Qualitative Research: How an Educational Project Changed the Way I Think About Research

Joanna L Drowos DO, MPH, MBA

Joanna L Drowos DO, MPH, MBA

Approximately 60 seconds into the jubilation over my acceptance to the prestigious Harvard Macy Institute Course for Educators in the Health Professions, I came to the stark realization that I would now need to develop a scholarly project at my own institution. Though somewhat daunting as a junior faculty member at a very young medical school, this presented an exciting opportunity to gain more knowledge and experience in medical education.

Ideally, my project would have something to do with a program in which I was already involved and where I wanted to try something new. As such, I immediately thought of one of my existing roles in our curriculum—to develop the primary care longitudinal preceptorship that runs across our entire third year (think Family Medicine Clerkship within a Longitudinal Integrated Clerkship). I began to flesh out a few ideas about enhancing continuity across 3 years of training and what this could mean for the students involved but had much to learn.

Fast forward to January 2015. As I sat with my fellow HMI scholars, panic set in as I thought about the reality of conducting my proposed project. My school has very few educational researchers who could help me develop this project and very limited financial resources to allocate to such a study. It quickly became clear that what I was proposing would produce only a small sample size to study. In reviewing the literature on longitudinal clerkships, I wondered what I could add to this existing work, as there is already strong support for continuity in clinical teaching.

As I met with the expert faculty at the HMI, I asked how I could reframe this project into something more meaningful and feasible for me. What they quickly helped me understand is that I was interested in “how” and “why” this experience would be different for the students who participated. As I considered various research methods, I determined that a qualitative approach would be the most appropriate to meeting my goals.

Stepping a bit out of my comfort zone, I began to explore what pursuing a qualitative project would involve. I am biased toward data and quantifiable comparisons, and qualitative research seemed so different; I really needed to look for additional sources of information. I started with the literature, reviewing articles about qualitative techniques and examples of qualitative studies. As I learned about grounded theory for developing new theories, phenomenology for analyzing how individuals perceive particular experiences, and ethnography to study cultures, I realized there was potential for me to take a scholarly approach to the project that I wanted to develop.

The more I learned about qualitative research, the more I realized that there are great opportunities for someone like me in this field. While it requires a rigorous and methodological approach, it lends itself well to medical education research.

It provides an opportunity to fill in gaps where there are theories developing and can be especially useful in evaluating informal learning, the unintended consequences of curriculum changes and domains of medical education that are difficult to measure quantitatively—like professionalism. I realized that these were areas I was interested in pursuing and that even with limited experience, limited resources, and limited research infrastructure, I could answer “why” and “how” the experience for students is different with enhanced continuity.

I am still uncovering the nuances of performing qualitative research. When I learned that the Harvard Macy Institute was offering an optional 1-day course focusing on qualitative research methods, I quickly signed up and began to think more seriously about my project.

Now I am learning as I am doing and figuring out each step in the process. I have recruited a great partner/mentor from my home institution, an experienced qualitative researcher from our College of Education’s Department of Assessment and Evaluation. (Stay tuned for the outcome!)

In the meantime, I encourage fellow junior faculty to think about whether there are questions you would like to pursue that would be better served through a qualitative approach. I think we will see a lot more of this approach in our medical education literature in the future!

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