Introducing observational approaches in research with children and young people
Introducing observational approaches in research with children and young people

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Introducing observational approaches in research with children and young people

1 Small-scale qualitative research using observation

The first research paper for you to read in this course is a small-scale qualitative study that uses observation as its central approach. In her paper Coates explores whether or not there is a relationship between what children talk about when they are drawing and what they actually draw. You should read this paper in stages and reflect on each part in turn as suggested below.

Good titles should reflect the content of a research paper and should give you enough information to decide whether or not the paper is relevant to your interests. You may already be familiar with carrying out literature searches. However, what is important to note now is that when searching for relevant papers you can base your search on words included in the title only. Titles are therefore very important and worth thinking about carefully.

Now read the ‘Abstract’ section of the research paper.

This part of the research paper provides an overview of the study. Notice how the abstract begins with three sentences giving some background information and a rationale for the study. The next three sentences outline the approach which was taken in the study. This is followed by several sentences which summarise the results of the study. Finally the abstract discusses aspects of the findings and identifies future research questions. It is worth noting this division. Research papers are very often divided into four sections – ‘Introduction’, ‘Method’, ‘Results’ and ‘Discussion’ – although there are exceptions to this, as you will discover when you read the rest of Coates's paper. Nevertheless, when writing an abstract it is useful to bear in mind that you should have one or two sentences summarising the content of each of the four main parts of the paper. As you can see, this is essentially the rule that Coates has followed.

Now read the first part of the research paper up to the heading The pilot study – observations’.

Activity 1

Jot down any points you notice about the functions of the information Coates includes in her introductory section.


Your list might have included some of the following points:

  • reports research which has been done before;

  • develops a rationale for her study;

  • engages the reader's interest;

  • justifies further study of children's drawings;

  • brings together two different areas of drawing and language;

  • provides the context for the study;

  • criticises current practices.

If you haven't included some of the points above within your list, re-read the introductory section. A good introduction will perform all of these functions as a way of providing a clear framework for the research which follows.

Now read the next section, The pilot study – observations’.

In this section you may have noticed that Coates describes what she did and what she found through her observations. As already noted, researchers often report the method (what they did) and the results (what they found) in two separate sections. But in this paper Coates has combined them. She calls this a pilot study although later in the paper she talks about it as a small-scale study. The latter is probably a better term in relation to this research because the term ‘pilot study’ is often used to refer to preliminary work which is done to ensure that the methods which are going to be used will provide appropriate data (i.e. that the methods work). However, as you will see later in her commentary, Coates was using this study to explore the appropriateness of her methodology, and in this sense it is a pilot study.

The description of the method is a crucial part of a research paper. It needs to give sufficient information to allow the reader to repeat the research in exactly the same way, albeit in the case of this paper, with different children in different schools. As you read Coates's account, ask yourself whether you could do exactly what she did.

Look at Coates's results carefully. Are they clear and succinct? Can you identify any ways in which you could improve on the way in which they are reported?

Finally, read the section headed ‘Concluding discussion’.

Activity 2

Make a list of what you think Coates is aiming to achieve in the ‘Concluding discussion’ section.


Your list might include the following points:

  • to relate her findings to previous findings;

  • to summarise her findings, i.e. that language and drawings change with age in a related way;

  • to identify further aspects to study.

If you have missed some of the above points you should re-read the discussion section and see if you can identify these aspects.

Coates also includes a note at the end of the paper pointing out that the research was reported previously at a conference. It is important to include this sort of information because within the research community it is agreed that normally research findings cannot be reported in an identical form in more than one place. However, this only applies to the medium of the reporting. Thus, exactly the same research findings should not be reported verbally at more that one conference or written up and published in more than one research paper or book chapter. Nevertheless, despite this rule, different aspects of the same data, or different ways of interpreting them can be reported in different places.

Coates also lists all the references she cited in her paper. Look carefully at how she lists the references. As you read other research papers you will notice that references are listed in different ways. The same information is normally provided, but the style varies. For example, sometimes the date of publication is in brackets, sometimes it is not. The publisher of the book or journal in which the research appears specifies the style which should be used.

Now that you have read the whole paper, go back to the title and the abstract. Do you think that they adequately capture the content of the paper? If not, how would you change them?

In some Open University courses we make use of specially commissioned author commentaries to give an insight into many aspects of the research process that are not visible in polished pieces of research as they appear in published journals. These commentaries illuminate some of the more problematic aspects of data collection and highlight some of the choices – and occasionally dilemmas – that researchers meet along the way. You will find the ‘Author Commentary’ by Coates after her research paper in Chapter 2.

Now read the ‘Author Commentary’ by Coates at the end of Chapter 2.

Author commentary - Coates [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Activity 3

Note down the answers to the following questions in relation to Coates's commentary.

What led Coates to carry out her research?

Did she have a hypothesis? What was it?

Was her research affected by any factors beyond her control?

Why does she call this a pilot study?

She chose an observational method. Why?

She took a qualitative approach. Why?

From whom did she get permission to carry out the research?

Are any ethical issues raised by this research paper? What are they?

How did she go about analysing her data?

Has the research led to further questions? What are they?


When we first read Coates's commentary we found that it enhanced and enriched our understanding of her research study. We hope you found the same.


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