Researching our students’ experience: surprises and learnings

By Professor Catherine Cassell

About the author

Professor Catherine Cassell is Deputy Dean of Leeds University Business School and Professor of Organisational Psychology. Her research interests are in the areas of change, learning and diversity at work.

In the current academic world, we professors are used to continuously being evaluated by our students. MBA students will be familiar with their tutors wanting to know how the module went; receiving feedback questionnaires from the School and University administration teams; and contributing their input into a variety of international rankings of their programmes. However, this kind of feedback more likely offers quantified responses of satisfaction, rather than any rich detailed insights into the education we are providing.  

In a recently published paper in the journal Academy of Management Learning and Education*, I had the opportunity to reflect upon the responses of my own MBA students to both the material I had delivered to them and the extent of its practical use. I have taught qualitative research methods over many years to different student groups in a range of business school contexts. It is a subject I love teaching and it ties in with my everyday research practice, so I am keen to enthuse my students with excitement about research methodology, a feat that sometimes isn’t easy. Hence conducting the piece of research that underpins the paper was motivated by my own experience of teaching, and my desire to understand more about the learning of my students.

At the time of the research, I was teaching the subject to large numbers of MBA students in a classroom format where there was little opportunity for them to practise their skills. Hence I decided to use the assessment process to do three things:  facilitate the opportunity for them to practise the skills of qualitative interviewing and data analysis; encourage the students to be reflective about the skills they were learning; and also to engage some useful feedback on my teaching.

Each of the students of two cohorts completed an individual assignment in qualitative research methods as part of a research and consultancy skills module that was designed to prepare students for a real life group consultancy project in which they worked on a business issue with a client. At the end of the assignment they were asked to produce a 500 word reflective account of their experiences of doing the qualitative research interview and the analysis of the data. The research findings for my paper emerged from my analysis of these 228 accounts.

In summary, the over-arching findings highlighted that as well as the practical challenges of the unfamiliar skills involved in conducting a research interview for the first time, the uncertainties, ambiguities and complexities that accompanied using qualitative methods led to worries about their credibility. They were concerned that qualitative methods weren’t scientific or objective enough, based as they are on the analysis of talk and what people actually say, rather than on any quantitative or statistical analysis.   

This was contextualised in light of the students’ previous experience. In their accounts they talked about equating numbers with validity and objectivity, and how having to make sense of more discursive data challenged those assumptions. Some students found this bewildering at first, whereas others wrote about the joys of having their existing mind-sets challenged.

What was also interesting was that there was a link between some of the skills the students talked about developing, such as listening and analytic skills, to those more soft skills that are associated with good managerial practice. Previous research tells us that good managers need a range of communication and relationship building skills including those of building trust, intercultural sensitivity and social influence, exactly what is required of the qualitative researcher. This led me to realise that actually developing the skills of qualitative research can also have an impact in other areas of the MBA curriculum.

So what did I learn from researching my own students? Doing the research and writing the paper cast light upon some of my own teaching processes and in particular my assumptions about my subject. I realised that in teaching qualitative research for so long I now take the subjective and potentially messy aspects of it for granted. I am comfortable with the idea that there may be a variety of different ways of understanding what somebody is saying, rather than assuming that there is always one right answer. I am happy with the notion that human behaviour is complex and can be interpreted in different ways. It is precisely these different interpretations that qualitative methods give us access to. However, some of our MBA students may prefer to see the world from an objective stance, where people in organisations are seen to behave in rational ways that we can effectively measure and analyse statistically, so I have realised that it is these beliefs that I need to confront.  

As a result, I now teach qualitative methods on the MBA slightly differently. I now challenge the assumptions that underpin different approaches to research right from the start by using exercises to surface the beliefs the students hold about research. I also now link in the skills required to conduct qualitative research with other aspects of the MBA syllabi ranging from customer sensitivity in Marketing to creative thinking in Strategy.

I would hope that my students are now better equipped to deal with some of the ambiguities they may face when conducting research interviews, and more appreciative of the variety of opportunities for skills development that an engagement with qualitative research offers. I would also hope that I am more in tune with some of the dilemmas they face, in encountering new approaches for the first time.

*Cassell, C.M. (2017). “Pushed beyond my comfort zone”: MBA student experience of conducting qualitative research. Academy of Management Learning and Education (In Press.)  

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