“Picture Pages, Picture Pages…”: Making Sense of Your Qualitative Data

As I work through a pile of data – interviews, documents, and yes, even some quantitative – it is slowly occurring to me that this is a lot to work through.  During the collection phase, you fret and think about what happens if a participant drops out, or if they are not forthcoming with information, or if they do not complete your post-test.  Upon completion, you sigh a big sigh of relief, and then start chugging away at what you have amassed.  As I sat with my advisor today trying to sift through mountains of qualitative data, I started to feel overwhelmed at even the shortened profiles of participants that I created.  There is a lot of information in each, and on top of that, I am looking to make connections to quantitative data in a way that shows a meaningful picture. And that’s where the white board came in…

In an hour meeting, we began the process of drawing up figures that helped to group the data together.  Because I am looking at individuals, I could create “portraits” of my subjects, the data that I collected through interviews and document analysis to create a fuller picture of each individual learner.  At first, I was skeptical of the stick figures on the board representing my pilot sample.  However, I underestimated the helpfulness of data in a visual format.  For all of my wonder at GOOD’s Infographics and the work of David McCandless, I ignored the obvious correlation to my own data.  As a researcher in the learning sciences, I understand the importance that visual learning plays in learners in formalized settings.  For my own data analysis, I found that grouping them into visual representations helped to organize my thoughts, gain more perspective into my population, and see emerging patterns and groupings that could come out of it.  With this epiphany in mind, I have gathered a few resources that are helpful when the data gets overwhelming.

Resources

  1. Concept Mapping – I have written about concept mapping before, but I must again emphasize the importance and usefulness of seeing your ideas written out in a visual, relationship-based manner.  For software and tools to get the concept map rolling, check out Webspiration, Mindmeister, and Freemind.
  2. Portraits -Professor Megan McGlinn Manfra of North Carolina State University has a terrific presentation about action research and creating “portraits” of teacher ed students who undertake action research.  While this can be translated into literal portraits or just the organization of information in a case study, I was interested in the concept and it helped me realize my objective is to see the learner as an individual case, learning and growing through the experiential learning project at hand.
  3. 15 Methods of Data Analysis in Qualitative Research – This document is a great compilation of the many methods of qualitative research.  Sometimes it is just helpful to have a listing of the tools in front of you to help organize your thoughts and ask the question “So what does my research look like?  How is this data fitting into my research question(s)?”
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