Understanding reliability & validity in qualitative research

Written by patrice d. robinson
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Understanding reliability & validity in qualitative research
Qualitative research usually involves observation and field notes. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

In the world of academic research, data is gathered using either quantitative or qualitative techniques. Quantitative methods include using test scores, number counts and other procedures that use hard numbers to make assessments. Qualitative research methods primarily include observations and interviews where the researcher charts behaviour or makes field notes. Field notes are purely subjective because they are a researcher's opinion about someone or something, gathered while watching and listening. Accordingly, qualitative research has a more difficult task when trying to establish the reliability and validity of its data.

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    Qualitative Research

  1. 1

    Determine whether you are going to use interviewing or observation as your data recording technique.

  2. 2

    Be consistent in how you handle your data. Reliability in research data refers to the degree to which an assessment consistently measures whatever it is measuring. The key word here is consistent. If doing an interview, have specific questions to be answered by the participants. If you are using field notes, be sure to make specific observations.

  3. 3

    Use your results to increase the validity of your data. Validity of data in research refers to whether or not a topic or ability is actually measured by the instrument used to assess it. In qualitative research, it is whether or not you get a true picture of the process or behaviour being examined. Ask yourself, "Am I measuring what I think I am measuring?"

  4. 4

    Increase validity by notating and charting whether you are using an emic approach or an etic approach in your observations. Emic refers to looking at a behaviour with the perspective from inside the system using local concepts. Etic refers to studying behaviour using a perspective from outside the system using worldwide cultural concepts and not local beliefs.

  5. 5

    Learn to recognise the different types of validity. There is content validity, criterion validity and construct validity. An example of content validity could be measuring the knowledge gained by a student teacher after observing expert teachers and then teaching for a semester. Judging whether or not the student teacher learnt certain skills would be up to the expertise of the administrators who judge him. Criterion validity describes the extent of a correlation between a measuring tool and another standard. For example, you can look at a student's achievement on the ACT or SAT and then the student's academic success in college. Is there a correlation? Construct validity is the most difficult type of validity to establish. It is the degree to which an assessment measures a non-observable trait such as intelligence. This type of validity involves deductive reasoning from observation. Dealing with different types of validity is what makes establishing validity in qualitative research very difficult.

  6. 6

    Recognise the importance of combining qualitative and quantitative research to get the best result. The best research projects actually use a combination of the two methods of data gathering. For example, when there is a cultural problem perceived within a standardised test, researchers interview representatives of the affected test group and then go over each question of the assessment with each participant asking why a certain answer was given. That technique has been used to change instructions and vocabulary on standardised exams and give a better understanding of a student's actual knowledge.

Tips and warnings

  • To get the best understanding of the terms, look up past research projects.

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