Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

Identity Accelerator #4: Sorting Your Stuff [Intro to Thematic Coding in Qualitative Research]

mkoole, · Categories: Educational technology, Identity, Teaching · Tags: ,



“Sorting your stuff” is a fun activity. It can lead so some personal revelations. What this activity involves is the participants emptying their handbags, book bags, backpacks, or other containers that they have with them. Then, they sort the objects into two or three categories and, in doing so, explain how they chose the categories into which they sorted the objects.

This is an activity that I have used in conducting workshops on phenomenography. But, recently at the 32nd Annual Qualitative Analysis Conference (2015), I noted that some professors* of qualitative research methods also use this activity to introduce basic thematic coding. It is, however, possible to use this activity simply as an “introductions and welcome” activity in a more general sense. For classes that are not related to qualitative research, facilitators can ask students to select object of different topics and themes.





Teacher responsibilities



I have had excellent success in using this activity for facilitating phenomenography workshops. However, it is important to remind students of qualitative research that they will more than likely be categorizing complex concepts. The use of simple manipulatives has its limitations. Therefore, I recommend this type of activity as a springboard. More in-depth discussions and activities are necessary in any instruction of qualitative thematic coding.

By asking the students to reach into their own handbags and backpacks, you are asking them to share some information about themselves. What we carry with us daily can provide insights into who we are as people. This activity can stimulate interesting and, at times, interesting discussions about what is important to us. I use “us” because the instructor should actively demonstrate and share alongside the students. In this way, this activity very much contributes to the acceleration of identities.


Rating 4.5 stars

 star_rating_full  star_rating_full  star_rating_full  star_rating_full  star_rating_half


Note: for an introduction to identity accelerators for online teaching and learning visit this entry.

*Note: The speakers at the 32nd Annual Qualitative Analysis Conference who mentioned this technique were: Gail Lindsay (UOIT) and Jasna Schwind (Ryerson University).

Qualitative coding: As I memo, I think

mkoole, · Categories: Identity, PhD Studies, Research · Tags: ,
LiveScribe memo booklet

One way of taking memos; I've been using Atlas-TI's memo feature

I am in the third iteration of coding—starting a fourth tomorrow. Whenever I start a new iteration, it seems overwhelming. And, I only just start to feel comfortable after I have already coded three-quarters of the transcripts. Upon the pilot transcript and the first iteration of coding, I used memos spartanly. I didn’t want to clutter my workspace. Rather, I was interested in just getting the codes added.

However, I have slowly allowed myself more and more latitude with memos. And, upon the third time through, it has become clear that memoing helps me to work through the thought process of why I am coding each segment in the manner I have. Many times, I have selected a code, dragged it onto the segment of text. Then, while memoing, I realize that it’s not quite right. As I memo, I think.

As I memo, I also see greater links with segments that I had previously coded separately. I can see better how they interrelate and should be considered as parts of a greater whole. This might seem a bit cryptic, but it is easy to code each sentence or paragraph—relying on the visual aspects of the text as a cue for when each code begins and ends. This is not necessarily the way to code–at least not for my phenomenographic purposes. (I believe we mentioned similar concerns with coding in the article referenced below.) I am interested in the meaning aspects of the text.  As I memo, I articulate my thoughts on the segment, and find myself better able to conceptualize the connections between the segments, between the segments and the transcript within which they appear, and between the segments and the collection of transcripts in the project.

A major advantage of using memos is that it is a record of thought. And, by retracing thoughts, codes can be reviewed, kept, modified, or changed completely. When there is a large quantity of data, time will elapse between the coding of each segment. It is nearly impossible to remember how each decision was made. Having a record of thought processes it extremely important. I have even included memos indicating my own shifting from one decision to another by comments such as, “I have decided to code this segment as X. Hmmm . . . no, I think I will code it this way instead . . . because this part of the segment indicates . . .” Being able to trace my hesitance, indecision, changes of mind helps in the final evaluations/decisions.

Recommendation: use memos; use them often.


Garrison, D., Cleveland-Innes, M., Koole, M., & Kappelman, J. (2006). Revisiting methodological issues in transcript analysis: Negotiated coding and reliability. The Internet and Higher Education, 9(1), 1-8. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2005.11.001

Data analysis: When it starts to make sense—also known as “breakthrough”

mkoole, · Categories: PhD Studies, Research · Tags: , , ,

Yes, that title says what I want it to say. I’m hoping that by sharing this in my blog, it provides some hope for doctoral students groping through the dark depths of their data.

Urquhart Castle ruins off Loch Ness, 2011

Admittedly, I have been procrastinating somewhat—a few months, actually. I have done the initial coding of my transcripts using discourse analysis techniques derived from the work of Gee (2010), Potter (1996), and some other significant authors. Then, I did some additional coding for some salient and potential phenomenographic categories that I saw emerging—some expected; some not so expected. I exported from Atlas-TI quotes according to the code categories. I have read through all of them in Word, highlighting and jotting down additional notes in on the pages themselves and in my extremely messy journal. I have plodded along in faith that something would one day make sense, and with an unspoken knowing that these steps would lead me to that place.

As a result of this seemingly blind journey, I started seeing categories of description emerge. And, I am getting a sense for the variation in experience associated with the categories of description.

During my last meeting with my supervisor in which she shared some newly discovered ideas from another student’s viva, I crossed my most profoundly deep threshold of understanding. I am now coding for some additional code-perspectives. And, I can see how discourse analysis strongly supports the study of liminality–sub-liminality, in particular. My supervisor and I discussed the idea of discourses and sub-liminality (hyphenated spelling is intended), and I found the relevant literature by the threshold-concept-gurus in my notes. (Thank gawd for the notes I took on my resources—invaluable.) Today, it feels as if it is just coming together.

At the time of writing this, I was in one of my favourite, sunny coffee-spots, and I was starting to code with these new codes. Suddenly, I saw significant meaning and patterns. I could see the connection between discourse analysis, threshold concepts, Harré’s Vygotsky cycle, and my data emerging as if it is the most natural thing in the world. Whoa. Breakthrough. Now, I must find more time to code.

Of course, my experience in writing my master’s thesis had taught me to expect these moments of lucidity to be punctuated with moments of feeling overwhelming out-of-control. Alas, these are natural ripples in the pond. Keep going.


Edwards, D. (1997). Discourse and Cognition (p. 368). London, UK: Sage Publications, Inc.

Gee, J. P. (2011). An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method (3rd ed., p. 224). New York, NY: Routledge.

Potter, J. (1996). Representing reality (p. 265). London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd.

Wooffitt, R. (1992). Telling tales of the unexpected: The organization of factual discourse (p. 217). Hertfordshire, UK: Harverster Wheatsheaf.