Teaching Qualitative Data Analysis with NVivo

Alice Davidson HeadshotBy Alice Davidson

I incorporated NVivo, a qualitative software program, to enhance instruction in my Senior Seminar in Developmental Psychology course in Fall 2017. Students used NVivo to code, analyze, and visualize narrative data (transcribed stories shared by preschool children about a time when “you were happy/sad”) for their senior research projects. Students shared their knowledge of NVivo in a workshop for the campus community at the end of the Fall 2017 semester.




What inspired you to implement this project?

Students learn to code qualitative data in multiple classes (Statistics & Research Methods 1, Senior Seminar) but use 20th century technology. The old-school method of coding qualitative or text-based data by hand, using print-outs or word documents, works, but is simply not an efficient way to organize and visualize the data. I have hundreds of transcribed child narratives that needed to be organized and coded efficiently. These narratives were collected from children who attended the CDC over the past 6 years. Students have worked with me to transcribe, code and analyze some of these stories, but this coding has been done in separate excel sheets; although I merge all of the final coded data in an excel and then an SPSS sheet, the data are still stored as separate word document files and it is not the most efficient means for organizing/coding or consistent with current practices of researchers doing narrative analysis. So, the inspiration for this project really was two-fold: how can I teach my students to code qualitative data effectively and efficiently? And how can I up my own game, in terms of my narrative research, in storing, coding, and analyzing my data? I applied for the FITI grant one year ago and spent a good chunk of the summer learning NVivo (I took a week-long, online seminar, participated in a couple of seminars, watched all of the practice tutorials and played around with the sample dataset made available my QSR).

What were the goals for this project? 

  1. Teaching students in Senior Seminar in Developmental Psychology to code, analyze, and visualize narrative data in NVivo: Students will work in small groups to conduct research projects all using young children’s narrative data.
  2. Assisting students in developing and delivering an Intro to NVivo workshop for the Rollins Community.

Identify the tools and resources you used for this project.

  • I signed up for and completed a week-long online NVivo course, participated in a couple of webinars, watched all of the practice tutorials available via YouTube, and explored the sample dataset made available my QSR
  • I consulted with Amy Sugar regularly to get feedback about the structure of/plan for the course.

What pedagogical techniques, strategies, and/or philosophies did you employ?

  • Data storage:
    • I uploaded all of the narrative data to one-drive and students had to import it into NVivo from there. I think it’s important for faculty to use the resources here at Rollins to think through the best way to store/deal with data they are going to use for project like this – especially data that is potentially sensitive, meant to be kept confidential (I had IRB approval to collect the narrative data and pseudonyms were used and identifying info was removed, but it was still personal stories from children, many of whom belong to people on this campus).
    • I had students save their coded NVivo files to onedrive at various points during the semester as well, so that they had backup files in case anything went wrong/they lost data for some reason Scaffolding students along the way.
  • For the first half of the semester, I introduced a new NVivo concept each week, and had them practice it on their own; regularly created handouts to accompany whatever NVivo features we were using that day.
  • Paper drafts due at various points throughout the semester.
  • Meeting with groups individually to help with coding, computing inter-rater reliability, merging files 20-minute weekly NVivo demonstrations by students.
    • This was especially great because it took the burden off me for providing all of the NVivo knowledge, it forced them to take some initiative/ownership of the program, and they definitely taught me features of NVivo that I was not familiar with (e.g., working with pictures, social media) Everyone working from the same dataset, but working in small groups.
  • I also had my students use secondary data that I previously collected with other students and I gave them the project topics (this took away some choice, but was the best option for this because there was no way they could develop a project, collect qualitative data, import it into NVivo, create and achieve inter-rater reliability on a particular coding scheme, code and analyze the data).

What were some of the lessons that you learned from implementing this project? 

Class met one day/week: When initially set the time for the class, I was thinking we might be collecting data in a school somewhere and wanted a big chunk of time. Instead, we met for 2.5 hours late on Tuesdays and I also spent the first half facilitating discussion about the articles, and the second half as a hands-on workshop honing our NVivo skills. This worked ok, but they definitely got fatigued by the end of class and I think could have prepared better (especially for the NVivo portion) if that was their sole focus for an hour and 15 minutes 1X/week.

Mac v PC incompatibility: 

  1. Importing the data did not always work smoothly (even a file created on a Mac and imported to a Mac) Coding separately on a mac v. pc and then attempting to merge those files is not advised.
  2. I assumed that most of my students would be Mac users and that I would put the 2 or 3 pc users in a group together. I only had 1 PC user, so he was fine with using NVivo for Mac in the computer lab – but it didn’t allow him to work on some of these skills independently at home, etc.
  3. There were also several technological issues/quirks we had to deal with – a student’s computer crashing; issues with merging files; one student’s laptop stolen in the middle of the semester;
  4. Also, I knew that at least half of workshop participants would be working with a PC (and we were holding the workshop in the PC lab in Olin) and NVivo uses slightly different labels for NVivo features (we created the handouts for the Mac version, with some notes for Windows users) so there were challenges in preparing for and communicating these differences to workshop participants;
  5. None of the workshop participants looked at the beautiful handouts we created (Students put in a moderate amount of work on these handouts – and Amy Sugar and I put a LOT of work into them – and participants did not even use them during the workshop. They contain a lot of information, so they are more of a useful tool for independently exploring NVivo Scope of the project too complex:

I’m really proud of everything that the students accomplished, especially after losing some ground with Irma early in the semester, but the scope of the project was just too complex. For example, I asked them to learn and master so many skills, but because we had to make sure we were ready to deliver the workshop, we cut some corners on some important research skills, but at I don’t feel great about. Ideally, I would have been much more involved with their coding scheme development, practice coding, and inter-rater reliability computations, and I would have had them practice coding for longer. They only had about a week to analyze their results, once they’d finished coding, and some of them needed a major refresher in SPSS, that I just did not factor into the class. So, I think if we’d had an extra week to analyze, they probably could have found more interesting findings (and been more invested in/knowledgeable about their research topics and conclusions).

In the future, if I want to use NVivo in a class, I will have them code data independently, perhaps, about data pertaining to themselves. For example, in my Adolescent Development class, students engage in weekly reflections and write a major identity paper; I can envision using NVivo to have students code themes that emerge in their personal reflection (e.g., about trust in relationships, self-awareness, personal values, etc.). I’ve discussed this with my colleague, Andrew Luchner about similar assignments he has in his psychotherapy course. I also could imagine using NVivo for a lit review. e.g., in our Stats & Research Methods course, students learn how to find several empirical articles on a particular topic. They could import those articles to NVivo and code themes in the articles relevant to their literature review. I think that it makes more sense to use NVivo for inter-rater reliability and coding in a longer-term project, like an independent study or honors thesis.

How did this project impact student learning?

Students accomplished more than they thought they were capable of and not only learned a new technological skill, they gained invaluable experience creating and delivering a workshop to faculty and students.

Is there anything in addition that you would share with other faculty about this project? 

Use the resources available to you at Rollins including instructional design team, librarians, etc.!

Alice Davidson
Associate Professor of Psychology

Alice Davidson, Associate Professor of Psychology, holds a B.A. from Rhodes College, and a M.S. and Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies from Penn State. She teaches community engagement courses in child and adolescent development. Her research focuses on children’s personal narratives and peer relations. She has published numerous articles and most recently co-authored a book, Conflict narratives in middle childhood: The social, emotional, and moral significance of story-sharing.