The diary method and its power to record the routine and forgettable in the language lives of international students

Olivia Groves


Diaries are valuable research tools due to their facilitation of rich and detailed information (Swim et al., 2003) that may be inaccessible by other research methods (Cucu-Oancea, 2013; Debreli, 2011). The diary method may also contribute to the integrity of a project through collecting data which is more accurate than that obtained via other methods such as interviews and questionnaires (Cucu-Oancea, 2013).

Despite these benefits, diaries have been relatively neglected as a social science research method (Milligan, Bingley & Gatrell, 2005). They have not become part of mainstream qualitative research methods which include questionnaires, interviews and focus groups (Reid, Hunter & Sutton, 2011). Higher education research, particularly, has been slow to adopt this method. The author, however, comes from the field of second language education, and in this discipline, diary' studies written from the perspective of the language learner are well documented (Lally, 2000) and were an inspiration for the project described here that spanned the fields of applied linguistics and higher education.

Low rates of application of the diary' method in higher education may' be reflective of the methodological issues identified as being problematic in its use. The most significant of these is the burden of effort and time required by' participants to keep a diary' and the associated respondent fatigue and attrition that this may' cause (Furness & Garrud, 2010; Tanaka, 2009). However, there are ways in which these weaknesses can be minimised or overcome, and the full benefits of the diary method obtained.

This chapter draws on a research project which investigated the situated (immersive, informal and authentic), English language learning of international students studying at an Australian university'. It discusses the benefits and challenges of using solicited diaries as a data collection tool to gather information about participants’ English language interactions. The chapter will outline the benefits that the method provided to the project, specifically, the power of the diary to collect data about the micro-level, every day and forgettable activities of the students. It will also discuss the challenges faced in using the method, including respondent fatigue and the fullness and quality of data. The discussion will conclude by offering suggestions as to how the method can be successfully used in future higher education research.

The following sections outline the benefits and challenges of the diary' method for higher education studies, and approaches to maximising the potential of the approach.

The usefulness of the diary method in capturing micro-level data

One of the major advantages of using diaries in social research, and the appeal of the diary' method for this study, is that diaries provide a way of uncovering routine or everyday processes and events that may be viewed as trivial and therefore easily forgotten by participants (Falconer & Taylor, 2017; Milligan et al., 2005). Higher education diary studies highlight the benefits of the method for accessing the ambiguous (Swim et al., 2003); easily forgotten (Swim et al., 2003); insignificant (Travers, 2011); less salient (Swim et al., 2003); micro-level (Dietrich, Kracke & Nurmi, 2011); mundane (Falconer & Taylor, 2017; Swim et al., 2003); patterned (Swim et al., 2003); routine (Falconer & Taylor, 2017); regular (Beckers, van der Voordt & Dewulf, 2016); and subtle (Swim et al., 2003). For example, through diaries, Beckers, van der Voordt and Dewulf (2016) captured the learning activities that university students worked on during a week, where they' occurred and why that location was chosen. Chen et al. (2016) tracked all the daily activities of university students including information about the duration, location, company' kept, emotions felt, and stress experienced over seven 24-hour periods. Such data would not be accessible via other methods, for example interview or questionnaire. Thus, one of the main reasons for using diaries is epistemological and relates to facilitating access to issues that are not normally accessible through other instruments (Cucu-Oancea, 2013; Debreli, 2011).

Diaries are able to capture everyday' activities because they require participants to record these events close to when they unfold rather than through recall at a later time (Cucu-Oancea, 2013; Hyers et al., 2012; Milligan et al., 2005; Nonis, Philours & Hudson, 2006). Indeed, Travers’s (2011) use of daily reflective diaries allowed university student stress to be recorded ‘as it happened’, capturing participants’ immediate and spontaneous assessments of stressful events. Similarly, Swim et al. (2003) used daily diaries to capture immediate emotional and behavioural responses to racism on an American campus. Its use in capturing data this way has the advantage of increasing the accuracy and fidelity of data by' counteracting or even eliminating memory errors (Cucu-Oancea, 2013). Solicited diaries are less subject to the vagaries of memory', retrospective censorship or refraining of data given by participants than other methodological techniques (Bartlett & Milligan, 2015; Heng, 2017; Scott, Green & Cashmore, 2012; Swim et al., 2003). Travers (2011) found that the diary' method allowed university student participants to make more accurate judgements about their stressors. Bartlett (2012) claims that what people write in their diaries is likely to be accurate accounts of what they did and how they felt at that time. Thus, diary' techniques are where accuracy about an individual’s experiences, actions and practices are important to determine (Bartlett & Milligan, 2015).

Lastly, higher education studies which have utilised the diary method emphasise the richness, detail and intricacy of data that the method allows access to (Heng, 2017; Martinez-Vargas, Walker & Mkwananzi, 2019; Scott et al., 2012; Swim et al., 2003; Travers, 2011). The unique findings from such studies highlight the potential of the diary method to gain access to rich information on the activities of various participants across higher education.

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