Qualitative Research Skills

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ECU professor Dr. Sharon Knight, right, and alumna Karen Goble presented at the North Carolina Chapter Society for Public Health Education annual meeting in Greenville this month. As Goble's thesis director at ECU, Knight helped explain how to navigate through the mounds of data uncovered in qualitative research. (Photo by Chuck Baldwin, College of Health and Human Performance)


Real world experience enhances teaching about qualitative research

Oct. 23, 2013

By Kathy Muse
ECU News Services

Many students struggle to write a simple research paper. Change the assignment to include qualitative research methods and the task becomes even more demanding.

An East Carolina University professor aims to help students navigate through the research process by applying her own unique real world experience.

Dr. Sharon Knight, Department of Health Education and Promotion, served as a qualitative researcher on an Institute of Medicine team that managed a congressionally mandated assessment of the president's emergency plan for AIDS relief. Her experience enables her to share effective qualitative design and processes with students.

"I draw on this experience all the time," said Knight. "I express to students the importance of persistence because it can take a long time to embrace a qualitative research approach."

Qualitative interviewing gathers complex data and can yield thousands of words or hours of audio-recordings.This data is transcribed, analyzed and coded to produce a narrative of the findings. The research explores a wide range of people's perspectives and experiences. The design process for the research is not completely determined in the beginning; it is emergent and responsive to the context and participants.

On the team that assessed the president's emergency plan, Knight was central to implementing a qualitative evaluation process that produced credible findings from cross-country data collection and analysis related to the program's effects on HIV-related health issues, prevention, treatment, and care programs, health systems and impact on child health and welfare in 13 countries. Knight worked on the project from August 2010 through 2012, traveling back and forth to six countries while teaching distance education courses at ECU.

"These trips were long and exhausting.Staff could get discouraged and sometimes were not sure how they would make sense of the data collected from interviews because they had not been through the process of seeing the end," said Knight.

"All research methods are labor intensive," said Knight. The difference is when and how the labor is invested." People do not seem to like transcription from audio recordings. It can seem overwhelming to cope with all the words that are collected." The team developed an extensive audit trail (both electronic and hard copy) that chronicled all the contacts, interviews and debriefings. That trail included agenda and activity logs, analysis and interpretation notations and a codebook that fostered team members' ability to consistently label or code segments of the narrative data.

Names of participants and their countries were not divulged to protect confidentiality. "We guarded the data," said Knight. "We carried the data with us on the plane…. It was like being in the Secret Service."

Knight found the team research especially satisfying because the qualitative research was such an integral part of the undertaking. "Working with a team that had no experience with qualitative data appealed to me.It was so heartening to see them become qualitative researchers. I felt a sense of mission and a sense of commitment," said Knight.

"Being selected to serve on this team as a consultant speaks to Sharon's reputation and knowledge regarding qualitative research.  Bringing that experience and knowledge to the classroom benefits our students," said Dr. Glen Gilbert, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance where the Department of Health Education and Promotion is housed.

The techniques Knight learned as a member of the team now inform students in HLTH 6700, Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. She has shared her work with colleagues at the ECU Office for Faculty Excellence and in presentations to College of Nursing faculty and students as well.

ECU alumna Karen Goble earned a master's degree in health education and promotion, with Knight as her thesis director. Goble said that Knight shared resources gained from her personal experiences, providing multiple ways of maintaining documentation including field notes, research logs and a reflexive journal. "She helped the class develop a tool kit and audit trail to aid with our research," Goble said. "These tools help you as you navigate through your forest of data."

Goble said that Knight approaches teaching by coaching the students. "She creates a container for students to learn and discover.She asks questions and empowers you in your own discovery process," Goble said.

Goble, now director of continuing medical education at Southern Regional AHEC in Fayetteville, expects to apply what she learned about research as she moves forward in her career.

"Qualitative research is a skill set for life," she said."It teaches you to authentically listen."


The report Knight helped develop is available at

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