Abstract

Qualitative research was originally developed within the social sciences. Medical education is a field that comprises multiple disciplines, including the social sciences, and utilizes qualitative research to gain a broader understanding of key phenomena within the field. Many clinician educators are unfamiliar with qualitative research. This article provides a primer for clinician educators who want to appraise or conduct qualitative research in medical education. This article discusses a definition and the philosophical underpinnings for qualitative research. Using the Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research as a guide, this article provides a step-wise approach for conducting and evaluating qualitative research in medical education. This review will enable the reader to understand when to utilize qualitative research in medical education and how to interpret reports using qualitative approaches.

Image: J. P. Rathmell and Terri Navarette.

Image: J. P. Rathmell and Terri Navarette.

Qualitative research provides approaches to explore and characterize the education of future anesthesiologists. For example, the practice of anesthesiology is increasingly team-based; core members of the anesthesia care team include physicians, trainees, nurse anesthetists, anesthesiologist assistants, and other healthcare team members.1  Understanding how to work within and how to teach learners about anesthesia care teams requires the ability to conceptualize the complexity of individual psychology and social interactions that occur within teams. Qualitative research is well suited to investigate complex issues like team-based care. For example, one qualitative study observed the interactions between members of the anesthesia care team during simulated stressful situations and conducted interviews of team members; they described limited understanding of each team member’s role and perceptions about appropriate roles and responsibilities, which provided insight for interprofessional team training.2  Another qualitative study explored the hierarchy within the anesthesia care team, highlighting residents’ reluctance to challenge the established hierarchy and outlining the strategies they use to cope with fear and intimidation.3  Key issues in medical education and anesthesiology, particularly when exploring human experience and social interactions, may be best studied using qualitative research methodologies and methods.

Medical education is a complex field, and medical education research and practice fittingly draws from many disciplines (e.g., medicine, psychology, sociology, education) and synthesizes multiple perspectives to explain how people learn and how medicine should be taught.4,5  The concept of a field was well described by Cristancho and Varpio5  in their tips for early career medical educators: “A discipline is usually guided by shared paradigms, assumptions, rules and methods to present their knowledge claims—i.e., people from the same discipline speak the same language. A field brings people from multiple disciplines together.” Qualitative research draws from the perspectives of multiple disciplines and has provided methodologies to explore the complex research questions inherent to medical education.

Box 1. What to Look for in Research Using This Method

When appraising qualitative research in medical education, do the authors:

  1. Clearly state the study purpose and research question?

  2. Describe the conceptual framework that inform the study and guide analysis?

  3. Identify their qualitative methodology and research paradigm?

  4. Demonstrate adequate reflexivity, conveying to the reader their values, assumptions and way of thinking, being explicit about the effects these ways of thinking have on the research process?

  5. Choose data collection methods that are congruent with the research purpose and qualitative methodology?

  6. Select an appropriate sampling strategy, choosing participants whose perspectives or experiences are relevant to the study question?

  7. Define their method for determining saturation, how they decided to stop data collection?

  8. Outline their process for data processing, including the management and coding of study data?

  9. Conduct data analysis consistent with their chosen methodology?

  10. Consider techniques to enhance trustworthiness of their study findings?

  11. Synthesize and interpret their data with sufficient detail and supporting quotations to explain the phenomenon of study?

Current medical training is heavily influenced by the practice of evidence-based medicine.6  Trainees are taught the “hierarchy of evidence” for evaluating studies of clinical interventions.7  This hierarchy prioritizes knowledge gained through systematic reviews and meta-analyses, randomized controlled trials, and observational studies, but it does not include qualitative research methodologies. This means that because of their medical training and exposure to quantitative medical literature, clinician educators may be more familiar with quantitative research and feel more comfortable engaging in studies utilizing quantitative methodologies. However, many clinician educators are not familiar with the language and application of qualitative research and feel less comfortable engaging in studies using qualitative methodologies.

Because medical education is a diverse and complex field, qualitative research is a common approach in medical education research. Clinician educators who wish to understand the medical education literature need to be familiar with qualitative research. Clinician educators involved in research may also find themselves asking questions best answered by qualitative methodologies. Our goal is to provide a broad, practical overview of qualitative research in medical education. Our objectives are to:

  • 1) Define qualitative research.

  • 2) Compare and contrast qualitative and quantitative research.

  • 3) Provide a framework for conducting and appraising qualitative research in medical education.

Qualitative research in medical education has a distinct vocabulary with terminology not commonly used in other biomedical research fields. Therefore, we have provided a glossary and definitions of the common terms that are used throughout this article (table 1).

Table 1.

Glossary of Common Terms Used in Qualitative Research

Glossary of Common Terms Used in Qualitative Research
Glossary of Common Terms Used in Qualitative Research

What Is Qualitative Research?

Of the many attempts to provide a comprehensive definition of qualitative research, our favorite definition comes from Denzin and Lincoln:

“Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. Qualitative research consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices…turn the world into a series of representations, including field notes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings, and memos to the self. At this level, qualitative research involves an interpretive, naturalistic approach to the world. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of or interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.”12 

This definition reveals the following points: first, qualitative research is a “situated activity,” meaning that the research and observations are made in the real world, in this case a real life clinical or educational situation. Second, qualitative research “turns the world into a series of representations” by representing the observations, in this case of a clinical or educational situation, with qualitative data, usually taking the form of words, pictures, documents, and other symbols. Last, qualitative researchers seek to “make sense” of the meanings that research participants bring to different phenomena to allow for a greater understanding of those phenomena. Through qualitative research, observers comprehend participants’ beliefs and values and the way these beliefs and values are shaped by the context in which they are studied.

Qualitative versus Quantitative Research

Because most clinician educators are familiar with quantitative methods, we will start by comparing qualitative and quantitative methods to gain a better understanding of qualitative research (table 2). To illustrate the difference between qualitative and quantitative research in medical education, we pose the question: “What makes noon conference lectures effective for resident learning?” A qualitative approach might explore the learner perspective on learning in noon conference lectures during residency and conduct an exploratory thematic analysis to better understand what the learner thinks is effective.13  A qualitative approach is useful to answer this question, especially if the phenomenon of interest is incompletely understood. If we wanted to compare types or attributes of conferences to assess the most effective methods of teaching in a noon conference setting, then a quantitative approach might be more appropriate, though a qualitative approach could be helpful as well. We could use qualitative data to inform the design of a survey14  or even inform the design of a randomized control trial to compare two types of learning during noon conference.15  Therefore, when discussing qualitative and quantitative research, the issue is not which research approach is stronger, because it is understood that each approach yields different types of knowledge when answering the research question.

Table 2.

Comparisons of Quantitative and Qualitative Research in Medical Education

Comparisons of Quantitative and Qualitative Research in Medical Education
Comparisons of Quantitative and Qualitative Research in Medical Education

Similarities

The first step of any research project, qualitative or quantitative, is to determine and refine the study question; this includes conducting a thorough literature review, crafting a problem statement, establishing a conceptual framework for the study, and declaring a statement of intent.16  A common pitfall in medical education research is to start by identifying the desired methods (e.g., “I want to do a focus group study with medical students.”) without having a clearly refined research question, which is like putting the cart before the horse. In other words, the research question should guide the methodology and methods for both qualitative and quantitative research.

Acknowledging the conceptual framework for a study is equally important for both qualitative and quantitative research. In a systematic review of medical education research, only 55% of studies provided a conceptual framework, limiting the interpretation and meaning of the results.17  Conceptual frameworks are often theories that represent a way of thinking about the phenomenon being studied. Conceptual frameworks guide the interpretation of data and situate the study within the larger body of literature on a specific topic.9  Because qualitative research was developed within the social sciences, many qualitative research studies in medical education are framed by theories from social sciences. Theories from social science disciplines have the ability to “open up new ways of seeing the world and, in turn, new questions to ask, new assumptions to unearth, and new possibilities for change.”18  Qualitative research in medical education has benefitted from these new perspectives to help understand fundamental and complex problems within medical education such as culture, power, identity, and meaning.

Differences

The fundamental difference between qualitative and quantitative methodologies centers on epistemology (i.e., differing views on truth and knowledge). Cleland19  describes the differences between qualitative and quantitative philosophies of scientific inquiry: “quantitative and qualitative approaches make different assumptions about the world, about how science should be conducted and about what constitutes legitimate problems, solutions and criteria of ‘proof.’”

Quantitative research comes from objectivism, an epistemology asserting that there is an absolute truth that can be discovered; this way of thinking about knowledge leads researchers to conduct experimental study designs aimed to test hypotheses about cause and effect.10  Qualitative research, on the other hand, comes from constructivism, an epistemology asserting that reality is constructed by our social, historical, and individual contexts, and leads researchers to utilize more naturalistic or exploratory study designs to provide explanations about phenomenon in the context that they are being studied.10  This leads researchers to ask fundamentally different questions about a given phenomenon; quantitative research often asks questions of “What?” and “Why?” to understand causation, whereas qualitative research often asks the questions “Why?” and “How?” to understand explanations. Cook et al.20  provide a framework for classifying the purpose of medical education research to reflect the steps in the scientific method—description (“What was done?”), justification (“Did it work?”), and clarification (“Why or how did it work?”). Qualitative research nicely fits into the categories of “description” and “clarification” by describing observations in natural settings and developing models or theories to help explain “how” and “why” educational methods work.20 

Another difference between quantitative and qualitative research is the role of the researcher in the research process. Experimental studies have explicitly stated methods for creating an “unbiased” study in which the researcher is detached (i.e., “blinded”) from the analysis process so that their biases do not shape the outcome of the research.21  The term “bias” comes from the positivist paradigm underpinning quantitative research. Assessing and addressing “bias” in qualitative research is incongruous.22  Qualitative research, based largely on a constructivist paradigm, acknowledges the role of the researcher as a “coconstructer” of knowledge and utilizes the concept of “reflexivity.” Because researchers act as coconstructors of knowledge, they must be explicit about the perspectives they bring to the research process. A reflexive researcher is one who challenges their own values, assumptions, and way of thinking and who is explicit about the effects these ways of thinking have on the research process.23  For example, when we conducted a study on self-directed learning in residency training, we were overt regarding our roles in the residency program as core faculty, our belief in the importance of self-directed learning, and our assumptions that residents actually engaged in self-directed learning.24,25  We also needed to challenge these assumptions and open ourselves to alternative questions, methods of data collection, and interpretations of the data, to ultimately ensure that we created a research team with varied perspectives. Therefore, qualitative researchers do not strive for “unbiased” research but to understand their own roles in the coconstruction of knowledge. When assessing reflexivity, it is important for the authors to define their roles, explain how those roles may affect the collection and analysis of data, and how the researchers accounted for that effect and, if needed, challenged any assumptions during the research process. Because of the role of the researcher in qualitative research, it is vital to have a member of the research team with qualitative research experience.

A Word on Mixed Methods

In mixed methods research, the researcher collects and analyzes both qualitative and quantitative data rigorously and integrates both forms of data in the results of the study.26  Medical education research often involves complex questions that may be best addressed through both quantitative and qualitative approaches. Combining methods can complement the strengths and limitations of each method and provide data from multiple sources to create a more detailed understanding of the phenomenon of interest. Examples of uses of mixed methods that would be applicable to medical education research include: collecting qualitative and quantitative data for more complete program evaluation, collecting qualitative data to inform the research design or instrument development of a quantitative study, or collecting qualitative data to explain the meaning behind the results of a quantitative study.26  The keys to conducting mixed methods studies are to clearly articulate your research questions, explain your rationale for use of each approach, build an appropriate research team, and carefully follow guidelines for methodologic rigor for each approach.27 

Toward Asking More “Why” Questions

We presented similarities and differences between qualitative and quantitative research to introduce the clinician educator to qualitative research but not to suggest the relative value of one these research methods over the other. Whether conducting qualitative or quantitative research in medical education, researchers should move toward asking more “why” questions to gain deeper understanding of the key phenomena and theories in medical education to move the field of medical education forward.28  By understanding the theories and assumptions behind qualitative and quantitative research, clinicians can decide how to use these approaches to answer important questions in medical education.

Conducting and Appraising Qualitative Research

There are substantial differences between qualitative and quantitative research with respect to the assessment of rigor; here we provide a framework for reading, understanding, and assessing the quality of qualitative research. O’Brien et al.29  created a useful 21-item guide for reporting qualitative research in medical education, based upon a systematic review of reporting standards for qualitative research—the Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research. It should be noted, however, that just performing and reporting each step in these standards do not ensure research quality.

Using the Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research as a backdrop, we will highlight basic steps for clinician educators wanting to engage with qualitative research. If you use this framework to conduct qualitative research in medical education, then you should address these steps; if you are evaluating qualitative research in medical education, then you can assess whether the study investigators addressed these steps. Table 3 underscores each step and provides examples from our research in resident self-directed learning.25 

Table 3.

Components of Qualitative Research: Examples from a Single Research Study

Components of Qualitative Research: Examples from a Single Research Study
Components of Qualitative Research: Examples from a Single Research Study
  1. Refine the study question. As with any research project, investigators should clearly define the topic of research, describe what is already known about the phenomenon that is being studied, identify gaps in the literature, and clearly state how the study will fill that gap. Considering theoretical underpinnings of qualitative research in medical education often means searching for sources outside of the biomedical literature and utilizing theories from education, sociology, psychology, or other disciplines. This is also a critical time to engage people from other disciplines to identify theories or sources of information that can help define the problem and theoretical frameworks for data collection and analysis. When evaluating the introduction of a qualitative study, the researchers should demonstrate a clear understanding of the phenomenon being studied, the previous research on the phenomenon, and conceptual frameworks that contextualize the study. Last, the problem statement and purpose of the study should be clearly stated.

  2. Identify the qualitative methodology and research paradigm. The qualitative methodology should be chosen based on the stated purpose of the research. The qualitative methodology represents the overarching philosophy guiding the collection and analysis of data and is distinct from the research methods (i.e., how the data will be collected). There are a number of qualitative methodologies; we have included a list of some of the most common methodologies in table 4. Choosing a qualitative methodology involves examining the existing literature, involving colleagues with qualitative research expertise, and considering the goals of each approach.32  For example, explaining the processes, relationships, and theoretical understanding of a phenomenon would point the researcher to grounded theory as an appropriate approach to conducting research. Alternatively, describing the lived experiences of participants may point the researcher to a phenomenological approach. Ultimately, qualitative research should explicitly state the qualitative methodology along with the supporting rationale. Qualitative research is challenging, and you should consult or collaborate with a qualitative research expert as you shape your research question and choose an appropriate methodology.32 

  3. Choose data collection methods. The choice of data collection methods is driven by the research question, methodology, and practical considerations. Sources of data for qualitative studies would include open-ended survey questions, interviews, focus groups, observations, and documents. Among the most important aspects of choosing the data collection method is alignment with the chosen methodology and study purpose.33  For interviews and focus groups, there are specific methods for designing the instruments.34,35  Remarkably, these instruments can change throughout the course of the study, because data analysis often informs future data collection in an iterative fashion.

  4. Select a sampling strategy. After identifying the types of data to be collected, the next step is deciding how to sample the data sources to obtain a representative sample. Most qualitative methodologies utilize purposive sampling, which is choosing participants whose perspectives or experiences are relevant to the study question.11  Although random sampling and convenience sampling may be simpler and less costly for the researcher than purposeful sampling, these approaches often do not provide sufficient information to answer the study question.36  For example, in grounded theory, theoretical sampling means that the choice of subsequent participants is purposeful to aid in the building and refinement of developing theory. The criteria for selecting participants should be stated clearly. One key difference between qualitative and quantitative research is sample size: in qualitative research, sample size is usually determined during the data collection process, whereas in quantitative research, the sample size is determined a priori. Saturation is verified when the analysis of newly collected data no longer provides additional insights into the data analysis process.10 

  5. Plan and outline a strategy for data processing. Data processing refers to how the researcher organizes, manages, and dissects the study data. Although data processing serves data analysis, it is not the analysis itself. Data processing includes practical aspects of data management, like transcribing interviews, collecting field notes, and organizing data for analysis. The next step is coding the data, which begins with organizing the raw data into chunks to allow for the identification of themes and patterns. A code is a “word or short phrase that symbolically assigns a summative, salient, essence-capturing, and/or evocative attribute for a portion of language-based or visual data.”8  There is an artificial breakdown between data processing and analysis, because these steps may be conducted simultaneously; many consider coding as different from—yet a necessary step to facilitating—the analysis of data.8  Qualitative software can support this process, by making it easier to organize, access, search, and code your data. However, it is noteworthy that these programs do not do the work for you, they are merely tools for supporting data processing and analysis.

  6. Conduct the data analysis. When analyzing the data, there are several factors to consider. First, the process of data analysis begins with the initial data collection, which often informs future data collection. Researchers should be intentional when reading, reviewing, and analyzing data as it is collected, so that they can shape and enrich subsequent data collection (e.g., modify the interview questions). Second, data analysis is often conducted by a research team that should have the appropriate expertise and perspectives to bring to the analysis process. Therefore, when evaluating a qualitative study, you should consider the team’s composition and their reflexivity with respect to their potential biases and influences on their study subjects. Third, the overall goal is to move from the raw data to abstractions of the data that answer the research question. For example, in grounded theory, the research moves from the raw data, to the identification of themes, to categorization of themes, to identifying relationships between themes, and ultimately to the development of theoretical explanations of the phenomenon.30  Consequently, the primary researcher or research team should be intimately involved with the data analysis, interrogating the data, writing analytic memos, and ultimately make meaning out of the data. There are differing opinions about the use of “counting” of codes or themes in qualitative research. In general, counting of themes is used during the analysis process to recognize patterns and themes; often these are not reported as numbers and percentages as in quantitative research, but may be represented by words like few, some, or many.37 

  7. Recognize techniques to enhance trustworthiness of your study findings. Ensuring consistency between the data and the results of data analysis, along with ensuring that the data and results accurately represent the perspectives and contexts related to the data source, are crucial to ensuring trustworthiness of study findings. Methods for enhancing trustworthiness include triangulation, which is comparing findings from different methods or perspectives, and member-checking, which is presenting research findings to study participants to provide opportunities to ensure that the analysis is representative.10 

  8. Synthesize and interpret your data. Synthesis of qualitative research is determined by the depth of the analysis and involves moving beyond description of the data to explaining the findings and situating the results within the larger body of literature on the phenomenon of interest. The reporting of data synthesis should match the research methodology. For instance, if the study is using grounded theory, does the study advance the theoretical understanding of the phenomenon being studied? It is also important to acknowledge that clarity and organization are paramount.10  Qualitative data are rich and extensive; therefore, researchers must organize and tell a compelling story from the data.38  This process includes the selection of representative data (e.g., quotations from interviews) to substantiate claims made by the research team.

Table 4.

Common Methodologies Used in Qualitative Research

Common Methodologies Used in Qualitative Research
Common Methodologies Used in Qualitative Research
Box 2. Where to Find More Information on This Topic

For more information on qualitative research in medical education:

  1. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods: Integrating Theory and Practice, by Michael Q. Patton (SAGE Publications, Inc., 2014)

  2. Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches, by John W. Cresswell (SAGE Publications, Inc. 2017)

  3. Researching Medical Education, by Jennifer Cleland and Steven J. Durning (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)

  4. Qualitative Research in Medical Education, by Patricia McNally, in Oxford Textbook of Medical Education, edited by Kieren Walsh (Oxford University Press, 2013)

  5. The Journal of Graduate Medical Education “Qualitative Rip Out Series” (Available at: http://www.jgme.org/page/ripouts)

  6. The Standards for Reporting Qualitative Research (O'Brien BC, Harris IB, Beckman TJ, Reed DA, Cook DA. Standards for reporting qualitative research: a synthesis of recommendations. Acad Med. 2014;89(9):1245-51.)

  7. The Wilson Centre Qualitative Atelier (For more information: http://thewilsoncentre.ca/atelier/)

Conclusions

Qualitative research is commonly used in medical education but may be unfamiliar to many clinician educators. In this article, we provided a definition of qualitative research, explored the similarities and differences between qualitative and quantitative research, and outlined a framework for conducting or appraising qualitative research in medical education. Even with advanced training, it can be difficult for clinician educators to understand and conduct qualitative research. Leaders in medical education research have proposed the following advice to clinician educators wanting to engage in qualitative medical education research: (1) clinician educators should find collaborators with knowledge of theories from other disciplines (e.g., sociology, cognitive psychology) and experience in qualitative research to utilize their complementary knowledge and experience to conduct research—in this way, clinician educators can identify important research questions; collaborators can inform research methodology and theoretical perspectives; and (2) clinician educators should engage with a diverse range disciplines to generate new questions and perspectives on research.4 

Research Support

Support was provided solely from institutional and/or departmental sources.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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