A process for Making Sense of Your Data

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A Process for Making Sense of Your Data


Become familiar with the material you will be working with. Read through all your data. Try to recall the

setting, circumstances, the conditions, the people involved, and what was going on at the time. Keep your original research questions in mind as you read, but also be open to surprises imbedded in what you have collected.


Read through all of your data again, this time with a supply of colored pens on hand. After each passage, record a word or a phrase in the right-hand margin, which answers the question, “What is this about?” If questions come to mind as you read, make note of them in the margin using a different colored pen. If you have a particular insight about something, record this as well using a third color. Alternatively, you can keep a running list of your insights and emerging theories on a separate sheet of paper.


Now, review the many words and phrases you have generated. Record each of these on a separate index card or post-it note (no duplicates). Then organize your cards or notes into piles of closely related ideas. You may find, at this point, that some of your words and phrases are redundant, so some of your cards can perhaps be eliminated or similar ideas can be collapsed into one concept.
Attach a broad category name to each pile. The broad categories should be distinctive from one another. Each set of cards should represent a “family” of ideas beneath each of your broad categories. When you are satisfied with the categorization scheme you have devised, transfer it to a sheet of paper. Make a list of these different topics or themes beneath the relevant broad category. Assign each item on your list a consecutive number (code).

Code and Sort

Decide which data are relevant to your research and which are not. Read through your data again! This time, bracket passages that speak to your research questions. Record the appropriate code number describing that passage in the left-hand margin. When you have completed the coding of all of your data, cut the passages apart and sort them according to codes. If some passages have more than one code assigned, be sure to make additional copies of that section before you start cutting. Place the cut strips in folders or envelopes that are labeled according to their contents.


Identify your findings. Study each broad category of data, one by one. Lay out the strips related to each sub-category and read through the various bits of data. Study, think, and write. Study, think, and write some more. What general statements can you make about what you are finding out through these data bits? What do you believe you now know based on what you have read here? Record these general statements or “findings” on a notepad. Indicate the data strips that speak directly to your findings – those that provide representative evidence of what you now know, so that you can quote these in a final report.
If some of your data strips contradict your general findings, make a note of this. Be sure not to ignore the data that challenge our theory. What do you make of this contradictory data? How can these be explained? Share your findings and supportive data with colleagues or even people you have researched in order to get their perspective on your interpretations.
Repeat this process for each of your broad categories and their corresponding sub-categories.


Present the data in a way that is easy to take in at a glance. Draw, map or diagram your initial findings. Use the visual representation to help you explain to a colleague, “This is what is going on in my data.” And. “This is how different aspects of my problem or situation are related to one another.” Or, “ “Here is a picture of what I see emerging in my data.” See if someone else understands what you are trying to convey through the visual.


Tell the story you have heard through the data. Now that you have analyzed all the various aspects of your data and developed your findings, consider all the facts you have organized before you. Study the findings that you have recorded and consider what coherent story they tell. How does everything you have now learned fit together? How would you answer your research questions now?
What is the significance of what you have discovered? What are the implications for people involved? What other questions have been answered that perhaps you didn’t originally ask but are, nevertheless, important? What is your theory about the situation now that you have the data before you? Try explaining your theory to a colleague using the examples from the data to substantiate your claims.

Adapted from the Practitioner Inquiry Project, Department of Education, The University of Georgia (1997). Handout originally developed by Cassie Drennon and Jereann King for the Georgia Adult Literacy Inquiry Project and Literacy South. Durham, North Carolina (1995).

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