Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Section 2

Qualitative Research Designs

The field of qualitative research there are a number of research designs (also referred to as “traditions” or “genres”), including case study, phenomenology, narrative inquiry, action research, ethnography, grounded theory, as well as a number of critical genres including Feminist theory, indigenous research, critical race theory and cultural studies. The choice of research design is directly tied to and must be aligned with your research problem and purpose. As Bloomberg & Volpe (2019) explain:

Choice of research design is directly tied to research problem and purpose. As the researcher, you actively create the link among problem, purpose, and design through a process of reflecting on problem and purpose, focusing on researchable questions, and considering how to best address these questions. Thinking along these lines affords a research study methodological congruence (p. 38).

Case Study Design

Case study is an in-depth exploration from multiple perspectives of a bounded social phenomenon, be this a social system such as a program, event, institution, organization, or community (Stake, 1995, 2005; Yin, 2018). Case study is employed across disciplines, including education, health care, social work, sociology, and organizational studies. The purpose is to generate understanding and deep insights to inform professional practice, policy development, and community or social action (Bloomberg 2018).

Yin (2018) and Stake (1995, 2005), two of the key proponents of case study methodology, use different terms to describe case studies. Yin categorizes case studies as exploratory or descriptive. The former is used to explore those situations in which the intervention being evaluated has no clear single set of outcomes. The latter is used to describe an intervention or phenomenon and the real-life context in which it occurred. Stake identifies case studies as intrinsic or instrumental, and he proposes that a primary distinction in designing case studies is between single and multiple (or collective) case study designs. A single case study may be an instrumental case study (research focuses on an issue or concern in one bounded case) or an intrinsic case study (the focus is on the case itself because the case presents a unique situation). A longitudinal case study design is chosen when the researcher seeks to examine the same single case at two or more different points in time or to capture trends over time. A multiple case study design is used when a researcher seeks to determine the prevalence or frequency of a particular phenomenon. This approach is useful when cases are used for purposes of a cross-case analysis in order to compare, contrast, and synthesize perspectives regarding the same issue. The focus is on the analysis of diverse cases to determine how these confirm the findings within or between cases, or call the findings into question.

Case study affords significant interaction with research participants, providing an in-depth picture of the phenomenon (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2019). Research is extensive, drawing on multiple methods of data collection, and involves multiple data sources. Triangulation is critical in attempting to obtain an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon under study and adds rigor, breadth, and depth to the study and provides corroborative evidence of the data obtained. Analysis of data can be holistic or embedded—that is, dealing with the whole or parts of the case (Yin, 2018). With multiple cases the typical analytic strategy is to provide detailed description of themes within each case (within-case analysis), followed by thematic analysis across cases (cross-case analysis), providing insights regarding how individual cases are comparable along important dimensions. Research culminates in the production of a detailed description of a setting and its participants, accompanied by an analysis of the data for themes or patterns (Stake, 1995, 2005; Yin, 2018). In addition to thick, rich description, the researcher’s interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations contribute to the reader’s overall understanding of the case study.

Analysis of findings should show that the researcher has attended to all the data, should address the most significant aspects of the case, and should demonstrate familiarity with the prevailing thinking and discourse about the topic. The goal of case study design (as with all qualitative designs) is not generalizability but rather transferability—that is, how (if at all) and in what ways understanding and knowledge can be applied in similar contexts and settings. The qualitative researcher attempts to address the issue of transferability by way of thick, rich description that will provide the basis for a case or cases to have relevance and potential application across a broader context.

Using Case Study Design in the Applied Doctoral Experience (ADE)

Qualitative research methods ask the questions of "what" and "how" a phenomenon is understood in a real-life context (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2019). In the education field, qualitative research methods uncover educational experiences and practices because qualitative research allows the researcher to reveal new knowledge and understanding. Moreover, qualitative descriptive case studies describe, analyze and interpret events that explain the reasoning behind specific phenomena (Bloomberg, 2018). As such, case study design can be the foundation for a rigorous study within the Applied Doctoral Experience (ADE).

Case study design is an appropriate research design to consider when conceptualizing and conducting a dissertation research study that is based on an applied problem of practice with inherent real-life educational implications. Case study researchers study current, real-life cases that are in progress so that they can gather accurate information that is current. This fits well with the ADE program, as students are typically exploring a problem of practice. Because of the flexibility of the methods used, a descriptive design provides the researcher with the opportunity to choose data collection methods that are best suited to a practice-based research purpose, and can include individual interviews, focus groups, observation, surveys, and critical incident questionnaires. Methods are triangulated to contribute to the study’s trustworthiness. In selecting the set of data collection methods, it is important that the researcher carefully consider the alignment between research questions and the type of data that is needed to address these. Each data source is one piece of the “puzzle,” that contributes to the researcher’s holistic understanding of a phenomenon. The various strands of data are woven together holistically to promote a deeper understanding of the case and its application to an educationally-based problem of practice.

Applicability of Case Study Design to Applied Problem of Practice

Research studies within the Applied Doctoral Experience (ADE) will be practical in nature and focus on problems and issues that inform educational practice.  Many of the types of studies that fall within the ADE framework are exploratory, and align with case study design. Case study design fits very well with applied problems related to educational practice, as the following set of examples illustrate:

Elementary Bilingual Education Teachers’ Self-Efficacy in Teaching English Language Learners: A Qualitative Case Study

The problem to be addressed in the proposed study is that some elementary bilingual education teachers’ beliefs about their lack of preparedness to teach the English language may negatively impact the language proficiency skills of Hispanic ELLs (Ernst-Slavit & Wenger, 2016; Fuchs et al., 2018; Hoque, 2016). The purpose of the proposed qualitative descriptive case study was to explore the perspectives and experiences of elementary bilingual education teachers regarding their perceived lack of preparedness to teach the English language and how this may impact the language proficiency of Hispanic ELLs.

Exploring Minority Teachers Experiences Pertaining to their Value in Education: A Single Case Study of Teachers in New York City

The problem is that minority K-12 teachers are underrepresented in the United States, with research indicating that school leaders and teachers in schools that are populated mainly by black students, staffed mostly by white teachers who may be unprepared to deal with biases and stereotypes that are ingrained in schools (Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015; Milligan & Howley, 2015). The purpose of this qualitative exploratory single case study was to develop a clearer understanding of minority teachers’ experiences concerning the under-representation of minority K-12 teachers in urban school districts in the United States since there are so few of them.

Exploring the Impact of an Urban Teacher Residency Program on Teachers’ Cultural Intelligence: A Qualitative Case Study

The problem to be addressed by this case study is that teacher candidates often report being unprepared and ill-equipped to effectively educate culturally diverse students (Skepple, 2015; Beutel, 2018). The purpose of this study was to explore and gain an in-depth understanding of the perceived impact of an urban teacher residency program in urban Iowa on teachers’ cultural competence using the cultural intelligence (CQ) framework (Earley & Ang, 2003).

Qualitative Case Study that Explores Self-Efficacy and Mentorship on Women in Academic Administrative Leadership Roles

The problem was that female school-level administrators might be less likely to experience mentorship, thereby potentially decreasing their self-efficacy (Bing & Smith, 2019; Brown, 2020; Grant, 2021). The purpose of this case study was to determine to what extent female school-level administrators in the United States who had a mentor have a sense of self-efficacy and to examine the relationship between mentorship and self-efficacy.

Suburban Teacher and Administrator Perceptions of Culturally Responsive Teaching to Promote Connectedness in Students of Color: A Qualitative Case Study

The problem to be addressed in this study is the racial discrimination experienced by students of color in suburban schools and the resulting negative school experience (Jara & Bloomsbury, 2020; Jones, 2019; Kohli et al., 2017; Wandix-White, 2020). The purpose of this case study is to explore how culturally responsive practices can counteract systemic racism and discrimination in suburban schools thereby meeting the needs of students of color by creating positive learning experiences. 

As you can see, all of these studies were well suited to qualitative case study design. In each of these studies, the applied research problem and research purpose were clearly grounded in educational practice as well as directly aligned with qualitative case study methodology. In the Applied Doctoral Experience (ADE), you will be focused on addressing or resolving an educationally relevant research problem of practice. As such, your case study, with clear boundaries, will be one that centers on a real-life authentic problem in your field of practice that you believe is in need of resolution or improvement, and that the outcome thereof will be educationally valuable.

Case Study Design References

Bloomberg, L. D. (2018). Case study method. In B. B. Frey (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of educational research, measurement, and evaluation (pp. 237–239). SAGE.

Bloomberg, L. D. & Volpe, M. (2019). Completing your qualitative dissertation: A road map from beginning to end. (4th Ed.). SAGE.

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. SAGE.

Stake, R. E. (2005). Qualitative case studies. In N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 443–466). SAGE.

Yin, R. (2018). Case study research and applications: Designs and methods. SAGE.