d i g i t a l   a d v i s o r . . .

Interview Probes

An important part of interviewing is following up on things people tell you.  Your initial question opens the door to an issue, and your interviewee's response is a first draft of an answer to your question.  One that draft is on the table, you need to ask more questions to get the full story.  Here are the main categories of follow-up questions you will need.

1. Clarify what they said

People tend to speak in abbreviated ways, assuming you know what they mean. Don't fall for that.  Assume you don't know what they mean and ask questions to force them to say more.  If a teacher says, "We went over this in class," ask what "went over" means to her.  If a student says, "It was nice," ask what "nice" means to him.  Plan on asking questions like these:

  • Say what you mean by [term or phrase]
  • When you say, [term or phrase], what are you actually doing?
  • It sounds like you are saying, “. . . .”.  Is that a fair summary?
  • So you are saying . . . .? [any time you paraphrase what you think your interviewee said, you need to be sure and ask them if your paraphrase accurately captures what they meant]

2. Get more details

Again, people will give you abbreviated summaries of things and you will find that you need to ask for more details.  Here are the kind of questions you need to be prepared to ask:

  • Tell me more about that.
  • Can you give me an example?
  • What would that look like? 
  • How do you do that?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • What were other people doing then?
  • How did others [e.g., students] respond to that?
  • If I were watching you do this, what would I see?

3. Get their feelings, thoughts, rationale

Be prepared to ask questions of this type:

  • Why was that important to you?

  • Why does that stand out in your memory?

  • Why do you think you noticed that?

  • Why does that matter?

  • What motivated your response?

  • How did you feel about that?

  • What was significant about this to you?

4.  Ask about variations

You will want to learn if their response would be different in different circumstances.  You might consider questions such as these.

  • Do you always response [or do this] this way?
  • What might make you respond [or do this] differently?
  • Have you always felt this way?
  • How has your approach changed over time?
  • What motivated this change?

5. Test their ideas a counterfactual

A counterfactual is an opposite situation.  If a teacher says, I do "A" because it I have found it to be really effective,"  you want to know what she would think about option B.  This helps clarify her views.  Consider asking things like this:

  • Last week I observed a teacher who did B.  What do you think of that approach?
  • Last week I interviewed a student who said he thought B was more fun because . . . .  What do you think about that idea?
  • I recently read about a school that had a policy that required B.  How would you feel about a policy like that?
  • Suppose a new teacher came to your school and she advocated doing B.  How would you respond to that idea?

6. Review all possible influences

You will probably want to know about a specific list of factors that you think are relevant to your topic.  If you are asking about tests, for instance, you might want to know their response to, say, open-ended vs fixed option responses,  or about the amount of time the test takes, or about how the results are used or something else.  Though your initial questions should allow them to construct the issues, at some point you will want to ask about the variables or factors that are of special interest to you.  So you can ask about them in particular, with questions like these:

  • What about the test format?  Is that important to you?
  • that influence your thinking about this?
  • What about the length of time the test takes?  Does that matter?

7. Steer back after digressions

It is not uncommon for interviews to wander off course, and for you to spend a lot of time talking about things that will ultimately not be useful to you in your study.  Don't let this turn into a chat.  You want to be friendly and courteous, but you also have a task to do.  To steer your interviewee back after a digression, try pushing on how the digression happened in the first place.  Try questions like these:

  • How does this issue relate to the topic we started with?
  • Can you recall the associations that led you from our original topic to this one?
  • I'd like to understand more about how this relates to the earlier topic we were talking about.

8. Accommodate emotions

If your material is sensitive, or if it reminds your interviewee of something that is painful, your interviewee may becomes emotional, vent angrily or cry. You need not suddenly turn into Grandma Comforter.  Merely pause turn off the tape and wait for the person to compose himself.  Don't say much.  There is no need. When they seem calmed down, ask if they are ready to continue, and turn the tape back on.  Then return to the interview with a question that acknowledges the emotion, something like this:

  • Can you say something about why this issue generated so much emotion?
    • What aspects of this issue do you think prompted such strong emotions?

    © Mary Kennedy, 2006


    Evaluating Research

    Reasoning with Evidence

    Doing Your Own Research