The science and art of asking good questions in qualitative research

By Hannah Ogundipe Akinbode, Research Manager

Gaining a better understanding of the student experience through research is something all universities should continually want to do. This increased awareness should inform and change practice and enable students to develop as learners to get the most from their time at university. Usually pitted against the other, the choice between quantitative and qualitative methods depends upon the research purpose, aims and design. Whilst it is considered more time consuming, qualitative research can be particularly useful to understand the feelings and reasons behind presented statistical data. It is necessary to carry out for a thorough, deeper insight[i] into students’ lived experiences, and of their: academics, support services and extra-curricular activities. Conducting better in-depth qualitative research requires the ability to ask good questions and to listen. Without qualitative research, we can’t genuinely ascertain what students think and feel about the issues that affect them which can impact how well the support offered by institutions to students meets their needs.

Things to consider when developing good questions. A science and an art

Quality qualitative research is possible, and the key to conducting good qualitative research is asking good questions; this is both a science and an art. Within my role as a Research Manager I methodically apply the principles below.

Be clear and define: Try to cut out the unnecessary use of complex terms. Where you feel the use of key concepts is appropriate be sure to explain what they mean.

Sequence of questions: Start with easier questions or statements to help your participants feel comfortable. Assess flow of questions and consider if there is a logical sequence.

Pilot study: Test questions with a small group before your full-scale research to check questions are answerable.

Emotive language: When speaking keep away from using emotive language that shows your feelings towards a topic. Be sure to consider your body language.

Leading questions: Avoid leading questions.

Double-barrelled questions: Asking double barrelled questions is a common pitfall such as e.g. What challenges do BME students face when transitioning from school to university, and how does this affect academic performance, making friends and finding support?

Active listening is essential when navigating the time to stray or stay

It is good practice to go into a focus group or interview with a topic guide to lead the discussion. Part of the art and toolbox of a qualitative researcher is knowing when to stray and develop questioning not necessarily in line with your topic guide. Employing the skill of active listening is not only an important sign of respect to whomever is speaking, but you as the researcher become more informed on what your participants share. Which helps you ask better questions and ultimately conduct better research. Listening for the subtleties in what students say helps deepen understanding and enables you to seek clarification on unclear answers. As well as provide the opportunity to dig deeper into a specific comment that may be particularly interesting to, or repeated by participants. Active listening informs the extent you as researcher are able to use a participant’s own words to capture what was said more accurately and enables you to ask relevant and linked questions – a skill that gets better with practice.

Phrase questions in a way that gets the most out of your participants

Helping participants feel comfortable is foundational to qualitative research and has a big impact on how much students will want to share. We always want to find out how to improve the services we run, but this can sometimes be hard to translate into questions that are able to be well understood, and deeply answered by students. Consider the ease participants taking part in research will have discussing the subject matter – current experiences are easier to discuss than past or future ones. Be creative in your phrasing. Include some direct questions and think about how you can ask the same question in a different way. Remember, we can utilise the stimulus of video and pictures as part of our qualitative research toolkit as we see fit.

Scenarios are another tool and can be good to include when there is potential difficulty with asking a question directly. Considering this practical example (below), both questions are valid and are asking about improving welcome week in a different way.

A. Do you have any suggestions for how welcome week can be improved?

B. Imagine you are part of the student experience improvement group for your faculty and have been asked to improve welcome week for first years. What things will you think about?

Going with option B a scenario-based question allows students to have a more accessible starting point to answer the question more easily. Additionally, students are likely to reflect on and mention aspects of their experiences of welcome week when answering the scenario giving an extra layer of detail.

Dig deeper with follow up questions

Once you’ve drafted questions and decided on the ones that most clearly answer your research questions, then, decide on some specifying and follow up questions. A few classics we love to use are: Can you tell me more about?, why?, why not?, has this been your experience?, what do you mean by?

Not just for the sake of research. Research findings must be used to impact real change

Yes, it’s important to ground research in theory but, not just for the sake of it. We research to enact and impact real tangible change for students. Conducting meaningful qualitative research and robust analysis is a crucial part of the process to promote a more positive higher education experience for students, and to improve overall outcomes for them. This is an essential goal of our work as practitioners.

Case study: how qualitative research informed our current RCT for girls from low-income backgrounds  

In summer 2021, we interviewed a group of year 12 students (who identified as female and working-class). Many students reported feeling overwhelmed with choices about university, not having a process of comparing universities because they mostly stored information in their heads, and not having people they feel they could speak to (this supported findings from earlier interviews with King’s students in their first year)[ii]. We’re now designing a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) which will test a decision processing and reflection module, providing support for such students to make the ‘right choices for them’ when considering university. The findings from this RCT have the potential to directly impact the approach of our widening participation work at King’s. To hear more about the RCT project titled ‘Navigating Your University Choices’ – you can contact What Works at


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[i] Bryman, A., Clark T., Foster, L., Sloan, L. (2021) Bryman’s Social Research Methods. 6th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press




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