Data Collection Methods in Qualitative Research


Certain questions can be best answered by observing how people act or how things look.

Field Notes

Observer’s record of what he or she has seen heard, experienced, and thought about during an observation session.

Three types of field notes

  1. Field jottings – these are quick notes about something the researcher wants to write more about later.  They provide the stimulus to help researchers recall a lot of details they do not have time to write down during the observation or interview.
  2. Field diary – a personal statement of the researcher’s feelings, opinions, or perceptions about others with whom the researcher comes in contact with during the course of his or her work.
  3. Field log – is a sort of running account of how researchers plan to spend their time compared to how they actually spend it. It is, in effect, the researcher’s plan for collecting his or her data systematically.  The value of maintaining a log is that it forces the researcher to think hard about the questions he or she truly wants to be answered, the procedures to be followed, and the data really needed.

Two Kinds of Materials for Field Notes

1. Descriptive field notes – attempts to describe the setting, the people and what they do according to what the researcher observes. They include the following:

  • Portraits of the subjects – their physical appearance mannerisms, gestures, how they act, talk and so on.
  • Reconstruction of dialogue – conversations between subjects, as well as what they say to the researcher. Unique or particularly provoking statements should be quoted.
  • Description of the physical setting – a quick sketch of the room assignments, placement of materials, and so on.
  • Accounts of particular events – who was involved when, where, and how.
  • Depiction of activities – a detailed description of what happened along with the order in which it happened.
  • The observer’s behavior – the researcher’s action, dress, conversations, and so on.

2. Reflective field notes – present more of what the researcher himself or herself is thinking about as he or she does the observation. These include the following:

  • Reflections on analysis – the researcher’s speculations about what he or she is learning, ideas that are developing, patterns or connections seen, and so on.
  • Reflections on method – procedures and materials that a researcher is using in the study, comments about the design of the study, problems that are arising and so on.
  • Reflections on ethical dilemmas and conflicts – such as any concerns that arise over responsibility to subjects or value conflicts.
  • Reflections on the observer’s frame of mind – such as what the researcher is thinking as the study progresses- his or her attitudes, opinions, and beliefs- and how he/she might be affecting the study.
  • Points of clarification – notes to the researcher about things that need to be clarified, checked later, etc.


Interviews are purposeful interaction, usually between two people, focused on one person trying to get information from the other person.  It permits the researcher to obtain important data that cannot be obtained from observation.

Types of Interview Questions

  • Background or demographic questions – are routine sorts of questions about the background characteristics of the respondents. They include questions about education, previous occupation, age, income, and the like
  • Knowledge questions – are questions researchers ask to find out what factual information respondents possess.
  • Experience or behavior questions – are questions a researcher asks to find out what a respondent is currently doing or has done in the past. The intent is to elicit a description of experience, behavior, or activities that could have been observed.
  • Opinion or values question –  are questions researchers ask to find out what people think about some topic or issue.  Answers to such questions call attention to the respondents’ goals, beliefs, attitudes, or values.
  • Feelings questions – are questions a researcher asks to find out how respondents feel about things. They are directed toward the emotional responses of people to their experiences.
  • Sensory questions – are questions a researcher asks to find out what a respondent, for example, has seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched.

Introspection Methods

This covers techniques in which data collection is carried out with the mental events being investigated.

  • Think aloud techniques – are those in which subjects complete a task or solve a problem and verbalize their thought processes as they do so. The researcher collects the think-aloud protocol on tape and then analyzes it for the thinking strategies involved.
  • Anagram tasks – this is similar to Think Aloud, but the focus is on letters and words rather than numbers. An anagram is a word or phrase whose constituent parts have been rearranged.
  • Diary studies – they have been used in investigations of second language acquisition, teacher-learner interaction, teacher education, and other aspects of language learning use.
  • Stimulated recall – is a technique in which the researcher records and transcribes parts of a lesson then gets the teacher to comment on what was happening at the time that the teaching and learning took place. Such a technique can yield insights into processes of teaching and learning which would be difficult to obtain by other means.

Retrospection Methods

This pertains to the collection of data sometime after the event under investigation has taken place.

Elicitation Techniques

These techniques are used to obtain data by means of a stimulus, such as a picture, diagram, or standard test, as well as those based on a questionnaire, survey and interview data.  Examples of these are production tasks, completion tasks, among others.