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.

Tracy Saw presenting her research poster at SPSP conference

Presenting at the Society of Personality and Social Psychology’s (SPSP) annual conference, by Tracy Saw

Want to see your research come to life beyond your desktop screen? Are you eager to meet people who share the same academic interests as you? Do you love to travel? Then attending/presenting at a conference could be perfect for you!

In March of 2018, two of my fellow psychology honors students and I had the opportunity to present our honors projects at the Society of Personality and Social Psychology’s (SPSP) annual conference in Atlanta. Having been a research assistant for Dr. Tiffany Brannon, a UCLA psychology professor, in her Culture & Contact Lab since my sophomore year, I had heard about SPSP every year from Dr. Brannon and her graduate students. I never thought I would get the chance to attend the conference, let alone present a poster at SPSP as an undergraduate.

With an incredible amount of support from Dr. Brannon, three of us mustered the courage to apply for the conference. With high hopes and low expectations, we submitted our applications and were eventually all selected to present. With financial support from Dr. Brannon and the Undergraduate Research Center–Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences travel grant, the cost of attending the conference and staying at the beautiful Hyatt Regency in Atlanta (where the conference was held) were fully covered.

The conference was a three-day event, which included talks and several poster sessions. The poster sessions featured around 2000 posters displayed in the exhibit hall over the course of the convention. During each session, attendees walked around to view the different posters, learned about the latest research being conducted across the country and the world, and chatted with the researchers (who typically stood beside their posters) about their work.

Attending and presenting at the conference itself was one of the highlights of my undergraduate life. Nonetheless, it was an overwhelming experience, in terms of both preparing for the conference and trying to make the most of our time at the event. As such, I thought I would share highlights of the conference, as well as tips for anyone who might be interested in attending/presenting at a conference as an undergraduate.

Highlights of the Conference

  1. Sharing my research

While the process of creating my poster and rehearsing a cohesive description of my research was nerve-wracking, the 1.5 hours of standing in front of my poster and sharing it with other psychologists (be it undergraduates, graduate students or professors) was really fun and even exhilarating! Not only was it encouraging when people took interest in my research, but the process of answering questions and receiving feedback gave me many ideas on how to better my research question/methods moving forward. It was a great opportunity to practice my public speaking skills while learning how to present my research in a way that can be easily understood by an audience unfamiliar with my research topic.

  1. Learning about the amazing research out there (and meeting academic crushes!)

The best part about SPSP was attending the presentations about a plethora of interesting topics. I am very interested in social media research and its psychological implications but have been disappointed by the lack of literature exploring this topic. During the conference, there were two full sessions about social media, and they did not disappoint. My favorite talk was about viral altruism and discussed the rise and fall of the ALS ice bucket challenge. The talk was presented by Dr. Sander van der Linden – a psychologist whose work I’ve been a fan of since hearing about him on NPR and in TED Talks. I even got to talk to him after his presentation and ask him questions about his research. I gained a lot of knowledge that day and inspiration for future research.

  1. Career exploration (= you can do other things with research besides be a professor!)

Even though I love doing research as an undergraduate, the idea of pursuing it for the rest of my life is daunting. I had the misconception that choosing an academic path meant that one had to be a university professor and love teaching. However, SPSP opened my eyes to the different paths research can take you on. In particular, I had a great conversation with someone from the Facebook Research team who took an interest in my work and told me about the world of industry research and the possibility of working for Facebook as a researcher. For example, Facebook has an entire team that studies the formation of disaster relief/support Facebook groups, with the objective of better linking these groups up with the resources they need. It was so cool to see research being used beyond the world of academia.

Here are the top 3 pieces of advice I would give for attending and presenting at conferences:

  1. Be proactive in asking your professors/grad students/Undergraduate Research Centers for opportunities to attend and present at conferences – especially for travel grants
  2. Download the conference program beforehand and plan which talks you want to attend
  3. Reach out to the professors/attendees you want to meet in advance – they could be your future advisors in graduate school

Good luck!