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Understanding quantitative and qualitative methods

Let's begin this week with an overview of quantitative and qualitative research methods from Gemma Goldenberg and Dr Sam Sims.
Okay, so we’ve talked a little bit already about quantitative and qualitative research and I think it’s useful to define what those are and have a couple of examples of each. So for quantitative research clearly that’s based on quantity, so it normally involves measurements of some kind to produce numerical data and do you think it’s right to say that it aims to generalise those results, to come up with some kind of fact or scientific truth at the end of that research?
[Dr Sam Sims] I think so yeah, and this is the unique power of numbers that you can say using a statistical technique is very clearly whether the measurements that you’ve taken in one place or one set of pupils for example are representative of all pupils in the country which is really useful information to have and you can also use quantitative techniques to ask questions, not just describing the world but saying what are the causal links here, does running this for example literacy intervention with your year four class, will that cause them to improve their comprehension abilities?
[Gemma] And then, qualitative is less evaluative and a bit more descriptive, more explorative, isn’t it, so the methods you would use would be interviews or observations or open-ended questionnaires, so you’re not looking to have numerical data at the end of it or to generalise and come up with an objective truth but more of an observation or a comment on the way that things are so I’m just thinking one example, I was looking at some research about gender differences in the way that children play and so a good qualitative bit of research that I used was a long-term observational study that took place in a pre-school where the researcher had looked at the way that different children were attracted to certain kinds of toys or certain areas of the nursery, but she wasn’t measuring that, scientifically, she was more just commenting that the boys tended to play more in the outdoor and construction areas and the girls would draw more towards the creative areas and the home corner and she explored some reasons why that might be but it wasn’t a study that said, you know, this is right or this is wrong and this is how things should be done in future.
[Dr Sam Sims] Sure, yeah. I think the word you use explored is exactly right, so qualitative research is all about getting your hands dirty and exploring and trying to illuminate the phenomenon that you’re looking at, rather than saying like you could with a quantitative study that, you know, what we see here is representative of what we might see elsewhere, or that, what we see here is causing the way that children play for example. [Gemma] Yeah, it tends to be a more detailed look doesn’t it, so there tends to be a lot fewer participants in qualitative research, trying to understand individuals experiences or behaviours rather than a more general thing to focus on.
[Dr Sam Sims] Yeah, and I think in the past, there’s been a unfortunate tendency in lots of research fields including education, to see it as quantitative vs qualitative, which is unhelpful and naturally I think a bit old fashioned, and really, the two types of data add value to each other when collected in the same study, or even when you have a literature review which includes some studies based on one, and some studies based on another type or data, and there’s a brilliant example of this which is a project done in the Tamil Nadu in the south of India where, it’s not an education study, but I think it’s it’s illuminating for what we’re talking about, and the intervention was based on delivering a mixed program of healthcare, and feeding advice to mothers with newborns and the aim of the program was to reduce child malnutrition.
The trial had really positive results, showed that it did cause reduction in malnutrition using quantitative data, and then the program was rolled out and expanded to Bangladesh, and they found there that the program didn’t actually have an effect on malnutrition, so then what they did is sent some qualitative researchers in to go and understand actually how could this program have been effective in Tamil Nadu, but the same program wasn’t effective in Bangladesh, and what the qualitative researchers found out by using this more exploratory illuminatory way of researching the issue was that actually in Tamil Nadu, it’s the mothers who tend to manage the household budgets and organise food purchasing whereas in Bangladesh, that wasn’t a role that was traditionally done by the mother of the household, so providing the same advice, to the same person, actually had a different effect and so you can see here how combining the quantitative and the qualitative can tell you not just if something works but how it works and that’s critical to be able to implement research in a way that actually makes a difference.
[Gemma] So if you were going to implement something in school and you might be looking at two different interventions to way of achievement in a certain area as well as measuring the impact it had on children’s test scores or however you’re going to measure achievement, also we want to be doing the qualitative part of it and interviewing children or observing the sessions, the intervention sessions and looking at exactly why that was more useful. [Dr Sam Sims] I think so yeah, if you’ve got the budget, you’ve got the time, that’s going to provide more useful information about what works than just doing one or the other.
[Gemma] And the same if we’re looking at other people’s research, ideally we want to be looking for papers that combine both methods.

Whether you’re reading existing research to apply in your classroom or you’re looking to conduct some research of your own, contemplating the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research methods is important so that you can correctly interpret what you encounter.

Last week, we encountered qualitative research. This week, as we focus on statistics and quantitative research, it’s useful to understand the differences between them.

In this video, we hear from Gemma Goldenberg and Sam Sims as they discuss the differences and uses of each.

Key learning points

  • Quantitative methods produces numerical data and aims to generalise the results to try and reach an objective truth
  • Qualitative methods produces descriptive data and aims to reach an observation on the way things are
  • It’s unhelpful to see qualitative as sitting in opposition to quantitative research but to see the two methods as adding value to each other
Once you’re ready, click ‘mark as complete’ and then click ‘Interpreting data’ to move on.
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