How to Do Qualitative SoTL Research in Six Easy Steps

Dr. Lorelli Nowell, PhD

August 2018


A thematic analysis on how qualitative analysis can be used in SoTL, whatever your approach may be

For budding SoTL (scholarship of teaching and learning) researchers, especially those who tend to work primarily with numbers, qualitative research might seem dauntingly unfamiliar. Recently, some nursing colleagues and I wrote about a step-by-step approach to a qualitative research method called thematic analysis (Nowell et al., 2017). Our article has seemed to resonate with people, so I wanted to make it accessible here. Those who are new to SoTL or new to using qualitative research in SoTL might find thematic analysis appealing due to its flexibility and adaptability (not to mention, it is easy to learn and to apply) (Braun & Clarke, 2006; King, 2004).

If you’ve had some niggling questions about teaching or learning in your work (don’t we all?), if you are thinking about applying for a University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grant (apply – there’s tons of support!), and if you have thought about using qualitative research (it can be enormously useful!), then you might want to explore this analytic method.

1. Get to know your data

Qualitative data in SoTL can take many forms. These might include (but are not limited to) data such as recorded observations (literally writing down what you see), focus groups, documents (such as journals, exams, minute papers, reflections), photographs or multimedia like presentations and online material. Interested in many different things? You can use various kinds of data in the same study. Once you’ve gathered all that you want to analyze, start reviewing it and making note of patterns.

2. Record patterns

Once you’ve become familiar with your data, you’ll begin to label (or code) the patterns you’re seeing in terms of themes or recurring issues. There are a variety of approaches you can use to code these patterns (e.g. a coding template, a coding manual, thematic networks) – the choice is yours. You just need to be consistent and use the same initial coding framework across your whole dataset.

3. Search for themes

This initial coding (step 2) will leave you with a list of codes. You can use these codes to sort the data you’ve attached to them into themes. What’s appealing about thematic analysis is that you get to decide how best to arrange these themes (e.g., as tables, templates, code manuals, mind maps). Again, you just need to be consistent across your dataset.

4. Review themes

Once you have a set of themes, you might need to refine them. For example, each theme should be specific enough to be distinct from the others, but broad enough to reflect the ideas that recur across your dataset. At the end of this step, you should have a clear sense of all your themes, how they fit together, and how they tell your dataset’s overall story.

5. Define and name themes

In this step, you will start naming your themes and talking about what makes them interesting. These names should be punchy and descriptive so that readers know what each theme is about. During this step, you might consider how each theme relates to your research questions about teaching and learning.

6. Report what you found

SoTL invites academics to share their findings with one another so that others might learn and and build upon them. With your descriptive themes, you’ll be able to write up what you’ve found and share your work. Remember to include short quotes to help readers observe the recurring nature of your themes, and also provide longer quotes to give readers a taste of your data’s richness.

In conclusion

I hope that this instructive overview of thematic analysis helps demystify how qualitative analysis can be used in SoTL. Whatever your approach, a great place to share your work is the University of Calgary’s annual Learning and Teaching Conference, and in the Postsecondary Papers on Learning and Teaching.

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Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77–101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

King, N. (2004). Using templates in the thematic analysis of text. In C. Cassell & G. Symon (Eds.), Essential guide to qualitative methods in organizational research (pp. 257–270). London, UK: Sage.

Nowell, L., Norris, J., White, D., & Moules, N. (2017). Thematic analysis: Striving to meet the trustworthiness criteria. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16, 1-13. doi:10.1177/160940691773384