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‘Doing time’: Issues for qualitative research when dealing with data related to time

Martin Johnson, Senior Researcher at Cambridge University Press & Assessment

Why is data related to time important for education research?

Considering ‘time’ is a crucial issue for researchers of education because development and change are fundamental to understand learning. Neil Mercer’s influential work (Mercer, 2008) suggests that research should always look at time in relation to content and impacthow does a teacher’s action invoke learner change which subsequently alters teacher activity? When looking at the concept of time, we can think of it in terms of its scale (seconds and minutes, or months and years), or its trajectory (unfolding and linear, or cyclical and interconnected), or its categorisation (within a single event, or across a series of events).

Why is time data problematic for research?

Accommodating the effects of time on qualitative research design can be problematic for a number of reasons: people can suffer from recall weaknesses, and there are well-known problems relating to participant dropout. Time also implicates a whole bunch of contingencies in the research process – for example, what we say as researchers influences what participants say, which then influences the subsequent direction of the research activity.

Here are some research-design issues to consider when dealing with time-related data.

‘Accommodating the effects of time on qualitative research design can be problematic for a number of reasons: people can suffer from recall weaknesses, and there are well-known problems relating to participant dropout.’

1. How does a person change during an activity?

Participants change during the research process, and they may not be able to easily recall past events. When researching discrete events, it is useful to draw on combined observation and self-reflection methods. For example, in a project looking at exam question writers’ thinking processes, we linked video observation data from a writing activity to the writers’ reflections on the activity immediately following the task (Johnson & Rushton, 2019). The combination of observation with participants’ own reflections helped to mitigate the problem of insecure participant recall and resulted in a model of question-writer behaviour that captured the important recursive and reflective stages of the professional writing process.

2. How does an issue change over a period of time?

It is possible that the nature of things will change over time. My research department is interested in the characteristics of curriculum documents from different places and times. I used systematic literature review and document analysis methods (such as systematically coding document content) in a study of ‘recovery curricula’ that support learning in emergency situations (Johnson, 2022). Using a publication date variable, I could consider how the nature of these curricula changed over time. I found that more recent curricula (published in 2020) focused on learner re-engagement and learning loss, while older curricula (published between 2000–2010) focused on societal rebuilding/peacebuilding – reflecting a shift in the focus of recovery curricula from civil conflicts to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Figure 1 shows the distribution of recovery curricula content themes over a 20-year period.


Figure 1: Distribution of recovery curricula content themes, 2000–2020

3. How does our own understanding of an issue evolve during a period of study?

Our understanding of the world develops through experience and over time, and it is interesting to reflect on how we build this into our research design. The use of sequential, mixed-methods designs allows us to iteratively take stock of our understanding at particular points in time and to refine our research process to achieve more nuanced outcomes. In a study of teachers’ experiences of using controlled assessments, we captured data from teachers in a series of ways (focus groups, case studies, surveys) over a 12-month period so that themes from each stage were refined by data analysis from previous stages (Johnson et al., 2015). In this way, we moved from two broad questions, through multiple analytic shifts, to finally focusing on four broad themes that characterised the challenges that teachers faced.

How will you take into account the impact of time on your research?

Incorporating and analysing time in research allows us to tap into processes and answer research questions in nuanced ways. While data relating to time may present us with challenges, this blog post has suggested a few suggestions about issues that we might need to consider when designing research.


Johnson, M. (2022). What are ‘recovery curricula’ and what do they include? A literature review. Research Matters, 34, 57–75. 

Johnson, M., Mehta, S., & Rushton, N. (2015). Assessment, aim and actuality: Insights from teachers in England about the validity of a new language assessment model. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 10(2), 128–148.

Johnson, M., & Rushton, N. (2019). A culture of question writing: Professional examination question writers’ practices. Educational Research, 61(2), 197–213.

Mercer, N. (2008). The seeds of time: Why classroom dialogue needs a temporal analysis. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 17(1), 33–59.