Steps in a Qualitative Research Paper

Qualitative research helps social and educational scientists and researchers to explore and describe a variety of different topics or a phenomena that can range from the interpersonal culture of a remote tribe to effective classroom practices. Although there are no strict mathematical or statistical rules for qualitative data, in contrast to quantitative research, this type of study does involve a specific methodology. Whether you are an academic working for a university, an independent researcher or a college/graduate student writing a supervised research paper, qualitative studies require a set of steps to follow.

Conducting Research

Formulate a research question. Qualitative studies aim to explore and/or describe, not explain phenomena. The question should reflect precisely what you aim to explore or describe in your study. The question should also connect to or be relevant to the field that you are studying. For example, if you are interested in exploring how the parents of young children understand their children's learning in an arts environment your question could be, "What are the parental perceptions of learning for their preschoolers ages 3 through 5 in an early childhood museum-based visual arts program?"

Conduct a literature review. Look for strong academic literature from peer-reviewed journals on your chosen subject.

Choose a qualitative approach. This should match or be connected to the subject of your study. Examples of qualitative approaches include ethnography (immersing yourself in one specific culture or group of people to conduct in-depth interviews and observation), phenomenology (exploring the participant's subjective interpretations), grounded theory (creating new theory that is grounded in the data) or action research (the researcher is part of what is being studied, such as a teacher researching her own classroom).

Decide on the methods that you will be using. Common qualitative methods include participant observation, direct observation, interviewing and document reviews. Some methods may work better with some approaches. For example, if you are conducting an ethnographic study you would want to rely more heavily on observation techniques.

Collect your data via the chosen method.

Analyze your data. This may include a method such as constant comparison (comparing different pieces of data against each other). Typically, qualitative researchers will analyze their data using a system of alphabetic codes that express different themes or concepts that emerge from the information.

Writing the Paper

Type a title page. This will include your name, academic institution and the title of the research.

Write the abstract. This is a brief paragraph, less than one page long double-spaced, that includes the basics or a summary of the research.

Create an introduction. Include a literature review with information that you have already found in peer-reviewed journals.

Add information on your research methods and procedures, such as how the sample was chosen, who the participants are and the design.

State your results or findings. Include a discussion of the findings as they apply to general theory and the specific field.

  • Most qualitative papers should follow APA style format. This is the accepted social and educational science format. APA guidelines will tell you how to include page numbers, references, citations, headers/footers and in-paper stylistic conventions.
  • End your paper with a full and complete reference list and any appendices of tables, graphs and figures as needed.
  • Avoid writing too much or too little. Your specific paper's length will be determined by who you are writing for. A college professor and a journal editor may have different length requirements.
  • Before conducting any research make sure that you have met your school's ethical and policy requirements. Most universities have an Institutional Review Board that must pass a study proposal prior to beginning research.
About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.

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