International and study abroad student programs are generally understood to be opportunities for students to gain important new knowledge from international travel, including how to become responsible and effective global citizens in possession of "cross-cultural competencies." Similar benefits are anticipated from the lesser known process of "internationalization at home," defined as any on-campus activity whereby international or study abroad students engage with and thus enrich the lives of domestic students. In the qualitative research project under discussion here, we investigate the lived realities of internationalization on an Australian university campus. This project is integrated into two qualitative coursework units in Anthropology and Sociology, in which students undertake a semi-structured interview and focus group with or about international or study abroad students. Describing and reflecting on students’ research practices, as well as our own observations while developing and teaching the units in 2014 and 2015, in this methods case we explore the challenges and possibilities faced by first-time (student) qualitative researchers, within and beyond coursework units. These relate to the practicalities of carrying out research in a short timeframe and with limited resources, the validity and comparability of analyses based on a single interview or focus group, and the difficulties of recruiting international or study abroad student participants. Student research findings indicate that international and domestic students rarely interact with each other on campus, highlighting a gap between the rhetoric and realities of the international student experience, with loneliness being a major issue among these students.
By the end of this case, students should be able to
- Identify key methodological issues in doing qualitative research with or about international or study abroad students
- Recognize the challenges and possibilities of conducting interviews and focus groups
- Understand the qualitative research process, and how it is impacted by factors like time, the availability of research support, and the number of participants
- Comprehend the difficulties of participant recruitment
- Evaluate the challenges of learning as well as teaching qualitative research
International and study abroad student programs are generally understood to be opportunities for students to gain important new knowledge from international travel, including how to become responsible and effective global citizens in possession of "cross-cultural competencies." Similar benefits are anticipated from the lesser known process of "internationalization at home," defined as any on-campus activity whereby international or study abroad students engage with and thus enrich the lives of domestic students (Nilsson, 2003; Soria & Troisi, 2014). In the qualitative research project under discussion here ("Intercultural learning at home: Promoting internationalisation on campus"), we investigate the lived realities of internationalization on an Australian university campus.
This project is integrated into two fourth-year undergraduate (honors) coursework units in Anthropology and Sociology at The University of Western Australia (UWA). In one unit, students plan, undertake, analyze, and report on a single semi-structured interview with or about international or study abroad students. In the other, they undertake a focus group on the same topic. The units are offered in consecutive semesters, allowing students to build on and extend the research conducted in their first semester, facilitating a year-long research experience.
Describing and reflecting on students’ research practices, as well as our own observations while developing and teaching the units in 2014 and 2015, this methods case explores the challenges and possibilities faced by first-time (student) qualitative researchers, within and beyond coursework units. We consider in depth the issues encountered both by students and ourselves. These relate to
- The practicalities of carrying out research in a short timeframe and with limited resources;
- The validity and comparability of analyses based on a single interview or focus group;
- The difficulties of recruiting participants, and particularly international or study abroad student participants.
We relate our methodological observations to students’ research findings, which indicate that international and domestic students rarely interact with each other on campus, highlighting a gap between the rhetoric and realities of the international student experience.
The project under discussion commenced in 2014, and was based on a trial conducted at UWA in 2013. From 2009 to 2011, the project coordinator, Loretta Baldassar, also researched, reviewed, and implemented the program from which this project emerged at the Monash University Study Abroad Centre in Prato, Italy (Baldassar & Mulcock, 2012). Two coursework units, offered within UWA’s Discipline of Anthropology and Sociology, were redesigned for the project, initially by Loretta and then in collaboration with Research Associate Lara McKenzie from March 2014 (for further discussion, see Baldassar & McKenzie, in press). Today, the units aim to advance students’ practical research experience in qualitative research methods. Students are assigned the broad research topic of internationalization at home, and are free to develop their own individual topics and research questions within this broad area.
Research in the field of experiential learning (defined as learning through experience) reveals that students’ experiences can only become knowledge through reflection, analysis, and synthesis (Hubbs & Brand, 2005). When initially developing the project, Loretta was struck that the process of experiential learning mirrored the qualitative research process: requiring reflection, analysis, and synthesis (Hubbs & Brand, 2005; Lutterman-Aguilar & Gingerich, 2002). She hypothesized that by studying internationalization at home and developing skills in qualitative research methods in a project involving international or study abroad students, domestic students would have the opportunity to engage in experiential learning with and about these students. The units were therefore designed to guide students in reflection, analysis, and synthesis of both the qualitative research process as well as the project participants’ experiences of internationalization at home.
The topic of internationalization at home enabled students to conduct research in an area in which they already had some experience, having studied on a campus populated by international and study abroad students for several years. Through set readings and seminar discussions, they began by familiarizing themselves with the topic of internationalization at home, and with research into international and study abroad students, as well as exploring literature reflecting on the processes, challenges, and limitations of conducting interviews and focus groups. They then developed a topic and research question to investigate. Based on their specific research focus, students formulated their list of interview and focus group questions. Although the project was deemed exempt from formal ethics review by UWA, and was thus excepted from many of the usual ethics requirements, students were required to undertake many of these procedures as a learning activity (e.g., as seen in Figure 1, students submitted and received feedback on a participant information sheet, which they then revised in response to that feedback and provided to potential recruits).
Description: A figure showing the themes and requirements of seminars, assessments, and feedback for the units in 2015. Beginning with a "literature review" seminar and ending with a session on "communicating findings," these tasks aim to mirror the broader qualitative research process.
Students then recruited UWA international or study abroad students, or occasionally staff or domestic students, for their interviews and focus groups. After carrying out the qualitative research, students transcribed their recordings, analyzed the data they had gathered, practiced coding the data according to themes generated by the group, participated in an online activity that enabled them to share data with their peers, and presented their findings in the form of a research report and poster. As well as being required to undertake independent research, students also participated in weekly seminars, completed and wrote notes on relevant readings (as detailed above), undertook assessments, and received ongoing feedback from teachers and peers, all of which mirrored the broader qualitative research process (see Figure 1).
In 2014 and 2015, both units comprised 15-20 students, most of whom were domestic (since the project’s beginning in 2014, only five have been international). A large number of international or study abroad students have participated in the project as research participants, however, with 145 (to date) having taken part in one-on-one interviews or small focus groups (with an average of four to six participants in each focus group). Including domestic students and staff, there have been 192 participants overall.
Throughout the course of the project, together with students, we have identified and developed a number of overlapping themes in participants’ accounts. Themes pertinent to our discussion of qualitative methods in this article include the following:
- Loneliness and confusion regarding cultural and social norms: These were persistent themes in students’ findings, especially when they focused on newly arrived international or study abroad students. Often, this meant that participants were very eager to be involved in the project and to share their experiences.
- Contradictions between the rhetoric and realities of international and study abroad student programs: Participants’ accounts highlighted tensions between the explicit promotion of anticipated benefits (like global citizenship and the fostering of cross-cultural competencies) and their actual experiences of being an international or study abroad student. These were tensions that the project, in part, aimed to address.
- A "bubble" effect, whereby international and study abroad students had limited opportunities to engage with their domestic counterparts: This significantly impacted domestic students’ opportunities for recruitment, as few had relationships with international or study abroad students on which to draw (see also Fechter, 2007).
There are numerous advantages and disadvantages, for both students and staff, when carrying out a student-led qualitative study such as this. Here, considerations of time emerged as a significant factor. Both units had nine to ten 2-hr seminars, spread over a 13-week semester. As outlined above, during this period, students undertook guided research with or about international or study abroad students: reading relevant literature; developing a research question; formulating questions for participants; recruiting participants; undertaking the research activity; transcribing, sharing, and discussing findings; as well as analyzing and presenting their conclusions. Thus, students’ research was condensed into a relatively short period of time (see Figure 1).
Moreover, students undertook these units as part of an honors degree. While the definition of such a degree varies internationally, the program referred to here is an optional, 1-year degree that follows a 3-year Bachelor of Arts (BA). It comprises a 15,000 word thesis—based on 1 year of qualitative and/or library-based research—and four coursework units—two of which are discussed in this article. Given students’ already significant workload throughout their honors year, as well as the emphasis on examining the research process in detail, students’ research engagement in these units is limited to a single 1-hr focus group or interview.
Given these time constraints, the units were designed with significant overlap and complementarity, so that they were experienced by students as a year-long unit on the same topic. Indeed, many students built on and extended the themes and foci from their first semester to their second semester, examining the same key areas in both their interview and focus group. This enabled them to test, compare, and contrast the different kinds of knowledge elicited by each method: personal understandings in interviews; and shared folk models or discourse in focus groups (Agar & MacDonald, 1995; Kvale & Brinkmann, 2015).
Before enrolling in the honors program at UWA, most students had completed a 3-year BA at the same institution. While research training in participant observation is a required aspect of this program, very few students had undertaken qualitative interviews or focus groups prior to enrolling in the units under discussion. Those who had previous experience in these methods gained it through other universities’ undergraduate degrees or through paid work beyond the realms of anthropology and sociology (where the conventions of these research methods differed, often a great deal).
This was commented on by one student, during an email exchange on the interview-based unit’s structure and focus. She said that at her previous institution, she had "done perhaps 7+ interviews thus far and so left my undergrad BA feeling confident with a recording device, interview question choices, information elicitation and with ethics clearances and discussions" (Semester 1 unit: Interviews, 2015 student). She observed that her peers lacked such experience. However, she felt she had comparatively less conceptual and theoretical knowledge and had not had the opportunity to examine and critique the methods themselves, as was a central focus of these units. When later asked about her comments, she added that her broader understanding of methodology—that is, of the limitations and strengths of particular research methods—had been limited. This contrasted with her relatively good understanding of the interview process. Thus, it should be noted that this methods case is most relevant to students undertaking or considering interviews or focus groups for the first time as well as students who have not studied the theory behind the methods: in this case, advanced undergraduate students.
Students had some access to research support when carrying out their qualitative studies. We (Lara and Loretta) were the main sources of this support, teaching the units (along with several guest lecturers, each of whom had experience as consultant researchers) and providing ongoing input on research questions, participant information sheets, lists of interview or focus group questions, and analyses (see Figure 1). For one semester in 2014, three "Arts Practicum" students, who were also international or study abroad students, worked as Project Officers, and assisted honors students with their recruitment in particular. (The Arts Practicum is a semester long unit for second- and third-year undergraduate students that enables them to participate in a research project or workplace placement.) Students’ learning of research methods therefore combined self-directed study and feedback from staff, as well as collaboration with other students (e.g., through the "data share activity," as seen in Figure 1).
One area in which students required support was in the preparation of their lists of interview and focus group questions. In general, students’ draft lists were far too lengthy for the allocated time of 1 hr. Some students included too many "ice-breaker" questions: enquiries designed to put the participant at ease, but that could easily take up the bulk of the time. Others had overly high expectations of how many topics and issues could be adequately covered in a single hour. Thus, we provided students with feedback to guide their preparation of a revised list of questions, ensuring that the central focus of their project was clearly articulated and that they were conscious of time constraints.
Most students completed the (first semester) unit on interviews prior to the (second semester) unit on focus groups. As a result, almost all students designed their draft list of focus group questions as if they were conducting a one-on-one interview. For instance, students might ask of their focus group participants, "do you have much contact with domestic students on campus?" Phrasing the question in this way encourages individual responses, rather than collective discussion, and it is thus more appropriate to a one-on-one interview. Group dialog is better facilitated when the question is reworded as follows: "do international students have a lot of contact with domestic students on campus?"
Difficulties such as these provided an opportunity for seminar discussion about the differences between interviews and focus groups, and several of the set readings examined this issue. One such reading was an article by Michael Agar and James MacDonald (1995), in which they argue that focus groups are designed to elicit shared "folk models," rather than being opportunities for several, simultaneous one-on-one interviews. Ideally, focus groups are used to uncover shared conceptions of a particular topic, rather than individual experiences or points of view.
Students who asked focus group questions with this in mind often uncovered "folk models" that have previously received little attention. For instance, conventional wisdom on internationalization at home—as expressed by university administrators, teachers, and international or study abroad students—often blames domestic students for their lack of interest in engaging with their non-domestic counterparts. Our students’ focus group research found that there were many reasons why these engagements did not occur, beyond an individual lack of interest (as might be revealed in an interview exchange on the issue). For instance, in one honors student’s focus group, domestic students collectively joked that they were "horrible people" for not engaging with international and study abroad students (Semester 2 unit: Focus Groups, 2015 student). However, they also concluded that the real reason for this was that, unlike international students, domestic students did not tend to be interested in making new friends in class, as they already had strong friendships with other students (due to the fact that they had been on campus for a longer period, and often commenced university with their peers from high school).
Students’ limited experience in conducting qualitative research, as well as the practicalities of carrying out research in a short timeframe, presented some potential challenges in the development of generalized research themes. This was to some extent mitigated by the fact that students were asked to include a copy of their interview or focus group transcript in their research reports (provided it did not contain any sensitive information). This enabled us to examine their data more closely: to identify themes that emerged across students’ research, to judge their skill in undertaking qualitative research, and to map their divergent research interests. This format made the work of unit coordination very labor intensive, however, which had implications for staffing resources.
One potential issue that emerged relates to the representativeness of a single interviewee or focus group, and whether analyses developed in this manner can be seen as valid or comparable. That is, can students generalize or make arguments on the basis of a single interview or focus group? Many avoided such issues by framing their research in biographical terms, positioning their findings in relation to other (supportive or contradictory) literature, or drawing on findings shared by their peers. With regard to the latter, for one of their assessments, students participated in a "data share activity," where they were asked to share up to three excerpts from their transcript as well as providing some context and analysis. This gave students the opportunity to incorporate others’ findings into their later assessments, and to compare them with their own findings.
In-class discussion also aimed to uncover overlapping themes in students’ findings. For instance, in one seminar, students were asked to discuss their research in relation to one of several broad themes, with these having been developed collaboratively in the previous seminar. The class then debated how best to code data according to the themes, asking their peers, is this a good example of the theme selected? Does the broader context of the interview or focus group support this analysis? Such reflections provided insights into the process of analysis, as well as highlighting its many challenges within a group project in which individuals carry out very small-scale research. This data share and coding seminar also incorporated some training in qualitative software programs, such as NVivo.
Students experienced many challenges in recruiting participants for their interviews and focus groups. As the vast majority of these participants were international or study abroad students, and here we focus particularly on this group. Participants were recruited through various international or study abroad student programs, as well as through snowball sampling and students’ personal contacts. As previously outlined, for one semester in 2014, three Arts Practicum (international and study abroad) students assisted honors students in their focus group recruitment. Yet, for the most part, students’ recruitment was self-directed, and we faced a number of challenges in teaching students to recruit effectively.
The main issue we faced with recruitment was students’ widespread assumption that it would be easy: "I’ll just post a message on Facebook," they frequently said. This approach was not always unsuccessful, especially when there was a large body of possible recruits from which to draw. However, students often knew very few, if any, international or study abroad students, and when this was the case, they found it extremely difficult to recruit effectively in this manner.
Indeed, previous studies (and this project itself) have found that domestic students rarely engage with international or study abroad students, as they generally already have well developed social networks of their own (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999; Soria & Troisi, 2014). This may be especially true in the context of our project in Perth, Western Australia, where the vast majority of UWA’s domestic students originate (UWA, 2015). Thus, students have little need to purposively meet international or study abroad students prior to undertaking these units.
While some honors students were able to find participants through better-connected peers or (in semester 2, 2014) through the Arts Practicum students’ social networks, most had to figure out recruitment on their own. For many, this meant getting in touch with staff or students running international students’ associations, clubs, or groups, and asking them to distribute bulk emails announcing a "call for participants." Such methods were only partially successful, however, and were less effective when it came to recruiting for focus groups, which required around five to ten participants.
One student provided a particularly useful example of the difficulties of recruitment. When seeking participants for his focus group in 2014, he had originally planned to recruit from within a large, formal study abroad program, comprising approximately 200 students, who had received scholarships to study at UWA. He aimed to uncover study abroad students’ motivations for and experiences of this particular program. As such, he arranged to meet with a staff member involved in the program, who then sent out several recruitment emails on his behalf. He also supplied recruitment flyers for distribution by the staff member. Reflecting on this process in his research report, he said,
Unfortunately, the response to my efforts was non-existent, and a fellow student who was also to conduct a focus group with [these] students yielded two confirmed participants with only one attending the time slot. As a last resort, I managed to arrange a focus group on staff perspectives, recruiting the staff member who had been assisting the initial recruitment efforts and three of their colleagues who they were kind enough to recruit on my behalf. (Semester 2 unit: Focus Groups, 2014 student)
Thus, it was the student’s extended personal contact with a staff member, rather than their attempted email- and flyer-based recruitment of students, that led him to find focus group participants. Similar problems with email- and flyer-based recruitment were experienced by many of the honors students. They were often uncomfortable recruiting participants for the first time, and felt that email contact alone was or should be adequate. Students often commented that emailing participants, reminding them to attend a focus group or interview, was awkward, yet avoiding such contacts frequently meant that participants forgot to turn up on the agreed time and date.
By far the most successful recruiters were those who drew on or established continuous, personal contacts (e.g., by employing snowballing techniques). This was illustrated by another student’s experience of recruitment. She had a very specific participant in mind for her interview: a female, international, Muslim student who wore a headscarf. As she did not know any such students herself, she decided to walk around the University campus and ask passersby whether they fit these criteria and, if so, whether they would be willing to be interviewed. She described this process to the class during her poster presentation, and her comments were met with a mixture of shock and admiration from other students. As well as being embarrassing, she described this process as somewhat problematic, as it had involved identifying students who "looked international" (Semester 1 unit: Interviews, 2015 student). Yet, it was also very effective: she had recruited a student who neatly fit her criteria and carried out a productive interview.
All students initially underestimated the challenges of recruitment, particularly when it came to focus groups. A similar observation has been made by Michael Agar and James MacDonald (1995), reflecting on their experience of conducting a focus group with drug users in a treatment program. They relied on the program’s overworked staff to recruit participants on their behalf, and ended up with a group of five, none of whom were informed of the purpose of the discussion, and many of whom needed to leave early (Agar & MacDonald, 1995). This led to a somewhat awkward discussion which, they suggest, was useful only when examined in combination with their previous participant observation and interviews (Agar & MacDonald, 1995).
In the case of this project, honors students tended to underestimate the time and processes needed to successfully recruit participants, as well as to develop their research focus, to refine their list of questions for focus groups or interviews, and to transcribe their discussions (indeed, every student who has participated in these units has needed to significantly revise their list of questions after submitting their draft version to staff). This highlights the need for students to "learn by doing," a point we previously emphasized in relation to the literature on experiential learning. Moreover, the examples provided above demonstrate that the process of recruiting participants, and of undertaking qualitative research more broadly, is often an awkward and uncomfortable one, as qualitative research engagements are not "normal," everyday ones. The students who were most successful at recruitment emailed their participants shortly before an interview or focus group, established or drew on personal relationships with their participants, and often felt awkward or embarrassed doing so.
Most of the students enrolled in these units, and therefore participating in this research project, were undertaking qualitative research for the first time. Initially, and in contrast to more experienced practitioners such as the authors (Lara and Loretta), they tended to view the process of qualitative research as highly formalized and inflexible. Ongoing relationships or friendships with participants were deemed inappropriate, conclusions drawn from a single case tended to be understated, and recruitment was thought to be best conducted through channels such as bulk emails, distributed formally by university staff members.
Moreover, the difficulties of recruitment and the necessity of sustained, personal contact with participants were significantly underestimated. When confronted with the realities of qualitative research, and of conducting research with and about international and study abroad students, honors students tended to be least successful when their research was viewed solely as a professional training exercise. In contrast, those who envisioned research as a flexible and shifting process of engagement, built on ongoing relationships of trust, had more satisfying and lasting research encounters.
For many, awareness of these issues grew over the course of the two semesters, and their second semester research experience improved greatly after having benefited from the first. Such improvements led to significant research findings: most notably, that international and domestic students rarely interact with each other on campus, with loneliness being a major issue for the former group. This served to highlight gaps between the rhetoric and realities of the international student experience.
- What are the steps involved in the qualitative research process?
- What are the advantages of learning research methods in the ways described? Without the constraints of time and resources that are described in this methods case, how do you think qualitative methods could best be learnt?
- What are the differences in data gathered from interviews and focus groups?
- Can findings gleaned from a single interview or focus groups be considered valid, comparable, or generalizable? If yes, how so? If no, why not?
- What are some of the challenges and difficulties of recruiting for interviews and focus groups? Can you think of some potentially effective ways of recruiting international or study abroad students that were not discussed in this case?