Colleagues who are new to educational research, such as those engaged in teacher preparation and faculty development programmes often ask questions such as, “how many references should be cited in a good assignment?”, or “how many interviews is enough?“. Of course there is no nice simple answer to such questions. It depends on the research question being asked and the context in which the research is being undertaken.
One of the problems that arises from such research projects is that they tend towards the ‘accepted’ and the ‘tried-and-tested’. Inevitably this means that many of the resulting projects use semi-structured interviews or questionnaires, almost as a default setting. Some will stretch to focus groups, but beyond that methods avoid the risky or the unfamiliar.
All too often then the research has to be qualified at the end because of small sample sizes and low return rates of questionnaires. So the aim of achieving generalizability is lost. But what does the holy grail of generalizabilty offer? Within clinical research, the need for large sample sizes and rigorous randomised controlled trials is considered to be the gold standard. However, whatever the sample size within the trial, there is no way to be assured that a particular treatment will work for a particular patient. Generalizability can only tell us that, all things being equal, a treatment is likely to work for a certain percentage of patients over a given period of time.
Many teaching colleagues shy away from qualitative studies because they feel that a case study or an observation of a particular event cannot confer generalizability and so is not worth undertaking. But how many instances of an event have to occur before it becomes significant? There are lots of one-off events that can be seen to have had significance, not just on a personal level, but also on an international level – I’ll leave it to you to think of some.
In looking at the literature on autoethnography (where the researcher and the researched become one) there are some interesting ideas that might help novice education researchers to feel less constrained by the orthodoxy of ‘accepted approaches’ to research. With regard to the term of ‘generalizability’, Ellis (2004) points out that autoethnographic research seeks generalizability not just from the respondents but also from the readers. Ellis says, “I would argue that a story’s generalizability is always being tested – not in the traditional way through random samples of respondents, but by readers as they determine if a story speaks to them about their experience or about the lives of others they know. Readers provide theoretical validation by comparing their lives to ours, by thinking about how our lives are similar and different and the reasons why.”
Many of the small scale research projects undertaken by participants on PGCAPs or Grad Certs are unlikely to change the world, but they do have the potential to inform the professional practice of the project authors. This is most likely to happen when there is a strong resonance with the observations and the participant’s professional context – whatever the sample size.
Ellis, C. (2004) The ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography. Walnut Creek, CA, AltaMira Press.