Doing Interviews

I’m working on a paper that is based on a series of interviews my supervisor and I conducted over the past year. The interesting part of that research effort is the content of those interviews, and so that’s what the paper is about. However, I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how to conduct ethnographic research in introductory physics labs, including interviews, and want to share the model we’ve come up with. Here, then, are some considerations for doing interviews in contexts like my own.

Finding Participants

It’s tough to get students to agree to do interviews. It takes time during a busy semester, it’s something completely optional for them, and the financial incentive I can offer ($25, in my case) are a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of college. More significant, though, is fear of the unknown: this “interview” could be all sorts of unpleasant.

Thus, I combine my interviewee selection with organic discussions I have with students in their labs. By the end of the semester, they’ve gotten to know me as a friendly person who regularly visits their room, occasionally offers help with their work, and respects them as learners. Thus, it’s pretty easy for me to say, “I think this is the dial you’re looking for. By the way, would you be willing to sit down with me for an hour and talk about your experiences in the physics lab?”

When I approach students who have gotten to know me, at least a little bit, the response rate for interview invitations is about 75%. But when we approach students out of the blue, less than 50% of our invitees responded to email invitations. And even this response rate is impressive compared with the meagre return we get from poster advertisements. I think this shows the tremendous importance of establishing a foundational level of trust and respect before even beginning the interview.


When we report quotations in our publications, we use pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of our interview participants (note: participants, not subjects). As part of the introduction sequence for my interviews, which covers the ground rules set out by our IRB among other things, I ask my participants to choose their own pseudonym.

The result is that our pseudonyms are sometimes gender-neutral (and so I need to be explicit about the respondent’s gender if it is applicable in my analysis), and they usually don’t meaningfully reflect the ethnic or racial background of the participant. But they do give the participant a little bit more say in how their ideas are being represented, and I think that’s important.

Who Benefits?

I worry a lot about how interviews are a form of resource extraction: I, as a white man, am transcribing and using the ideas and thoughts of the participants (many of whom, by design, are underrepresented minorities) in a way that will benefit me directly, by helping me to achieve a degree and maybe a job. So I make it a point to frame our discussion in terms of how they can help future students by helping to redesign the class.

This practical, outcome-guided, framing is important for any research in which there are extra incentives for the researcher. Then, too, I think it is important to be clear with the participants about the goals — that this interview will help us improve instruction directly, and might also lead to an academic publication.

Making Meaning Together

It is a mistake to think that the meaning of an interview is created when the research and/or their collaborators pore over transcriptions and debate frameworks. Rather, the interview comes with meaning built into it, because the participant has their own frameworks and ways of understanding. Often those ways of understanding are better than the researcher’s.

This stance helps me ask better questions, and to participate better in dialogue. Our interviews are semi-structured: we compiled a list of 30 “questions”. Actually, these are things that we want to ask about. Usually, we will seek to weave these questions into the discussion.

Transcribing and Writing

I’m not very good at it, and I don’t know a good solution (let me know if you do!), but I transcribe all our interviews after we finish them. We also write post-interview reflections, in which we seek to identify key issues. After the interviews, we meet to discuss what we heard. This is when the coherent narratives start to emerge.

The paper I am working on now seeks to allow the participants to tell their own story, by copious use of long quotations. I’m also using a framework to help draw conclusions from what is being said.


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