Posted by: bbannan | February 14, 2012

Interviews … Not as Easy as They May Seem – Mimi

You’ve decided to gather data by conducting interviews.  You, of course, wonder what questions you should ask, in what order you should ask them, and what follow up questions you should have ready.  You also worry about forgetting an important question and what to do if your interviewee gives an unexpected answer or goes off on a tangent.  Do you pull them back or do you let them take you where you did not expect to go?

So, why do interviews?  Interviews can be rich sources of information.  The research questions themselves will drive the interview questions.  The questions need to focus on getting the needed information.  As Goldin (2000, p. 519) explains, the interview questions need “to take into account their research purposes. These may include (for example) exploratory investigation; refinement of observation, description, inference, or analysis techniques; …; and/or inquiry into the applicability of a model of teaching, learning, or problem solving.”  But, interviews alone do not present an entire picture.  Researchers justifiably want to triangulate in order to solidify their conclusions.  Tobin (2000, p. 492) reasons that “if multiple data sources produce a pattern that makes sense, then there is greater confidence that the pattern is not dependent on a particular form of data, such as field notes or interviews.”

So, pertinent questions which are asked in appropriate ways and recorded accurately are the hallmarks of productive interviews.  Pertinent questions are dependent on the research goals.  How do we present the questions in an appropriate manner?   Kuniavsky gives a reasonable list of strategies to employ while interviewing to address these concerns.  Having done a handful of research interviews myself, I can acknowledge that his list is a good one.  However, there are a few other considerations which I would also include.

So that I can avoid repetition, I will state that my first set of educational research interviews were done with four colleagues, all high school math teachers.

Here are my additions:

Do not assume you know what the interviewee means.  During interviews, my colleagues occasionally said to me, “oh, you know what I mean.”  I would ask them to assume that I did not know and then I asked for more explanation.  To my surprise, more often than not, I DID NOT KNOW what they meant.  I was not completely off the mark; but, wow, we were at different shades of grey on many occasions.  Asking them to elaborate and clarify was eye-opening and gave me great insights.  It follows then, that it would probably be even more dangerous and inaccurate to assume that you know what your interviewee means if you do not know them.

Kuniavsky describes the “neutral interviewer.”  Personal bias is a big concern.  “The more involved the researcher is, the greater the degree of subjectivity likely to creep into the observations (Gay & Airasian, p. 213).  Everyone has their own biases, of course.  Learning to separate oneself from them during interviewing is no easy task.  However, it is important in order to garner the most from what your interviewees have to offer.  In analyzing interviews with science students who were engaging in problem solving, Clement (2000) found that the interviews revealed direct sources of misunderstandings and errors.   Goldin (2000) asserts that one of the values of good research, including interviews, is that it shows us other perspectives, but only if we are open to them.   Our ideas evolve as we learn; and, we learn to ask better questions, to listen more carefully, and, to combine observations with our listening.  Keeping our own opinions and viewpoints out-of-sight and out-of-mind during interviews allows the possibility of gaining perspectives outside of our own paradigms.   Some totally unexpected results are very possible.

Do not engage in conversations with your interviewees.  Johnson  & Christensen (2008) suggest establishing trust and rapport with your interviewees at the beginning of the interview process.  Starting the interview with fairly simple and nonthreatening questions is advised by Ary, Jacobs, & Razavieh (2002).   However, the researcher needs to keep her/his eye on the goal of the interview.   Falling into a comfortable conversation can happen very easily.   A classmate in my qualitative research class (EDRS 812) with Dr. Maxwell, told the class that she made an index card for herself with two words on it: SHUT UP.   She was interested in language and cultural studies and found herself so interested in what her interviewees were saying that she wanted to have conversations and discuss issues.  She used that card to help restrain herself.  It is difficult, however, especially when dealing with interesting people or people who you know well (not implying these are mutually exclusive groups).  But, the interviewee needs to be doing 99% of the talking.  Actually, you need the interviewee to do 99% of the talking.  “Listen more, talk less.  Listening is the most important part of interviewing” (Gay & Airasian, p. 213).   Keeping your opinion to yourself can be a difficult task; but, it is the bedrock of effective interviewing.  Researchers must  refrain from expressing approval, surprise, or shock at any of the respondents’ answers (Ary,  Jacobs, & Razavieh, 2002).

Lesh et al. (2000, p. 606) observed that, for some interviewers, “the ratio of ‘researcher talk’ to ‘student talk’ was nearly one-to-one;” but, for other equally adept interviewers, the “researcher talk” time was significantly less.  He based his research on the latter because the goal was to have the participants “reveal explicitly a great deal of information about their evolving ways of thinking.”  I infer from this that the more loquacious interviewers were not encouraging their interviewees to be as evocative about their thinking – largely because of their (interviewee’s) reduced air time.

Ask your interviewee her/his opinion of the interview.  Being an interviewee, as we all have been at least a couple of times, I have sometimes walked away from an interview wondering why certain questions were not asked of me and why obvious follow-up questions were not pursued.  So, my third suggestion is to get the interviewee’s opinion.  There are several ways to do this.  I was fortunate that the first several research interviews which I conducted were with colleagues.  At the end of the interview, with the recorder turned off, I asked how I could improve my interviewing.  One of my colleagues said that she was desperately trying to find the “right” answer (even though I repeatedly told her that I wanted her opinion and experiences) but that she could not read anything in my expression (or lack of).  This made me happy.  I did not want to influence her.  Another colleague told me that I only let a certain amount of silence occur.  He said that he liked to contemplate; but, after about 15 seconds or so, I would rephrase the question to elicit a response from him.   This did not make me happy.  I realized that I may have rushed him and missed out on some good insights.  But, I learned from that.

If asking your interviewee to give their opinion of your interviewing techniques is uncomfortable or inappropriate, you could always end the interview with asking if there was anything they wanted to talk about or anything you missed.  A follow-up email or survey could serve you well, too.

Reflect, reflect, reflect.  Asking questions so that valid responses are obtained and recording these responses accurately and completely, as suggested Ary, Jacobs, & Razavieh, (2002), seems almost too obvious to mention.  But, what should we be recording beyond the interviewee’s responses?  Hall (2000, p. 656) observes that “interviewing people raises all the usual problems of distinguishing what they say from what they actually do.”   Kuniavsky advises that “people won’t always say what they believe” and that the researcher should “watch for clues about what they really mean.”  Assuming that the two are not necessarily the same thing, then the idea of observational data becomes germane.  Creswell (2008) states that, at the end of an interview, the wise interviewer engages in “thanking the participant, assuring him or her of the “confidentiality of the responses, and asking if he or she would like a summary of the results of the study.”  Additionally, it is wise to make notes after the interview to memorialize your thoughts and impressions.  You think you will remember; but, you will not.  Those little observations are fresh in your mind right after the interview.  You will thank yourself for taking a few minutes to write them down.  I was surprised by how much I had forgotten when I read my reflective notes.  Creswell (2008, p. 412) advises researchers to “write down comments which help explain the data, such as the demeanor of the interviewee or specifics about the situation, or personal feelings about the interview.”   I found this to be very valuable.


Ary, D., Jacobs, L. C., & Razavieh, A. (2002).  Introduction to research in education (6th Ed.).  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Clement, J. (2000).  Analysis of clinical interviews: Foundations and model viability.  In A. E. Kelly & R. A. Lesh (Eds.), Handbook of research design in mathematics and science education (pp. 547-589).  Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Creswell, J. W. (2008).  Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (3rd Ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Gay, L. R., & Airasian, P. (2003).  Educational research: Competencies for analysis and applications (7th Ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.

Goldin, G. A. (2000).  A scientific perspective on structured, task-based interviews in mathematics education research.  In A. E. Kelly & R. A. Lesh (Eds.), Handbook of research design in mathematics and science education (pp.  517-545).   Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Halls, R. (2000).  Videorecording as theory.  In A. E. Kelly & R. A. Lesh (Eds.), Handbook of research design in mathematics and science education (pp. 647-664). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Johnson, B., & Christensen, L. (2008).  Educational research: Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed approaches (3rd Ed.)  Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Lesh, R., Hoover, M., Hole, B., Kelly, A., & Post, T. (2000).  Principles for developing thought revealing activities for students and teachers.  In A. E. Kelly & R. A. Lesh (Eds.), Handbook of research design in mathematics and science education (pp. 591-648). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Tobin, K. (2000).  Interpretive research in science education.  In A. E. Kelly & R. A. Lesh (Eds.), Handbook of research design in mathematics and science education (pp. 487-512). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.



  1. Mimi, Great additions to the interviewing topic. I have also encountered the value of making people explain what they mean rather than giving you the “you know what I mean.” Many times even if we are on the same page, they have a few points that are different (sometimes minor and sometimes major). It also helps to hear what you think in different words as it may give it a whole new meaning. I also really like your idea about getting the interviewees opinion on the interview. Great post on interviewing. Thanks!

  2. Mimi,

    Great job on your post!

    As you have stated, interviewees have the tendency to go off on a tangent when they provide an emotionally charged response. In a focus group setting, Kuniavsky mentions that these discussions could actually be useful and should be allowed to continue until the points of discussion are of marginal interest. Then as moderator, you quickly wrap up the discussion.

    I also thought it interesting that you quoted Kuniavsky to mention that people don’t always say what they truly believe. Although difficult to determine sometimes, reviewing the interview video and examining body language, might provide insight about the validity of their answers.



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