Conducting Qualitative Research in an LA High School, by Bernice Andrade

Not sure what research approach to use? I had the same concern when I was conducting research for the first time through the Undergraduate Research Fellows Program (URFP). As a Sociology and Chicana/o Studies double-major with a minor in Education, I had an interest in the achievement gap, which refers to the disparity in academic performance and outcomes between minority students and their white counterparts. From a student’s perspective I wanted to locate potential factors that contribute to this gap, which led me do qualitative research.

Qualitative research is used to gain an in-depth understanding of a problem or social phenomenon from the point of view of those experiencing it, by allowing them to share their perspectives, insights, and ideas. The aim is to understand the social reality of individuals by studying them in their natural setting, and allowing them to teach the researcher about their lives. Common qualitative methods include focus groups (group discussions), individual interviews, direct observation, and participant observation.

To learn more about the achievement gap, I developed a student-centered study. Through participant observation and semi-structured interviews, I learned about students’ schooling experiences as well as the positive and negative factors that shaped their academic performance and engagement in school. I recruited participants from an alternative high school in Los Angeles that is predominantly African American and Latino. Recruitment can be difficult if you do not have access to the population you want to study, but, luckily, I obtained access to this school through a UCLA service-learning course I was taking at the time. As part of this course I completed twenty-eight hours of fieldwork to practice mediation and mentor students on how to do mediation. This gave me the opportunity to talk to and interact with students before I carried out my study.

My role as a mediator helped me get to know the students on a more personal level and allowed me to become a part of the high school community. After multiple mediation sessions I noticed the students stopped seeing me as a stranger and more as someone they could confide in. As a mediator, I learned to be a more attentive listener and developed the capacity to discuss issues with sensitivity, objectivity, and confidentiality. These abilities coupled with my interpersonal skills helped me connect with the students and prepare me for the research I planned to conduct. One of the takeaways from my experience is the need to establish a positive relationship with participants beforehand. Gaining trust and convincing individuals to participate in your study is easier when you get to know more about them. Thus, collecting data qualitatively takes time.

Different methods can be used to recruit participants. It was most suitable for me to use convenience sampling, which means I interviewed students based on their availability and willingness to participate. Due to time constraints and students’ schedules, I was only able to include four students in my study. Although this is a small sample size, in qualitative research such a sample can still yield important findings. Deciding what days and time to conduct interviews may be challenging at first. I recommend developing a schedule with your participants to decide the best times to collect data. Doing this keeps you organized and helps you track your progress.

To prepare for the interviews, I formulated a list of open-ended questions that would help guide the discussion. For example, I asked students “Can you describe what a typical school day looks like for you?” and “How would you describe yourself as a student?” I noticed students had more to say on certain questions, which helped me decide which questions I did not need to ask or I needed to change. Depending on the answers they provided I saw certain themes emerge. Some questions also brought up topics I had not previously considered. In addition, the information they shared sometimes countered what I originally anticipated. This shows how interviews can take your research in different directions and it is okay for changes to occur.

How you conduct your interviews can also shape the information you collect. For instance, I found benefits in interviewing two of the students individually, and the other two students together. For each one-on-one interview I noticed the students were more open to sharing about their personal life, including very sensitive information. However, in the interview with two students I found they elaborated more on their answers. What one student did not mention, the other added. Sometimes they agreed on questions and other times they disagreed. Both methods provided me substantial insight.

Another qualitative method I used was participant observation, which requires the researcher to immerse themselves and participate within their participant’s social environment. When I visited the school I engaged in classroom activities, helped students with their school work, and interacted with students and faculty during breaks and/or lunch. This method helped me establish mutual trust and respect with the students and the school at large. The data I collected through my observations and participation in the school also helped me understand how students’ behavior and interactions aligned with the experiences and perspectives they shared with me during their interviews. This method turned out to be my favorite part of doing qualitative research because it gave me the opportunity to meet new people and learn from them. I had a great experience, and I would recommend research to anyone looking to expand their education beyond the four walls of a classroom or the pages of a book.