Coding and analysing qualitative data is not only a time consuming, it’s a difficult interpretive exercise which, like learning a musical instrument, gets much better with practice. However, lots of students starting their first major qualitative or mixed method research project will benefit from completing a smaller project first, rather than starting by trying to learn a giant symphony. This will allow them to get used to qualitative analysis software, working with qualitative data, developing a coding framework and getting a realistic expectation of what can be done in a fixed time frame. Often people will try and learn all these aspects for the first time when they start a major project like a masters or PhD dissertation, and then struggle to get going and take the most effective approach.
Many scholars, including those advocating the 5 Level QDA approach suggest that learning the capabilities of the software and qualitative data separately, since one can effect the other. And a great way to do this is to actually dig in and get started with a separate smaller project. Reading textbooks and the literature can only prepare you so much (see for example this article on coding your first qualitative data), but a practical project to experiment and make mistakes in is a great preparation for the main event.
But what should a practice project look like? Where can I find some example qualitative data to play with? A good guideline is to take just a few sources, even just 3 or 4 from a method that is similar to the data collection you will use for your project. For example, if you are going to have focus groups, try and find some already existing focus group transcripts to transcribe. Although this can be daunting, there are actually lots of ways to quickly find qualitative data that will not only make you more familiar with real qualitative data, but also the analysis process and accompanying software tools. This article gives a couple of suggestions for a mini project to hone your skills!
News and media
A quick way to practice your basic coding skills is to do a small project using news articles. Just choose a recent (or historical) event, collect a few articles either from different news websites or over a period of time. Looking at conflicts in how events are described can be revealing, and is good for getting the right analytical eye to examine differences from respondents in your main project. It’s easy to go to different major news websites (like the Telegraph, Daily Mail, BBC News or the NYT) and copy and paste articles into Quirkos or other qualitative analysis software. All these sites have searchable archives, so you can look for a particular topic and find older articles.
Set yourself a good research question (or two), and use this project to practice generating a coding framework and exploring connections and differences across sources.
Qualitative Data Archives
If you want some more involved experience, browse some of the online repositories of qualitative data. These allow you to download the complete data set from research projects large and small. Since much government (or funding board) funded research requires data to be made publicly available, there are increasing numbers of data sets available to download which make a great way to look at real qualitative data, and practice your analysing skills. I’ll share two examples here, the first is the UK Data Archive and the second the Syracuse Qualitative Data Repository.
Regardless of where you are based, these resources offer an amazing variety of data types and topics. This can make your practice fun – there are data sets on some fascinating and obscure areas, so choose something interesting to you, or even something completely new and different as a challenge. You also don’t have to use all the sources from a large project – just choose three or four to start with, you can always add more later if you need extra coding experience.
Actually, qualitative analysis software is a great way to get to grips with articles, books and policy documents relating to your research project. Since most people will want to do a systematic or literature review before they start a project, bringing your literature into qualitative software is a good way to learn the software while also working towards your project. While reading through your literature, you can create codes/themes to describe key points in theory or previous studies, and compare findings from different research projects.
In Quirkos it is easy to bring in PDF articles from journals or ebooks, and then you will have not only a good reference management system, but somewhere you can keep the full text of relevant articles, tagged and coded so you can find key quotes quickly for writing up. Our article here gives some good advice on using qualitative software for systematic and literature reviews.
Our own projects
Quirkos also has made two example projects freely available for learning qualitative analysis with any software package. The first is great for beginners, a fictional project about healthy eating options for breakfast. These 6 sources are short, but with rich information, so can be fully coded in less than an hour. Secondly, we conduded a real research project on the Scottish Referendum for Independence, and 12 transcribed semi-structured interviews are made available for your own practice and interpretation.
The advantage of these projects is that they both have fully coded project files to use as examples and comparison. It’s rare to find people sharing their coding (especially as an accessible project file) but can be a useful guide or point of comparison to your own framework and coding decisions.
Talk to faculty in your department and see if they have any example data sets you can use. Some academics will already have these for teaching purposes or taken from other research projects they are able to share.
It can also be a good exercise to do a coding project with someone else. Regardless of which option you choose from the example qualitative data sources above, share the data with another student or colleague, and go and do your own coding separately. Once you are both done, meet up and compare your results – it will be really revealing to see how different people interpreted the data, how their coding framework looked, and how they found working with the software. It’s also good motivation and time management to have to work to a mutually set deadline!
The great thing about starting a small learning project is that it can be a perfect opportunity to experiment with different qualitative analysis software. It may be that you only have access to one option like Nvivo, MAXQDA, or Atlas.Ti at your institution, but student licences are very cheap and affordable, so make a great option for learning qualitative analysis. All the major packages have a free trial, so you can try several (or them all!) and find out which one works best for you. Doing this with a small example project lets you practice key techniques and qualitative methods, and also think through how best to collect and structure your data for analysis.
Quirkos probably has the best deal for qualitative research software, for example our student licences are cheap at just $59 (£49 or €58) and don’t expire. Most of the other packages only give you six months or a year but we let you use Quirkos as long as you need, so you will always be able to access your data – even after you graduate. Even academics and supervisors will find that Quirkos is much more affordable and easier to learn. Of course, there is a no obligation or registration trial, and all our support and training materials are free as well. So make sure you make the most informed decision before you start your research, and we hope that Quirkos becomes your instrument of choice for qualitative analysis!