Interviews

Types of interviews

There are a number of different types of interview formats e.g. structured, semi-structured or unstructured. The more unstructured the interview, the more it is expected that the main issues will emerge from the interviewee, rather than being imposed by the structure of the interview. These different interview formats are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to combine them effectively in an interview to be flexible and focused when it is appropriate.

Interviews can be conducted face-to-face, by telephone or online (see Email interviews).

Why use interviews?

  • To explore the thinking, assumptions, emotions, attitudes, perceptions which may be influencing observed behaviour of those involved in some way in the cange in learning and teaching (L&T) being evaluated.
  • If more in-depth qualitative exploration of an individuals’ perceptions is needed than can be obtained from questionnaires.
  • To follow up unexpected results or confirm interpretations generated by other methods of data collection and analysis.

Strengths

  • Interviewing offers the flexibility to adapt questioning according to the responses of interviewees, to clarify questions or answers, or to probe answers more deeply with supplementary questions as appropriate, to explore issues that emerge from the respondents. This is particularly the case, the more unstructured the interview becomes.
  • Data obtained, particularly from semi-structured and unstructured interviews, can be much richer and informative than data obtained from other methods.

Limitations

  • Interviews can be very resource intensive compared to other data collection methods.
  • Data analysis becomes more difficult as the data collection process becomes more unstructured, particularly if trying to identify and explore patterns, although software is now available that can help with this. (See link at top of this page.)
  • Selecting interviewees that will provide you with representative perspectives is not easy, because you are unlikely to have the resource to be able to conduct many interviews to evaluate any single change in L&T. The voluntary nature of the interview may mean that your sample is biased towards those that have not become disengaged with their experience of the change initiative. Bias may also be introduced by other factors such as the interviewee’s emotion at the time of the interview, their ability to recall events and feelings, and their interaction with the interviewer.
  • Transcription costs and telephone interviews can be costly, and the scale of the project and its evaluation may mean that such costs cannot be justified.

Practicalities

  • The type of interview you decide on will depend on how you intend to use data to inform your evaluation questions with that collected using other methods. Choice of format will depend on your assumptions about what kind of dialogue between interviewer and interviewee will give you a representative insight into the interviewee’s experience or perspective.
  • A pre-prepared interview guide helps to keep the interview focused on topics that address the evaluation questions. If this is unstructured this will allow for flexibility in how the interview is approached. For semi-structured interviews other tools might be appropriate, such as prompt cards. These can be used to question interviewees about specific issues and seek rated responses, which can be followed by more open discussion about the interviewee's reasoning for their response.
  • An interview schedule helps you to manage your time during data collection, factoring in time allowance for transcription and analysis.
  • Piloting the interview beforehand enables you to test it for running time and the value of questions.
  • It may be difficult to find appropriate help with undertaking interviews, if needed. Unless the interview is highly structured, the interviewer will need to be knowledgeable about learning and teaching, and possibly the more specific context in which the change is being evaluated.
  • Interviewees may be more open in a one-to-one interview situation than they would be in a group discussion or by putting their views down on paper. Ethical evaluation involves respecting any confidentiality requested by an interviewee in later stages of the evaluation, including in the written report.
  • Starting the interview with fairly easy, open questions seeking descriptive information about the interviewee’s experience of the change in L&T will help them to relax and focus on the purpose of the interview. These can be be followed by more difficult and probing questions about their emotions and opinions. Background questions, for example about the interviewees’ demographic characteristics, could be left until the end.
  • When conducting the interview body language and the physical environment can be as important as verbal cues for encouraging interviewees to relax and be open and honest. It is also important to be in an environment with few distractions. You may want to use recording equipment, as long as this is not intrusive or is not likely to breach a relationship of trust with the interviewee.
  • Telephone and online interviews can work out cheaper than face-to face interviews if travel costs would be incurred for face-to-face interviews. Telephone interviews will require specialist equipment and set up for recording.
  • Skype is an example of software that enables telephone calls to be made free over the internet. However, both parties must have this installed on their network computer. This can be downloaded free from www.skype.com. The software establishes a connection for voice data transfer across the internet, and users will need headphones and a microphone or headset. A web cam could be used to create a face-to-face experience.
  • Because of the interactivity between the interviewer and interviewee your communication and action plays a large part in influencing responses and the findings from the evaluation. Taking a reflexive and reflective approach involves thinking about how you may have unintentially as well as intentionally, influenced the process, and other factors that may have had an influence (such as interviewee's emotions, external environment, distractions).
  • Qualitative approaches to analysing data are needed to identify key themes in interviewees’ perspectives.

Further reading

Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2000) Research Methods in Education 5th Edition. London: RoutledgeFalmer. See Chapter 15 pp 267 - 292. [Available from University Main Library.]