When I went on my first field trip to interview research participants, the advice I received was, ‘just go for it; you’ll learn how to conduct interviews as you go’. Indeed, the more interviews I conducted, the better I got, but perhaps with more training, the first handful I did would not have been so terrible.
As part of the MSc in Research Methods in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, I was asked to run a unit on ‘conducting interviews’. Given my own experience, and following discussions with the Programme Director, we decided that some practical experience of conducting interviews was needed, so that the students could actually practice before heading out to the field.
With that in mind we employed 5 actors to be interviewed by the students with a generous Educational Enhancement Grant from LEaD. The students came up with research questions based on the broad topic of ‘marriage in the UK’. They had to develop an interview guide and had twenty minutes to try to illicit responses from each interviewee.
I wrote briefs for each of the actors to simulate some of the trickier situations that can arise when interviewing participants: the one who doesn’t really respond; the one who talks too much; the expert; the one who is suspicious; and the one who breaks down in front of you. The actors were fantastic and the students struggled, as I had intended.
In their reflective essays on the experience of developing and conducting interviews, the students correctly identified how they could have overcome the challenges, drawing from the literature . They identified key issues in conducting interviews: when and how an interviewer should put an end to the interview if the participant is becoming distressed; positionality – that their own identity can affect the interview process; and how to interrupt a respondent, without being rude.
The feedback from the students was extremely positive. According to a psychology student, “the day of conducting interviews really aided my learning and it was good to have the experience.” What the module showed is that we should do more to provide practical learning experiences that will help develop skills and not just knowledge – to benefit both the students’ research potential and their prospects after University.