Mixed methods diary research

Mixed methods diary research offers great potential, particularly as many diary research features are well-suited for mixed methods designs. The most striking is the flexibility of diary approaches, which can be easily moulded across the broad range of mixed methods research design options outlined by Creswell and Plano Clark (2017). Diary instruments can be developed in many ways: as highly structured and questionnaire-like (Mullan, 2019), unstructured and more open-ended (Martinez-Vargas, Walker & Mkwananzi, 2020), or a hybrid (Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitzgerald & Bylsma, 2003). This means diaries’ role and function can vary greatly between different studies. For example, some mixed methods studies in higher education have used diaries at the study’s start to provide a baseline understanding of participants’ experiences in an initial exploratory phase (Chen, Yarnal, Hustad & Sims, 2016), while others have used diaries towards the study’s end to explain or complement initial quantitative findings (Swim et al., 2003).

Triangulating findings from diary research with other methods provides many benefits to researchers. For example, one common approach is the diary-inter-view method (Harvey, 2011), whereby preliminary' findings from a diary study are used to develop interview questions. This allows researchers to expand upon preliminary diary findings with the interviewee, shedding greater light on findings that seem unclear or providing more depth into the sentiments expressed. Other research designs have collected diary' data after a questionnaire (for example: Swim et al., 2003), which can help explain preliminary' quantitative findings or provide deeper understandings about why' certain patterns were exhibited. In higher education research, triangulating diaries with other methods has previously provided researchers access into more in-depth and well-rounded understandings of highly sensitive or personal research topics, such as students’ experiences with racism (Swim et al., 2003) and sexism (Swim, Hyers, Cohen & Ferguson, 2001) or international students’ experience (Heng, 2017; Chapters 3 and 12, this volume).

Incorporating other methods alongside diaries can additionally help overcome perceived drawbacks or challenges of the method. For example, one consideration is self-reflection bias, as participants select themselves what to include in their diaries, which may not folly represent their experiences or may demonstrate only extreme examples (Cohen et al., 2018). Responses might also be influenced by social desirability bias; in recognition that their writing will be read by another person for research purposes, participants may wish to portray their lives and experiences in a more positive light (Cohen et al., 2018). However, using mixed methods diary' approaches allows for triangulation and member checking, meaning researchers can confirm or contradict the findings from multiple sources to create a more complete picture. An additional consideration is that some participants may not provide much depth in their diary' writing or there might be a waning response depth over time, particularly in more unstructured diaries. Mixed methods diary' approaches can help overcome such problems by' allowing researchers to follow up on interesting ideas that were perhaps initially' only explored superficially' in the diaries.

Altogether, mixed methods diary' approaches have the potential to offer unique insights into participants’ worlds in higher education research through flexible engagement with multiple facets of their experiences. In the next sections, we critically reflect on the benefits and challenges associated with mixed methods diary research in the higher education field through an in-depth exploration of our own research.

Research methodology adopted

The remainder of this chapter reflects on our experiences conducting a longitudinal mixed methods diary' study entitled Social Transition Research into International Doctoral Experiences (STRIDE). This project, situated within doctoral education research, focused on the social transitions and peer community' development experiences of 53 doctoral students studying in three higher education departments in institutions based in England, Scotland and China. The study’s underlying goal was to understand how doctoral students develop social support from peers within their departments and the roles doctoral communities play' in supporting students’ well-being. In recognition that social relationships and social transitions in higher education are complex experiences, we opted for a mixed methods approach using an explanatory sequential design (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2017). Altogether three research methods were used in this study:

  • Social network analysis surveys: Social network analysis is a research method that measures and maps existing social structures and networks (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). In this study, we used a closed network questionnaire, whereby' we provided doctoral students with a list of peers in their higher education departments and asked them to mark those from whom they' had received social support. These data were then used to visualise the existing networkstructure and identify quantitative patterns of social support between doctoral students.
  • Reflective diaries: The second research method was a semi-structured reflective diary' study that lasted for six weeks. Participants were asked to reflect in their diaries about the social community in their higher education departments, including how they had interacted socially within their doctoral communities, what social opportunities occurred, and what factors they felt affected the social support they received. The diary data provided an understanding of the types of social behaviours participants exhibited, as well as a reflective account of why they did or did not feel socially supported in their academic departments.
  • Semi-structured interviews: The final research method used was semi-stmctured interviews with doctoral students. In the interviews, participants were given the social network analysis visualisation as a mediating artefact and asked to reflect on the social network structure and their own role in the doctoral community'. Data from the diaries were also used as prompts to explore participants’ behaviours or reflections in greater depth. Altogether, the interviews provided an opportunity' to member check (i.e. check understandings of the findings with the population being studied) and develop a greater understanding of initial findings.

The mixed methods research design investigated doctoral students’ social support networks on multiple levels by considering what were students’ existing social networks in their higher education departments (using social network analysis), what behaviours or factors impacted students’ positions within their doctoral social community' (using diaries), and why these patterns were exhibited (using interviews). In the following sections, we reflect on the benefits and challenges of incorporating diary' research into a large-scale and complex mixed methods design in a higher education setting. For more information about the study, including its preliminary' findings, readers may' refer to Mittelmeier, Jindal-Snape and Rienties (2018).

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