Overview of Qualitative Methods
and Analytic Techniques

Chapter 3
Common Qualitative Methods

In this chapter we describe and compare the most common qualitative methods employed in project evaluations.3 These include observations, indepth interviews, and focus groups. We also cover briefly some other less frequently used qualitative techniques. Advantages and disadvantages are summarized. For those readers interested in learning more about qualitative data collection methods, a list of recommended readings is provided.

3 Information on common qualitative methods is provided in the earlier User-Friendly Handbook for Project Evaluation (NSF 93-152).


Observational techniques are methods by which an individual or individuals gather firsthand data on programs, processes, or behaviors being studied. They provide evaluators with an opportunity to collect data on a wide range of behaviors, to capture a great variety of interactions, and to openly explore the evaluation topic. By directly observing operations and activities, the evaluator can develop a holistic perspective, i.e., an understanding of the context within which the project operates. This may be especially important where it is not the event that is of interest, but rather how that event may fit into, or be impacted by, a sequence of events. Observational approaches also allow the evaluator to learn about things the participants or staff may be unaware of or that they are unwilling or unable to discuss in an interview or focus group.

When to use observations. Observations can be useful during both the formative and summative phases of evaluation. For example, during the formative phase, observations can be useful in determining whether or not the project is being delivered and operated as planned. In the hypothetical project, observations could be used to describe the faculty development sessions, examining the extent to which participants understand the concepts, ask the right questions, and are engaged in appropriate interactions. Such formative observations could also provide valuable insights into the teaching styles of the presenters and how they are covering the material.

Exhibit 3.
Advantages and disadvantages of observations
Provide direct information about behavior of individuals and groups

Permit evaluator to enter into and understand situation/context

Provide good opportunities for identifying unanticipated outcomes

Exist in natural, unstructured, and flexible setting

Expensive and time consuming

Need well-qualified, highly trained observers; may need to be content experts

May affect behavior of participants

Selective perception of observer may distort data

Investigator has little control over situation

Behavior or set of behaviors observed may be atypical

Observations during the summative phase of evaluation can be used to determine whether or not the project is successful. The technique would be especially useful in directly examining teaching methods employed by the faculty in their own classes after program participation. Exhibits 3 and 4 display the advantages and disadvantages of observations as a data collection tool and some common types of data that are readily collected by observation.

Readers familiar with survey techniques may justifiably point out that surveys can address these same questions and do so in a less costly fashion. Critics of surveys find them suspect because of their reliance on self-report, which may not provide an accurate picture of what is happening because of the tendency, intentional or not, to try to give the "right answer." Surveys also cannot tap into the contextual element. Proponents of surveys counter that properly constructed surveys with built in checks and balances can overcome these problems and provide highly credible data. This frequently debated issue is best decided on a case-by-case basis.


Recording Observational Data

Observations are carried out using a carefully developed set of steps and instruments. The observer is more than just an onlooker, but rather comes to the scene with a set of target concepts, definitions, and criteria for describing events. While in some studies observers may simply record and describe, in the majority of evaluations, their descriptions are, or eventually will be, judged against a continuum of expectations.

Observations usually are guided by a structured protocol. The protocol can take a variety of forms, ranging from the request for a narrative describing events seen to a checklist or a rating scale of specific behaviors/activities that address the evaluation question of interest. The use of a protocol helps assure that all observers are gathering the pertinent information and, with appropriate training, applying the same criteria in the evaluation. For example, if, as described earlier, an observational approach is selected to gather data on the faculty training sessions, the instrument developed would explicitly guide the observer to examine the kinds of activities in which participants were interacting, the role(s) of the trainers and the participants, the types of materials provided and used, the opportunity for hands-on interaction, etc. (See Appendix A to this chapter for an example of observational protocol that could be applied to the hypothetical project.)

Exhibit 4.
Types of information for which observations are a good source
The setting - The physical environment within which the project takes place.
The human, social environment - The ways in which all actors (staff, participants, others) interact and behave toward each other.
Project implementation activities - What goes on in the life of the project? What do various actors (staff, participants, others) actually do? How are resources allocated?
The native language of the program - Different organizations and agencies have their own language or jargon to describe the problems they deal with in their work; capturing the precise language of all participants is an important way to record how staff and participants understand their experiences.
Nonverbal communication - Nonverbal cues about what is happening in the project: on the way all participants dress, express opinions, physically space themselves during discussions, and arrange themselves in their physical setting.
Notable nonoccurrences - Determining what is not occurring although the expectation is that it should be occurring as planned by the project team, or noting the absence of some particular activity/factor that is noteworthy and would serve as added information.


The protocol goes beyond a recording of events, i.e., use of identified materials, and provides an overall context for the data. The protocol should prompt the observer to

Field notes are frequently used to provide more indepth background or to help the observer remember salient events if a form is not completed at the time of observation. Field notes contain the description of what has been observed. The descriptions must be factual, accurate, and thorough without being judgmental and cluttered by trivia. The date and time of the observation should be recorded, and everything that the observer believes to be worth noting should be included. No information should be trusted to future recall.

The use of technological tools, such as battery-operated tape recorder or dictaphone, laptop computer, camera, and video camera, can make the collection of field notes more efficient and the notes themselves more comprehensive. Informed consent must be obtained from participants before any observational data are gathered.


The Role of the Observer

There are various methods for gathering observational data, depending on the nature of a given project. The most fundamental distinction between various observational strategies concerns the extent to which the observer will be a participant in the setting being studied. The extent of participation is a continuum that varies from complete involvement in the setting as a full participant to complete separation from the setting as an outside observer or spectator. The participant observer is fully engaged in experiencing the project setting while at the same time trying to understand that setting through personal experience, observations, and interactions and discussions with other participants. The outside observer stands apart from the setting, attempts to be nonintrusive, and assumes the role of a "fly-on-the-wall." The extent to which full participation is possible and desirable will depend on the nature of the project and its participants, the political and social context, the nature of the evaluation questions being asked, and the resources available. "The ideal is to negotiate and adopt that degree of participation that will yield the most meaningful data about the program given the characteristics of the participants, the nature of staff-participant interactions, and the sociopolitical context of the program" (Patton, 1990).

In some cases it may be beneficial to have two people observing at the same time. This can increase the quality of the data by providing a larger volume of data and by decreasing the influence of observer bias. However, in addition to the added cost, the presence of two observers may create an environment threatening to those being observed and cause them to change their behavior. Studies using observation typically employ intensive training experiences to make sure that the observer or observers know what to look for and can, to the extent possible, operate in an unbiased manner. In long or complicated studies, it is useful to check on an observer’s performance periodically to make sure that accuracy is being maintained. The issue of training is a critical one and may make the difference between a defensible study and what can be challenged as "one person’s perspective."

A special issue with regard to observations relates to the amount of observation needed. While in participant observation this may be a moot point (except with regard to data recording), when an outside observer is used, the question of "how much" becomes very important. While most people agree that one observation (a single hour of a training session or one class period of instruction) is not enough, there is no hard and fast rule regarding how many samples need to be drawn. General tips to consider are to avoid atypical situations, carry out observations more than one time, and (where possible and relevant) spread the observations out over time.

Participant observation is often difficult to incorporate in evaluations; therefore, the use of outside observers is far more common. In the hypothetical project, observations might be scheduled for all training sessions and for a sample of classrooms, including some where faculty members who participated in training were teaching and some staffed by teachers who had not participated in the training.

Issues of privacy and access. Observational techniques are perhaps the most privacy-threatening data collection technique for staff and, to a lesser extent, participants. Staff fear that the data may be included in their performance evaluations and may have effects on their careers. Participants may also feel uncomfortable assuming that they are being judged. Evaluators need to assure everyone that evaluations of performance are not the purpose of the effort, and that no such reports will result from the observations. Additionally, because most educational settings are subject to a constant flow of observers from various organizations, there is often great reluctance to grant access to additional observers. Much effort may be needed to assure project staff and participants that they will not be adversely affected by the evaluators’ work and to negotiate observer access to specific sites.



Interviews provide very different data from observations: they allow the evaluation team to capture the perspectives of project participants, staff, and others associated with the project. In the hypothetical example, interviews with project staff can provide information on the early stages of the implementation and problems encountered. The use of interviews as a data collection method begins with the assumption that the participants’ perspectives are meaningful, knowable, and able to be made explicit, and that their perspectives affect the success of the project. An interview, rather than a paper and pencil survey, is selected when interpersonal contact is important and when opportunities for followup of interesting comments are desired.

Two types of interviews are used in evaluation research: structured interviews, in which a carefully worded questionnaire is administered; and indepth interviews, in which the interviewer does not follow a rigid form. In the former, the emphasis is on obtaining answers to carefully phrased questions. Interviewers are trained to deviate only minimally from the question wording to ensure uniformity of interview administration. In the latter, however, the interviewers seek to encourage free and open responses, and there may be a tradeoff between comprehensive coverage of topics and indepth exploration of a more limited set of questions. Indepth interviews also encourage capturing of respondents’ perceptions in their own words, a very desirable strategy in qualitative data collection. This allows the evaluator to present the meaningfulness of the experience from the respondent’s perspective. Indepth interviews are conducted with individuals or with a small group of individuals.4

4 A special case of the group interview is called a focus group. Although we discuss focus groups separately, several of the exhibits in this section will refer to both forms of data collection because of their similarities.

Indepth interviews. An indepth interview is a dialogue between a skilled interviewer and an interviewee. Its goal is to elicit rich, detailed material that can be used in analysis (Lofland and Lofland, 1995). Such interviews are best conducted face to face, although in some situations telephone interviewing can be successful.

Indepth interviews are characterized by extensive probing and open-ended questions. Typically, the project evaluator prepares an interview guide that includes a list of questions or issues that are to be explored and suggested probes for following up on key topics. The guide helps the interviewer pace the interview and make interviewing more systematic and comprehensive. Lofland and Lofland (1995) provide guidelines for preparing interview guides, doing the interview with the guide, and writing up the interview. Appendix B to this chapter contains an example of the types of interview questions that could be asked during the hypothetical study.

The dynamics of interviewing are similar to a guided conversation. The interviewer becomes an attentive listener who shapes the process into a familiar and comfortable form of social engagement - a conversation - and the quality of the information obtained is largely dependent on the interviewer’s skills and personality (Patton, 1990). In contrast to a good conversation, however, an indepth interview is not intended to be a two-way form of communication and sharing. The key to being a good interviewer is being a good listener and questioner. Tempting as it may be, it is not the role of the interviewer to put forth his or her opinions, perceptions, or feelings. Interviewers should be trained individuals who are sensitive, empathetic, and able to establish a nonthreatening environment in which participants feel comfortable. They should be selected during a process that weighs personal characteristics that will make them acceptable to the individuals being interviewed; clearly, age, sex, profession, race/ethnicity, and appearance may be key characteristics. Thorough training, including familiarization with the project and its goals, is important. Poor interviewing skills, poor phrasing of questions, or inadequate knowledge of the subject’s culture or frame of reference may result in a collection that obtains little useful data.

When to use indepth interviews. Indepth interviews can be used at any stage of the evaluation process. They are especially useful in answering questions such as those suggested by Patton (1990):

Specific circumstances for which indepth interviews are particularly appropriate include

Exhibit 5.
Advantages and disadvantages of indepth interviews
Usually yield richest data, details, new insights

Permit face-to-face contact with respondents

Provide opportunity to explore topics in depth

Afford ability to experience the affective as well as cognitive aspects of responses

Allow interviewer to explain or help clarify questions, increasing the likelihood of useful responses

Allow interviewer to be flexible in administering interview to particular individuals or circumstances

Expensive and time-consuming

Need well-qualified, highly trained interviewers

Interviewee may distort information through recall error, selective perceptions, desire to please interviewer

Flexibility can result in inconsistencies across interviews

Volume of information too large; may be difficult to transcribe and reduce data


In the hypothetical project, indepth interviews of the project director, staff, department chairs, branch campus deans, and nonparticipant faculty would be useful. These interviews can address both formative and summative questions and be used in conjunction with other data collection methods. The advantages and disadvantages of indepth interviews are outlined in Exhibit 5.

When indepth interviews are being considered as a data collection technique, it is important to keep several potential pitfalls or problems in mind.


Exhibit 6.
Considerations in conducting indepth interviews and focus groups
Factors to consider in determining the setting for interviews (both individual and group) include the following:
  • Select a setting that provides privacy for participants.
  • Select a location where there are no distractions and it is easy to hear respondents speak.
  • Select a comfortable location.
  • Select a nonthreatening environment.
  • Select a location that is easily accessible for respondents.
  • Select a facility equipped for audio or video recording.
  • Stop telephone or visitor interruptions to respondents interviewed in their office or homes.
  • Provide seating arrangements that encourage involvement and interaction.

Exhibit 6 outlines other considerations in conducting interviews. These considerations are also important in conducting focus groups, the next technique that we will consider.

Recording interview data. Interview data can be recorded on tape (with the permission of the participants) and/or summarized in notes. As with observations, detailed recording is a necessary component of interviews since it forms the basis for analyzing the data. All methods, but especially the second and third, require carefully crafted interview guides with ample space available for recording the interviewee’s responses. Three procedures for recording the data are presented below.

In the first approach, the interviewer (or in some cases the transcriber) listens to the tapes and writes a verbatim account of everything that was said. Transcription of the raw data includes word-for-word quotations of the participant’s responses as well as the interviewer’s descriptions of participant’s characteristics, enthusiasm, body language, and overall mood during the interview. Notes from the interview can be used to identify speakers or to recall comments that are garbled or unclear on the tape. This approach is recommended when the necessary financial and human resources are available, when the transcriptions can be produced in a reasonable amount of time, when the focus of the interview is to make detailed comparisons, or when respondents’ own words and phrasing are needed. The major advantages of this transcription method are its completeness and the opportunity it affords for the interviewer to remain attentive and focused during the interview. The major disadvantages are the amount of time and resources needed to produce complete transcriptions and the inhibitory impact tape recording has on some respondents. If this technique is selected, it is essential that the participants have been informed that their answers are being recorded, that they are assured confidentiality, and that their permission has been obtained.

A second possible procedure for recording interviews draws less on the word-by-word record and more on the notes taken by the interviewer or assigned notetaker. This method is called "note expansion." As soon as possible after the interview, the interviewer listens to the tape to clarify certain issues and to confirm that all the main points have been included in the notes. This approach is recommended when resources are scarce, when the results must be produced in a short period of time, and when the purpose of the interview is to get rapid feedback from members of the target population. The note expansion approach saves time and retains all the essential points of the discussion. In addition to the drawbacks pointed out above, a disadvantage is that the interviewer may be more selective or biased in what he or she writes.

In the third approach, the interviewer uses no tape recording, but instead takes detailed notes during the interview and draws on memory to expand and clarify the notes immediately after the interview. This approach is useful if time is short, the results are needed quickly, and the evaluation questions are simple. Where more complex questions are involved, effective note-taking can be achieved, but only after much practice. Further, the interviewer must frequently talk and write at the same time, a skill that is hard for some to achieve.


Focus Groups

Focus groups combine elements of both interviewing and participant observation. The focus group session is, indeed, an interview (Patton, 1990) not a discussion group, problem-solving session, or decision-making group. At the same time, focus groups capitalize on group dynamics. The hallmark of focus groups is the explicit use of the group interaction to generate data and insights that would be unlikely to emerge without the interaction found in a group. The technique inherently allows observation of group dynamics, discussion, and firsthand insights into the respondents’ behaviors, attitudes, language, etc.

Focus groups are a gathering of 8 to 12 people who share some characteristics relevant to the evaluation. Originally used as a market research tool to investigate the appeal of various products, the focus group technique has been adopted by other fields, such as education, as a tool for data gathering on a given topic. Focus groups conducted by experts take place in a focus group facility that includes recording apparatus (audio and/or visual) and an attached room with a one-way mirror for observation. There is an official recorder who may or may not be in the room. Participants are paid for attendance and provided with refreshments. As the focus group technique has been adopted by fields outside of marketing, some of these features, such as payment or refreshment, have been eliminated.

When to use focus groups. When conducting evaluations, focus groups are useful in answering the same type of questions as indepth interviews, except in a social context. Specific applications of the focus group method in evaluations include

In the hypothetical project, focus groups could be conducted with project participants to collect perceptions of project implementation and operation (e.g., Were the workshops staffed appropriately? Were the presentations suitable for all participants?), as well as progress toward objectives during the formative phase of evaluation (Did participants exchange information by e-mail and other means?). Focus groups could also be used to collect data on project outcomes and impact during the summative phase of evaluation (e.g., Were changes made in the curriculum? Did students taught by participants appear to become more interested in class work? What barriers did the participants face in applying what they had been taught?).

Although focus groups and indepth interviews share many characteristics, they should not be used interchangeably. Factors to consider when choosing between focus groups and indepth interviews are included in Exhibit 7.

5 Survey developers also frequently use focus groups to pretest topics or ideas that later will be used for quantitative data collection. In such cases, the data obtained are considered part of instrument development rather than findings. Qualitative evaluators feel that this is too limited an application and that the technique has broader utility.


Developing a Focus Group

An important aspect of conducting focus groups is the topic guide. (See Appendix C to this chapter for a sample guide applied to the hypothetical project.) The topic guide, a list of topics or question areas, serves as a summary statement of the issues and objectives to be covered by the focus group. The topic guide also serves as a road map and as a memory aid for the focus group leader, called a "moderator." The topic guide also provides the initial outline for the report of findings.

Focus group participants are typically asked to reflect on the questions asked by the moderator. Participants are permitted to hear each other’s responses and to make additional comments beyond their own original responses as they hear what other people have to say. It is not necessary for the group to reach any kind of consensus, nor it is necessary for people to disagree. The moderator must keep the discussion flowing and make sure that one or two persons do not dominate the discussion. As a rule, the focus group session should not last longer than 1 1/2 to 2 hours. When very specific information is required, the session may be as short as 40 minutes. The objective is to get high-quality data in a social context where people can consider their own views in the context of the views of others, and where new ideas and perspectives can be introduced.


Exhibit 7.
Which to use: Focus groups or indepth interviews?
Factors to consider
Use focus groups when...
Use indepth interview when...
Group interaction interaction of respondents may stimulate a richer response or new and valuable thought. group interaction is likely to be limited or nonproductive.
Group/peer pressure group/peer pressure will be valuable in challenging the thinking of respondents and illuminating conflicting opinions. group/peer pressure would inhibit responses and cloud the meaning of results. Color Color Color Color
Sensitivity of subject matter subject matter is not so sensitive that respondents will temper responses or withhold information. subject matter is so sensitive that respondents would be unwilling to talk openly in a group.
Depth of individual responses the topic is such that most respondents can say all that is relevant or all that they know in less than 10 minutes. the topic is such that a greater depth of response per individual is desirable, as with complex subject matter and very knowledgeable respondents.
Data collector fatigue it is desirable to have one individual conduct the data collection; a few groups will not create fatigue or boredom for one person. it is possible to use numerous individuals on the project; one interviewer would become fatigued or bored conducting all interviews.
Extent of issues to be covered the volume of issues to cover is not extensive. a greater volume of issues must be covered.
Continuity of information a single subject area is being examined in depth and strings of behaviors are less relevant. it is necessary to understand how attitudes and behaviors link together on an individual basis.
Experimentation with interview guide enough is known to establish a meaningful topic guide. it may be necessary to develop the interview guide by altering it after each of the initial interviews.
Observation by stakeholders it is desirable for stakeholders to hear what participants have to say. stakeholders do not need to hear firsthand the opinions of participants.
Logistics geographically an acceptable number of target respondents can be assembled in one location. respondents are dispersed or not easily assembled for other reasons.
Cost and training quick turnaround is critical, and funds are limited. quick turnaround is not critical, and budget will permit higher cost.
Availability of qualified staff focus group facilitators need to be able to control and manage groups interviewers need to be supportive and skilled listeners.


The participants are usually a relatively homogeneous group of people. Answering the question, "Which respondent variables represent relevant similarities among the target population?" requires some thoughtful consideration when planning the evaluation. Respondents’ social class, level of expertise, age, cultural background, and sex should always be considered. There is a sharp division among focus group moderators regarding the effectiveness of mixing sexes within a group, although most moderators agree that it is acceptable to mix the sexes when the discussion topic is not related to or affected by sex stereotypes.

Determining how many groups are needed requires balancing cost and information needs. A focus group can be fairly expensive, costing $10,000 to $20,000 depending on the type of physical facilities needed, the effort it takes to recruit participants, and the complexity of the reports required. A good rule of thumb is to conduct at least two groups for every variable considered to be relevant to the outcome (sex, age, educational level, etc.). However, even when several groups are sampled, conclusions typically are limited to the specific individuals participating in the focus group. Unless the study population is extremely small, it is not possible to generalize from focus group data.

Recording focus group data. The procedures for recording a focus group session are basically the same as those used for indepth interviews. However, the focus group approach lends itself to more creative and efficient procedures. If the evaluation team does use a focus group room with a one-way mirror, a colleague can take notes and record observations. An advantage of this approach is that the extra individual is not in the view of participants and, therefore, not interfering with the group process. If a one-way mirror is not a possibility, the moderator may have a colleague present in the room to take notes and to record observations. A major advantage of these approaches is that the recorder focuses on observing and taking notes, while the moderator concentrates on asking questions, facilitating the group interaction, following up on ideas, and making smooth transitions from issue to issue. Furthermore, like observations, focus groups can be videotaped. These approaches allow for confirmation of what was seen and heard. Whatever the approach to gathering detailed data, informed consent is necessary and confidentiality should be assured.

Having highlighted the similarities between interviews and focus groups, it is important to also point out one critical difference. In focus groups, group dynamics are especially important. The notes, and resultant report, should include comments on group interaction and dynamics as they inform the questions under study.


Other Qualitative Methods

The last section of this chapter outlines less common but, nonetheless, potentially useful qualitative methods for project evaluation. These methods include document studies, key informants, alternative (authentic) assessment, and case studies.


Document Studies

Existing records often provide insights into a setting and/or group of people that cannot be observed or noted in another way. This information can be found in document form. Lincoln and Guba (1985) defined a document as "any written or recorded material" not prepared for the purposes of the evaluation or at the request of the inquirer. Documents can be divided into two major categories: public records, and personal documents (Guba and Lincoln, 1981).

Public records are materials created and kept for the purpose of "attesting to an event or providing an accounting" (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). Public records can be collected from outside (external) or within (internal) the setting in which the evaluation is taking place. Examples of external records are census and vital statistics reports, county office records, newspaper archives, and local business records that can assist an evaluator in gathering information about the larger community and relevant trends. Such materials can be helpful in better understanding the project participants and making comparisons between groups/communities.

For the evaluation of educational innovations, internal records include documents such as student transcripts and records, historical accounts, institutional mission statements, annual reports, budgets, grade and standardized test reports, minutes of meetings, internal memoranda, policy manuals, institutional histories, college/university catalogs, faculty and student handbooks, official correspondence, demographic material, mass media reports and presentations, and descriptions of program development and evaluation. They are particularly useful in describing institutional characteristics, such as backgrounds and academic performance of students, and in identifying institutional strengths and weaknesses. They can help the evaluator understand the institution’s resources, values, processes, priorities, and concerns. Furthermore, they provide a record or history not subject to recall bias.

Personal documents are first-person accounts of events and experiences. These "documents of life" include diaries, portfolios, photographs, artwork, schedules, scrapbooks, poetry, letters to the paper, etc. Personal documents can help the evaluator understand how the participant sees the world and what she or he wants to communicate to an audience. And unlike other sources of qualitative data, collecting data from documents is relatively invisible to, and requires minimal cooperation from, persons within the setting being studied (Fetterman, 1989).

The usefulness of existing sources varies depending on whether they are accessible and accurate. In the hypothetical project, documents can provide the evaluator with useful information about the culture of the institution and participants involved in the project, which in turn can assist in the development of evaluation questions. Information from documents also can be used to generate interview questions or to identify events to be observed. Furthermore, existing records can be useful for making comparisons (e.g., comparing project participants to project applicants, project proposal to implementation records, or documentation of institutional policies and program descriptions prior to and following implementation of project interventions and activities).

The advantages and disadvantages of document studies are outlined in Exhibit 8.

Exhibit 8.
Advantages and disadvantages of document studies
Available locally


Grounded in setting and language in which they occur

Useful for determining value, interest, positions, political climate, public attitudes, historical trends or sequences

Provide opportunity for study of trends over time


May be incomplete

May be inaccurate; questionable authenticity

Locating suitable documents may pose challenges

Analysis may be time consuming

Access may be difficult


Key Informant

A key informant is a person (or group of persons) who has unique skills or professional background related to the issue/intervention being evaluated, is knowledgeable about the project participants, or has access to other information of interest to the evaluator. A key informant can also be someone who has a way of communicating that represents or captures the essence of what the participants say and do. Key informants can help the evaluation team better understand the issue being evaluated, as well as the project participants, their backgrounds, behaviors, and attitudes, and any language or ethnic considerations. They can offer expertise beyond the evaluation team. They are also very useful for assisting with the evaluation of curricula and other educational materials. Key informants can be surveyed or interviewed individually or through focus groups.

In the hypothetical project, key informants (i.e., expert faculty on main campus, deans, and department chairs) can assist with (1) developing evaluation questions, and (2) answering formative and summative evaluation questions.

The use of advisory committees is another way of gathering information from key informants. Advisory groups are called together for a variety of purposes:

Members of such a group may be specifically selected or invited to participate because of their unique skills or professional background; they may volunteer; they may be nominated or elected; or they may come together through a combination of these processes.

The advantages and disadvantages of using key informants are outlined in Exhibit 9.

Exhibit 9.
Advantages and disadvantages of using key informants
Information concerning causes, reasons, and/or best approaches from an "insider" point of view

Advice/feedback increases credibility of study

Pipeline to pivotal groups

May have side benefit to solidify relationships between evaluators, clients, participants, and other stakeholders

Time required to select and get commitment may be substantial

Relationship between evaluator and informants may influence type of data obtained

Informants may interject own biases and impressions

May result in disagreements among individuals leading to frustration/ conflicts


Performance Assessment

The performance assessment movement is impacting education from preschools to professional schools. At the heart of this upheaval is the belief that for all of their virtues - particularly efficiency and economy - traditional objective, norm-referenced tests may fail to tell us what we most want to know about student achievement. In addition, these same tests exert a powerful and, in the eyes of many educators, detrimental influence on curriculum and instruction. Critics of traditional testing procedures are exploring alternatives to multiple-choice, norm-referenced tests. It is hoped that these alternative means of assessment, ranging from observations to exhibitions, will provide a more authentic picture of achievement.

Critics raise three main points against objective, norm-referenced tests.

The search for alternatives to traditional tests has generated a number of new approaches to assessment under such names as alternative assessment, performance assessment, holistic assessment, and authentic assessment. While each label suggests slightly different emphases, they all imply a movement toward assessment that supports exemplary teaching. Performance assessment appears to be the most popular term because it emphasizes the development of assessment tools that involve students in tasks that are worthwhile, significant, and meaningful. Such tasks involve higher order thinking skills and the coordination of a broad range of knowledge.

Performance assessment may involve "qualitative" activities such as oral interviews, group problem-solving tasks, portfolios, or personal documents/creations (poetry, artwork, stories). A performance assessment approach that could be used in the hypothetical project is work sample methodology (Schalock, Schalock, and Girad, in press ). Briefly, work sample methodology challenges teachers to create unit plans and assessment techniques for students at several points during a training experience. The quality of this product is assessed (at least before and after training) in light of the goal of the professional development program. The actual performance of students on the assessment measures provides additional information on impact.


Case Studies

Classical case studies depend on ethnographic and participant observer methods. They are largely descriptive examinations, usually of a small number of sites (small towns, hospitals, schools) where the principal investigator is immersed in the life of the community or institution and combs available documents, holds formal and informal conversations with informants, observes ongoing activities, and develops an analysis of both individual and "cross-case" findings.

In the hypothetical study, for example, case studies of the experiences of participants from different campuses could be carried out. These might involve indepth interviews with the facility participants, observations of their classes over time, surveys of students, interviews with peers and department chairs, and analyses of student work samples at several points in the program. Selection of participants might be made based on factors such as their experience and training, type of students taught, or differences in institutional climate/supports.

Case studies can provide very engaging, rich explorations of a project or application as it develops in a real-world setting. Project evaluators must be aware, however, that doing even relatively modest, illustrative case studies is a complex task that cannot be accomplished through occasional, brief site visits. Demands with regard to design, data collection, and reporting can be substantial.

For those wanting to become thoroughly familiar with this topic, a number of relevant texts are referenced here.



Fetterman, D.M. (1989). Ethnography: Step by Step. Applied Social Research Methods Series, Vol. 17. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Guba, E.G., and Lincoln, Y.S. (1981). Effective Evaluation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lincoln, Y.S., and Guba, E.G. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Lofland, J., and Lofland, L.H. (1995). Analyzing Social Settings: A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis, 3rd Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Patton, M.Q. (1990). Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods, 2nd Ed. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Schalock, H.D., Schalock, M.D., and Girad, G.R. (In press). Teacher work sample methodology, as used at Western Oregon State College. In J. Millman, Ed., Assuring Accountability? Using Gains in Student Learning to Evaluate Teachers and Schools. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin.


Other Recommended Reading

Debus, M. (1995). Methodological Review: A Handbook for Excellence in Focus Group Research. Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development.

Denzin, N.K., and Lincoln, Y.S. (Eds.). (1994). Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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