LP 9: Introducing qualitative

To finalize my introductory unit, we dig deeper into how psychologists research human behaviour by introducing  the vocabulary of qualitative research.  In doing so, I am hoping to lay a groundwork for discussing research throughout the course.  The following lesson plan is a series of teaching ideas for getting students to work with the basic vocabulary of case studies, observations and interviews.

Case studies

When introducing the methods, I tend to first ask them what they know about the terms and then ask them how they think that psychologists would use them.  Below are some examples of the videos that I use in class.

When teaching about case studies at this stage in the course, I want to make sure that students understand some basic vocabulary.  Case studies may be longitudinal or cross-sectional.  Case studies use triangulation in order to increase validity.  This includes method triangulation and data triangulation. Case studies are holistic and naturalistic.

In addition, case studies may be retrospective or prospective - that is, they may look back at past behaviour or look at behaviour from the beginning of the case study into the future.

I like to introduce them to this case study by Vilnyur Ramachandran on a patient with the Capgra's Delusion and ask them to explain how this meets the definition of a case study. (The case study begins at 30 seconds in the video)

When discussing the case study, they should note that:

  • This study is of a single individual and is in-depth of a period of time.
  • It is a naturally occurring phenomenon and is not manipulated by the researcher.
  • Ramachandran speaks to different members of the family as well as to the patient in order to confirm his data - that is, he practices data triangulation.
  • He observes David's behaviour as well as carries out interviews.  He also measures physiological responses when David is exposed to images of strangers and people he knows.  This is method triangulation.


When introducing interviews, I teach them the concepts of a structured and semi-structured interviews and focus groups.

It is difficult to find good interviews online for students to watch as an introduction.  I have students watch this teaching video on clinical interviews.  I ask them to note as they are watching it what the characteristics of the clinical interviews are - and what would be the same if we were to do an interview project at our school to find out how people respond to stress.

Some common answers are:

  • Interviews are focused with a goal.  People being interviewed know that you are carrying out research and that it is not just a casual conversation.
  • Interviews take place within a specific time frame. There can also be "intake interviews" - which would be a pilot or introductory interview.  There may be follow up interviews.
  • Different types of interviews may be given with different types of participants.
  • Interviewers need to respect ethics:  confidentiality and respecting the interviewee.
  • Closed-ended questions are not as good as open-ended questions.


The following video is one of my favorites to show.  It is a covert, naturalistic, non-participant observation.

After the video, discuss which behaviours they observed.  Often students will say that "they are manipulating him" or that "he is frustrated."  Ask them to identify the specific behaviours that they are observing, rather than putting labels on the behaviour.

The second video shows an overt, lab, participant observation on helping behaviour in children.  With this video, we discuss how this is different from the first video and how they think that this may have affect the actual findings of the study.

Ranking methods

After introducing the methods, I then have them work with partners or in small groups to think about how we would apply different methods.  I ask them to consider each scenario below.  Then rank the methods for which you think would be the best for answering the request question down to which would be the most difficult or least valuable.  There is no "correct" answer to this activity; however, there are answers that would be better supported.  I tend to choose two different groups to present their arguments and then open up to class discussion.

Scenario 1

You are a psychologist that wants to study how people respond to a tragedy.  You have decided that you would like to investigate how people who survived the earthquake and tsunami in Japan (March 11, 2011) have coped with this national tragedy.  Which of the following strategies do you think would give you the best understanding of your research question?

  • A semi-structured interview in the form of a questionnaire which you send out to volunteer participants by email.
  • Focus groups made of up to eight participants who know each other.
  • An unstructured interview of 10 different participants - all from a local clinic.

Scenario 2

The government in your country is concerned about the growing problem of childhood obesity. They want you to carry out some observations on how eight-year-old children choose their food. Which of the following strategies do you think is the best for carrying out this research?

  • A case study in which you study a group of 20 children over the course of one academic year.
  • A series of covert, participant laboratory observations.
  • Interviews with a number of children about their dietary habits.

Scenario 3

The counselors and IB coordinator of your school are concerned that there appears to be a high level of stress among students who are doing HL math, science and psychology.  It is not clear to them why students with this particular combination are demonstrating more signs of stress than other students.  They have asked you to do a case study to determine the nature of the problem.  Which of the following plans is the best for carrying out your research?

  • A longitudinal case study of three students, using observations and interviews.
  • A cross-sectional case study of all students who have this combination of classes, using a structured interview.
  • A cross-sectional case study of students in your school and other IB schools in your region, using an online questionnaire.

Student copy

Evaluating methods

The final activity is something that we start in this unit and then will return to throughout the course as our understandings of research deepen.  It is a simple chart to get them to think about the strengths and limitations of the methods.  Here is an example of a completed chart.  A student copy is attached below.

Research methodStrengthsLimitations
Case studies


High ecological validity

Is able to study change over time

Triangulation leads to a higher level of validity.

Cannot be replicated.

Often retrospective - lacks data on the individual before the accident/event/start of symptoms.

Time consuming and requires good training of a team.


Ecologically valid - although structured interviews are less so as they are a less naturalistic communication style.

Personal and able to obtain a lot of data.

Focus groups may trigger ideas from participants that would otherwise not happen in a one-on-one interview or a questionnaire.

Subject to memory distortion as the data is self-reported and often cannot be verified.

Optimism bias or social desirability effect may influence the data.

It is difficult in focus groups to guarantee confidentiality.

Researcher bias may influence both the questions that are asked and the interpretation of the participants' responses.

Time consuming.

Covert, naturalistic, participant observations

Low in demand characteristics

High in ecological validity

Researchers get more "inside information" through interaction with the participants.

Ethical concerns of deception.

Lacks control over the environment.  Confounding variables may influence behaviour.

Researcher may unintentionally influence behaviour.

Difficult to replicate.

Overt non-participant lab observations

Lower in researcher bias as researcher is not part of the group being studied.

More controlled environment.

Easily replicable.

Open to demand characteristics since participants know that they are being observed.

Lower in ecological validity.

Researcher is detached from the participants and may not really understand choice of behaviour.  Potential objectification of the participants.

Student copy: Methods evaluation grid

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Comments 5

Katrina Allemeier 23 September 2018 - 22:58

Overt: participants "know" they are being observed.

John Crane 24 September 2018 - 05:27

Thanks, Katrina. Fixed.

Amanda Sturchio 29 September 2018 - 08:36

I know there is not answer key, but I was wondering if you had any suggested ideas for Ranking Methods that your previous classes have talked about? Thank you

John Crane 30 September 2018 - 07:14

Sorry, Amanda, I don’t. There is no correct answer, so students discuss in pairs, groups or as a class what they think. I intentionally do not give them any guidance outside if answering questions about the methods or correcting comments that I hear while doing the task.

Ethan Camp 3 October 2018 - 12:53

Hi John,
My students are a bit confused about cross-sectional vs longitudinal. The concepts make sense but is the case above by Ramachandran longitudinal or cross sectional? I was thinking cross-sectional because the patient is being observed at a specific point in time, but how long does the study have to be to be longitudinal?