Five Qualitative Data Sources for Educators

Updated: Jul 16

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In the field of education, we are obsessed with the analysis and reporting of outcome data. On its surface, this makes sense. We want to ensure that every student in every classroom is reaching their fullest potential. Unfortunately, conversations centering on educational data almost always focus on a quantitative analysis of standardized test scores. While these scores are important, classrooms are extremely data rich environments and both classroom teachers and education leaders would benefit from adopting a broader definition of the word “data” that includes qualitative metrics.

Qualitative data are observational data that are used to describe an event, activity, or outcome – usually in words. In this post, I want to explore five types of qualitative data that is readily available to educators and discuss how they might be used to inform both instruction and policy.


Whenever you have a large group of people together in a single space, you have an environment ripe for observation. Observations occur when you watch an event or activity and document what is happening through your own eyes and in your own words. Observation is a powerful tool for classroom educators seeking to understand the experience of their students. Let’s say that an elementary school teacher is challenged by classroom management during rotational center activities. This teacher may benefit from stepping out of the center activity to observe and take notes as the students engage and rotate. By thoughtfully observing the process over a number of classes or groups, and taking thoughtful notes, the teacher may be able to design better procedures.

Non-evaluative teacher observations are also a great tool for education leaders seeking to improve school systems. Principals and instructional coaches should spend a large portion of their day in classrooms. As they do so, they should be taking notes of the things they see that are great and the things they see that may need improving. Once a month, these leaders can sit down with their notebook and reflect on their observations to make a data-informed decision about systematic changes, professional learning opportunities, or awards and recognition.

Journal Entries

Journal entries are a great way to deeply understand the experience of an individual over time. Teachers can have students journal their thoughts and feelings as they reflect at the end of the school day. Principals can have teachers journal after a faculty meeting or professional learning session, or as they implement a new technique in their classrooms. These journal entries can be collected and turned into incredibly valuable data.

Analyzing journal entries takes time and requires the deployment of qualitative coding techniques. Coding is when a researcher systematically applies themes to a body of text to identify themes. Once you have identified themes, you have turned your narrative entries into meaningful information that can be acted upon.

Document Analysis

In education, we love a paper trail. From student assignments to lesson plans, improvement plans to grant applications, educators are always producing documents. These documents provide a rich source of qualitative data that can help you understand your organization in a myriad of ways.

Teachers can benefit from exploring their student work through a rigorous document analysis process. This makes a great professional learning community (PLC) activity! The process is simple: First, the teachers involved must agree on a protocol for reviewing the documents. Perhaps they want to see if students have demonstrated a specific skill or achieved an identified standard, or maybe they want to scan for the use of key vocabulary. Regardless of the goal, a shared protocol is vital for ensuring that document review leads to the creation of actionable data. Next, each teacher should implement their protocol before finally coming together to review the results of your document analysis.

Building and system level leaders can also benefit from implementing a document analysis protocol. In the same manner I described above, district leaders can systematically analyze lesson plans to understand the interpretation of a district level initiative or review school improvement plans to see what supports schools need to achieve greatness.