Introduction to qualitative data

Qualitative data is data that is not easily reduced to numbers. Qualitative data tends to answer questions about the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a phenomenon, rather than questions of ‘how many’ or ‘how much’.

Download the Evidence Guide for School Excellence - Qualitative data (73.0KB) or view the online version below.

Types of qualitative data

In a school setting, qualitative data may include:

  • Notes from classroom observations
  • A student’s work sample with comments from their teacher
  • Feedback from a teacher about a student’s progress
  • A transcript from a focus group with parents
  • Audio/visual recordings of a class
  • A transcript from a staff meeting
Qualitative data can be collected through a range of methods, described below.

What are the benefits of qualitative analysis?

Qualitative analysis allows for a detailed examination of the thoughts, feelings, opinions and/or experiences of individuals, groups or communities. By taking into account the local context, qualitative analysis can assist in developing solutions that are tailored to the particular context.

Qualitative research allows for flexibility and adaptability when undertaking research, so a study can be adapted and tailored in response to emerging issues, problems or trends. It provides the opportunity to collaborate with participants and include them as an active part of the research process.

Qualitative analysis can also be useful for providing a narrative around quantitative data. Quantitative data (e.g. test scores) may tell you that your student’s NAPLAN scores have improved over time. You may then want to use qualitative data (e.g. classroom observation, a focus group with teachers) to determine how and why scores have improved.

What are the limitations of qualitative analysis?

Qualitative data can be harder to analyse than quantitative data, as the data collected is not inherently objective, and thus can be open to multiple interpretations.

Qualitative data is also context-specific, so it is not always possible to use the data to say something about situations outside of that context. This differs from quantitative analysis, in which a reliable sample can be used to make generalisations about a population.

The collection and analysis of qualitative data can also be time-consuming.

What are qualitative methods?

There are numerous qualitative research methods that can be used when conducting qualitative research. These can include (but are not restricted to):

More information about different types of qualitative research methods can be found on the Evaluation Resource Hub.

The usefulness and appropriateness of different qualitative research methods will vary depending on the context and purpose of the research. In qualitative research, the focus is not so much on the ‘robustness’ of one instrument versus another, but choosing the most appropriate instrument for the information that you are seeking.

The size of the sample will also vary depending on the context and purpose of the research. There is no overall ‘optimal’ sample size.

*Note: Surveys can provide both qualitative and quantitative data. Generally, surveys questions that use scales (e.g. strongly agree – strongly disagree) or ratings, such as questions in Tell Them From Me, provide quantitative data. Survey questions that allow for free-text responses provide qualitative data.

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