Interviewing First Gen. Scholars about the academic year of Covid (2020-21); some reflections on data collection using Semi-structured Interviews conducted online

Part #1 of 5 – Future blogs will be shared with PSA with blog #3 Featuring on FACE in May 2023 and #5 in June 2023

By Dr. Lewis Mates, School of Government and International Affairs (SGIA) | 31st March 2023


When Covid broke in Britain in March 2020, it was soon clear that it brought serious potential EDI consequences. A mixed methods research project with Dr Adrian Millican in SGIA conducted over that first Covid summer period gave us an evidence base for suggesting a variety of measures our department and the wider university could take to try to support first gens. during what we anticipated to be (and was) the massively Covid-disrupted academic year of 2020-21 (Mates, Millican and Hanson, 2021).

In summer 2021, I embarked on a series of semi-structured interviews with first gens who had gone through that year in my department, trying to better understand how they had experienced it, what of our measures had actually been applied, and had then worked, or had failed to work and what we might do better in 2021-22, be it Covid-marred or more like ‘normal’. There were 26 interviewees in total, nearly all conducted on MS Teams and recorded (and taking advantage of the auto-transcribe function).

Given the diverse pressures of teaching in higher education (HE), it is only now, on a term’s scholarship leave, that I have been able to revisit and begin to prepare the data for thematic analysis using NVIVO. I wanted to share a few reflections and lessons learned, albeit some may seem rather self-evident to some/all of you! (My training was in History, so that’s my excuse…)

This five-part blog series is being shared between FACE and the PSA Teaching and Learning stream in order to promote dialogue between the more academic-related pedagogy-focussed bodies and more practitioner-focussed organisations such as FACE.

Parts #2 will be available on the PSA website and part #4 appears there in May 2023. FACE hosts part #3 in May and part #5 in June.

Please do feedback to me:

1. SSI’s with First Gens. are brilliant fun and pedagogically useful for the individuals involved in them directly as well as for research…

Let’s start with the overwhelming positive: I was conscious at the time I was conducting the interviews that I was working with intelligent, self-reflective, insightful people and that it was a real pleasure and a privilege to be able to do so.

Going back to the interviews now, I realised this once more, though at times there is SO much insight and complexity there that I almost wished they’d said less, and less sophisticated, things to me…

The aim of pedagogic research was secondary, fundamentally, to getting to know the students I was working with as their departmental first gen. staff contact. This would in turn hopefully allow me to better understand their specific teaching and learning needs and support them better, as well as build trust between us.

For those graduating in 2021, the interviews afforded some catharsis over what was a very difficult year (see a later point…)

All the interviews were thus very conversational and hopefully enjoyable for the interviewees as well as for me.

There are down-sides to this approach, of course (discussed below…).

2. Structure your SSI Questionnaire well

I had a clear idea of what I wanted to ask and typically shared my questionnaires with my interviewees before talking to them. I wanted to get at their general experiences and then ask about departmental-specific teaching and learning issues in a later section. While I tried to make a mental note of things answered earlier on that I didn’t need to ask again later, when analysing the transcripts there was often some overlap and repetition and sometimes even (small) elements of contradiction in an interviewees’ responses.

In some cases this was because interviewees had not thought in depth about specific elements of the Covid experience and what it meant for them: the interview itself offered a process through which they came to a firmer understanding.

All of this of course also made NVIVO coding a more laborious and complex process than maybe it needed to be and likely lengthened the total interview time and sheer number of words to analyse.

3. The conversational approach can…
a. … make for long interviews…

As we were having conversational interviews, I would also share things: about my experiences of teaching and learning during Covid or before; my mental health problems during Covid or historically; my experiences as a first gen. undergrad at Newcastle University; experiences in school and other slightly more bizarre (but contextually relevant) things like, for example, my relationship with my daughters’ rabbits!

All of these were relevant to the specific conversation as it was going on, but they did often make for a lot of irrelevant words in the transcriptions that needed deleting, especially as I was going to share the coding work on the anonymised transcripts with colleagues.

b. you may lose control of altogether…!

There was one interviewee particularly where it was so conversational that the questions went out of the window and we just had a chat about all sorts of things. One hundred and twenty-eight minutes into the interview I remarked;

This was with a student who I had worked closely with and who had just graduated and had already given me two interviews on related issues. That this happened spoke to me about how good the communication was between us, how relaxed things were and how the substantive research itself was definitely secondary. That said, I have begun to analyse this transcript and even with the absence of the actual questions for large time periods (and therefore a ‘structure’) there’s still loads of great material in there (albeit harder to find and code..).

Blog by Dr. Lewis Mates, School of Government and International
Affairs (SGIA), Durham University

References for Part #1

Lewis Mates, Adrian Millican & Erin Hanson (2022) ‘Coping with Covid; understanding and mitigating disadvantages experienced by first generation scholars studying online’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 70:4, 501-522, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2021.1966382


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