Capturing HE decision-making and choice narratives through eventbased diaries

The focus of this study was, in part, inspired by changes to the English HE sector in 2012, which led to policy discourses that positioned students as making individualised, rational, and consumer-driven educational choices (Molesworth et al., 2011). The research empirically and conceptually explored 16-19-year-old English Further Education students’ HE decision-making and choices over the duration of their post-16 studies. The study hoped to identify students’ reasons and influences informing their decisions to progress, or not to progress to HE, as well as their choice of HE institution and degree course. Conceptually, the research sought to explore to what extent these choice and decision-making processes were propelled by agency and constrained by structure. A qualitative longitudinal narrative inquiry approach was taken to capture how FE students’ HE choices and decisions were made, how they changed over time, and what had influenced such changes. Two methods were employed to explore participants’ narratives; semi-structured interviews and focus groups were conducted, on average, once every three months over an 18-month period (April 2014 to October 2015), and event-based diaries (Bolger et al., 2003) were completed alongside these. Participants’ event-based diaries were handed in at the end of the data collection period for analysis after taking part in their final interview/focus group.

Event-based (or ‘event-contingent’) diaries were deemed to be the most fitting approach to diary-keeping in line with the research focus. As noted earlier, an event-based schedule requires ‘participants to provide reports at every’ instance that meets the researcher’s pre-established definition’ (Bolger et al., 2003, p. 590); the ‘pre-established definition’ here consisted of participants’ plans, decisions, choices and thoughts about life after FE, as well as any experiences or influences that led to these. As the diaries were intended to capture qualitative accounts of thoughts and experiences in relation to participants’ HE decision-making and choices, these were ideally aligned to an event-based schedule. Both written and audio diary formats were offered to participants to increase accessibility (Worth, 2009). Yet, onfy 4 of the 13 participants accepted the offer of an audio diary', and just one was returned completed. The diaries worked to provide a continuous narrative picture of participants’ decision-making and choices over time, as entries were able to be made in between periodic interviews and focus groups.

Diaries were returned at the end of the data collection period, and were empirically and conceptually analysed. When diaries were retrieved from participants, an analytical ‘cut’ was made at every' three-month point, where possible, in order to mimic the analysis of the interview and focus group transcripts. A ‘cut’ involved grouping three consecutive months of each participants’ diary entries together for analysis, separating them from the following three-month period and so forth. This resonates with Archer’s (2010) work, as she contends that temporality is an essential part of the reflexive process. In light of this, she explains that an ‘analytical cut’ in time is required to allow analysis to take place, asserting that ‘[i]t is only by separating them in this way that the influences of the past upon the present can be identified and the effects of the present upon the future can be determined’ (Archer, 2010, p. 4). In making this quarterly ‘cut’, the diary entries provide progressive ‘snapshots’ of how participants deliberated their HE decision-making and choices over time.

Reactivity, rationality, emotion and ethics

Having reflected on the literature to provide insights into how the event-based diary' method may' have implications for reactivity', emotion and ethics, specifically' in the context of HE choice and decision-making research, the remainder of this chapter draws on diary' data to consider these themes in more depth. First, the relationship between reactivity' and ‘rational’ HE decision-making in participants’ diaries is explored. Following this, the effectiveness of adopting the diary method longitudinally to capture emotion, and potentially ‘override’ reactivity, is discussed. Finally, the ethical implications of utilising event-based diaries to capture participants’ decision-making and choices over time are considered. This discussion focuses on how the ability’ for participants to reflect on ideal choices and decisions that are sometimes later unfulfilled can lead to ‘self-protection’ responses, indicating threats to participants’ sense of well-being.

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