Cheryl Poth on the Nexus of Methodologies

Attending a workshop conducted by John Creswell changed Cheryl Poth’s academic trajectory, confirming an earlier epiphany that purely quantitative approaches weren’t telling the whole story that methodology can reveal. A decade and half later, Poth — now a globally recognized authority on qualitative and mixed methodology –joined Creswell to craft a fourth edition of his venerable book  Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches.

Their joint effort has been honored by the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA), which today is awarding the book its McGuffey Longevity Award, which honors well-written, well-research,, well-designed – and most importantly, well-received –books that have been in print for at least 15 years.

“Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design,” the judges wrote, “dependably reveals the research design path and provides navigational aids. No doubt it will continue to encourage more generations of researchers to embrace excellent qualitative research because of these attributes.” Taking advantage of the honor, we asked both Poth and Creswell about their work on the book, about trends in methods, and about their own academic journeys. Read Cheryl Poth’s reflections on methodology and being asked to join up with a giant whose workshop “changed the course” of her career below. To see John Creswell’s responses, click here.

Poth has been a faculty member of the Centre for Research and Applied Measurement and Evaluation within the Department of Educational Psychology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta since 2008. She has an adjunct appointment in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and serves as the methodologist on several cross-disciplinary research teams. She has authored more than 30 journal articles and served as guest co-editor of two special issues of the International Journal of Qualitative Methods and is a current editorial board member of that journal and the Journal of Mixed Methods Research.

You have quite a research methods pedigree. Could you detail some of the highlights of your academic career, especially as it relates to methodology?

About 25 years ago, while I was training as a natural scientist in the biological (or life) sciences field, I used the tools for quantitative research that were common to my field to generate observational and empirical evidence. Then in the 1990s, as I advanced my interests in global travel and natural phenomena as a secondary school classroom teacher in international and domestic educational contexts, I became concerned with the reliance on test scores to represent accurate and useful evidence of student learning. This lead me to frequently record written comments describing evidence of learning alongside the individual numeric scores for my students in my grade book. Although I was required to produce a numeric score twice each term for report cards, I was surprised to find myself referring almost exclusively to the written comments in my other communications with students and parents.

Subsequently, as program evaluator, I became even more convinced of the limitations of numeric data to capture the individual outcomes from participation in social programs. These experiences led me to realize the need to seek additional expertise about research if I was to advocate for policy changes.

When I pursued graduate studies in the areas of educational assessment, evaluation, and measurement, I became aware of the usefulness of qualitative research for understanding human behavior and investigating the why and how. Significantly, I also encountered the emerging mixed methods research field involving mixing qualitative and quantitative data. A particular experience, a two-day workshop with Dr. John W. Creswell, changed the course of my career. At the same time, I was developing my expertise in mixed methods research, I also sought new ways of conducting qualitative and quantitative research which has lead me to pursue and publish as well as supervise graduate students and teach courses across these research approaches. A career pinnacle for me (so far) is that I am currently serving as the fourth president of the Mixed Methods International Research Association (

At what point did you know your career would have such a strong focus on methodology?

In 2008, I became a faculty member in the Centre for Research and Applied Measurement and Evaluation, which is a research-intensive center in the Department of Educational Psychology in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. The central purpose of CRAME is to conduct high-quality research and provide outstanding research opportunities for graduate students.

One of our center’s focal points is innovations in research methods and this provided the opportunity for me to bring qualitative and mixed methods research to complement the already strong quantitative research that was being furthered. Also having the opportunity to teach our masters-level introductory research design course at the same time as offering my newly developed doctoral-level mixed methods research course in 2011 helped me to realize how methodological education might be offered.

How did you come to be a co-author on this storied textbook?

To put it simply I was asked. I was familiar with John’s books as I had used several of them myself as a graduate student and then as an instructor, so I recognized what a ‘golden’ opportunity this was! As I mentioned, John and I had known each other by this point for almost 15 years and had worked together on the founding of the Mixed Methods International Research Association and I had been a visiting scholar the University of Nebraska at his invitation.

After being asked, I then I revised a chapter of the book before I was officially brought on board which I think was good for John, Vicki [Knight] (our SAGE editor at the time), and I to see how we would work together. What I hope this story demonstrates is the power of strong mentorship and I am very grateful to John for the opportunity to learn from such a concise and accessible writer.

How do duties get allocated in the case of the existing author working with the new co-author?

I’m sure it depends on the people involved. For us, I give John full credit for entrusting me with this book – for the first chapter I created a list of suggested changes that we reviewed together and then I took the first go at the revisions that he then reviewed. Over time this became streamlined but John was very much involved. I am already building a list of revisions already for the 5th edition!

Two related questions:

What do you see as the biggest stumbling block for most people in deploying qualitative methods?

Time – In my experience people underestimate the time it takes to plan, conduct, and analyze qualitative data. Too much time is spent in the planning and then people run out of the time and the analysis is sometimes rushed.

And what was, or is, your own biggest stumbling block?

Writing up studies for publication – I love working with people, developing ideas, and working with data. Because I am a collaborative researcher, I have already shared the results when we finish so I am less motivated to get it out to a broader audience. Once I am engaged in the writing process, I again become excited to share and disseminate.

What are some of the new approaches emerging in qualitative or mixed methodology?

I am really excited about the intersections among different methodologies that I see emerging in the literature – I have long be doing ‘mixed case studies’ and ‘mixed evaluations designs’ and now there is more guidance in the literature. I am also working on an advanced text about guiding practices for mixed methods research under conditions of complexity. I believe the next frontier will be tackling what we call ‘wicked problems’ with whatever methodologies are appropriate for the questions.

 Is there anything you can see that concerns you more than it may excite you?

I am sometimes concerned about the lack of methodological focus in our graduate programs. I would like to see every graduate develop some level of methodological literacy across qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods research – meaning that they can read and assess the quality of research across a variety of studies. We still seem for the most part to be generating researchers who are experts in specific qualitative or quantitative research strategies with very little understanding of other research approaches. I think having a more broad based understanding of methodologies (in addition to specific expertise) will be important for future researchers.

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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