interviewee. The interviewer needs the interviewee more than the other way around, and could avoid difficult questions. There is also the possibility that employment position of the interviewer could make them vulnerable if they are interviewing participants with a more senior role.
Hoinville and Jowell (1977) outline the following as suggested guidelines in conducting an interview:
- Arrange a time
- Relax the interviewee and reduce wariness
- Discuss the research and audience
- Only continue if you have been accepted as an interviewer
- Avoid long catch-all questions
- Avoid leading questions
- Use any silence effectively, let the participant think and then talk
It is always good practice to pilot the interview with a participant who is not part of the research study. A pilot interview will enable questions to be refined and an examination of potential data to be carried out, to see if there are any gaps (Turner, 2010).
Boyce, C. and Neale, P. (2006). Conducting in-depth interviews: a guide for conducting in-depth interviews for education input. Watertown, MA: Pathfinder International.
Ebbut, D. (1981). Girl’s science, boy’s science revisited. In A. Kelly (ed) The Missing Half. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Greene, J. (2007). Mixed Methods in Social Inquiry. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Hoinville, G. and Jowell, R. (1977). Survey research practice. London: Heinemann.
Maxwell, J.A. (2013). Qualitative research design: an interactive approach (3rd Ed) London: SAGE
Powney, J. and Watts, M. (1987). Interviewing in Educational Research. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Turner III, D.W. (2010). Qualitative interviewing: A practical guide. Qualitative Report, 15(3) 754-760
Weiss, R.S. (1994). Learning from strangers: the art and method of qualitative interviewing. New York: Free Press