Research: Lives, Longitudinal and Non Response

In early July a crack team of Student Movement staff attended the National Centre for Research Methods’ annual festival. All this week we’ll be carrying reflective articles on research in Students’ Unions from the team that attended.

A Day in the Life: Alan Roberts, Policy Development Manager, NUS

For the first in this series I’d like to focus on the idea of qualitative studies and their value – particularly in terms of longitudinal research. Robin from Lancaster focusses more on this below, so I will just foreground one example which I think we could make use of in students’ unions and nationally: A Day in the Life.

The principle is fairly simple: a researcher follows one subject for a day in their life, documenting interactions, touch points, barriers, opportunities to understand the social context of the subject and, with specific reference to longitudinal research, situating this in a point in time, with the context of that day in the foreground. This approach also used mixed media with pictures, videos and soundscapes used to draw out more texture of the experiences.

The value of this kind of study in the student movement could be to advance our understanding of inductions, of exams or any other of the myriad touch-points that our members experience.

  • What would it look like if, nationally, we followed ten students on their first day of university?
  • What is the experience of registration like, of making new friends, of trying to socialise when the music is just too loud?
  • Maybe you would match this with a generated social media experiment where nationally we used #firstdayofuni and did some narrative analysis?

Qualitative Longitudinal Research: Robin Hughes, Education Policy Adviser, Lancaster SU

“Time is often a concern, feeling pressured to complete a PhD in 3-5 years impresses on our ability to get longitudinal”

Approaching a tradition where 3-5 years seems a short time is a difficult prospect in our sector where we are built around annual cycles, staff turnover, and political demands. But the techniques and case studies exhibited in a session on QLR at the festival seemed to offer highly desirable methods and data for the SU movement, especially in understanding students and their values, how these adapt as they progress through university
and how they look back upon them.

It raised interesting questions in terms of the form our data collection happens in, and how we curate it. Speaking personally, research often feels for a specific purpose; to answer a question or win an argument that soon becomes irrelevant on its passing. Rather than collecting data on a moment and attempting to problematise it, QLR brings the idea of temporality to its forefront, considering the moment in its context amongst others.

What am I left wanting to do? As usual, more than I probably will. Creating, (and encouraging students to help co-create) a wealth of qualitative information on students at a local level that is continuously added to, and using this to understand students values in a broad sense, why they change, and what they are likely to be going forward. QLR researchers suggest moving away from entirely ‘confidential’ information and instead towards thinly anonymous data (getting the appropriate consent) that can be easily shared within the sector to provide bigger pictures.

To this effect, and drawing specifically from a presentation on “archiving childhood” interesting techniques included:

  • Micro Ethnographies – day in the life
  • ‘Favourite thing’ – discussing significant objects past and present as a means to understand changing values/priorities
  • Multimedia Scrapbooks

But even if the reality of establishing and adapting to new methods is too demanding, the point around time in research remained important; to quote from the presentation “QLR doesn’t just mean repeat interviews, it is a sensibility, a mind-set, and orientation, a foregrounding of temporality, an inspiration to remain alert to time and temporality in our research. Walker 2003”

The bias of non-response: Sam Nichols, Education Researcher, Nottingham SU

I’ve been thinking about non-response to surveys, and the way that that may influence our results, and potentially how we design future surveys and research. I know that, as a movement, we do have a tendency to see a high response rate as paramount: ‘Oh this survey had x people filling it in’, we will say, as if the number is the be-all and end-all of statistical significance. As we learnt: we can learn as much from who did fill it in as who didn’t: sometimes the experience of students speaks as much from their absence and omission as their completion.

When you look at your survey response rate do you look simply at the total – maybe at a push, you might look at the follow through from starting to the survey to finishing it; or maybe we might incentivise a particular
school, department or faculty to maximise their turn-out -or do you look beyond that. Is simple completion enough, or are you learning as much from the propensity tonot-complete as complete? Might your demographic, or academic, make-up change the way that your students are interacting with your quantitative work? Are we deeming that people who don’t fill in our surveys unimportant to us, simply
because they didn’t choose to use their time filling in that survey?

Survey response is always important, it shapes the way we think and how we start to frame an idea, but if we start to look at who isn’t filling in our surveys, do we see dragons? To put it out there, I know that I am not always the best at this: I sometimes take a non-completion, or a negative open-text comment, as a slight against my skills and experience- but, if I start to explore the experience of those students aren’t filling in my survey, for whatever reason, then I may be able to develop as a researcher. If postgrads aren’t filling in my surveys, is this simply because they are ‘hard to engage’, or is this because I am not thinking sufficiently about them, and designing research that may speak to their experience (this question can apply to any other demographic)? A sober, quite technical, lesson that speaks beyond the superficial was received.


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