Undergraduate Research Teams and Collecting Qualitative Data: Some Considerations

This week’s guest blogpost is by Dr. Alisa Smith, who is a Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Central Florida. Dr. Smith examines the misdemeanor courts, case processing, and legal consciousness on decision-making. In this blog post, Dr. Smith discusses the benefits of developing a research team of undergraduate students to conduct large-scale research projects, and she offers some general strategies for scholars working with hierarchical teams.


            With a central goal of understanding, qualitative methods are well suited for studying “complex organizations and processes” (Whitt & Kuh, 1991). The courts, like higher education, are complex organizations with distinctive, intricate, and specialized processes and roles (Whitt & Kuh, 1991). Traditionally, qualitative research “has been done by individual researchers or by collaborating researchers of equal status” (Rogers-Dillon, 2005, p. 437). Yet, large projects benefit from team research that provides divergent perspectives, leading to innovative and creative approaches and analyses (Morrison et al., 2015). Literature discussions on the hierarchical team’s strategy — i.e., projects with a lead researcher working with research assistants rather than equal partners— has primarily (maybe exclusively) focused on projects involving graduate, not undergraduate research assistants (e.g., Levitt et al., 2013; Rogers-Dillon, 2005).  However, scholars at institutions without graduate programs could benefit from a model “of lead researchers” working with undergraduate “research assistants” in work that examines complex organizations (Rogers-Dillon, 2005, p. 437). This model is particularly beneficial in two ways (1) providing undergraduate students access to experiential qualitative work and (2) assisting professors with completing large projects. However, working in “hierarchical teams” in qualitative research also has disadvantages (Rogers-Dillon, 2005, p. 437).  The following section describes some of the benefits and costs of working with teams generally, followed by the advantages and disadvantages of hierarchical teams. Finally, recommendations are considered, drawing from the broader teams-research scholarship to improve hierarchical collaborative works.

Working in Teams

Like hierarchical teams, working in teams of equals carries advantages and disadvantages (Fernald, & Duclos, 2005; Garland et al., 2006; Whitt & Kuh, 1991). Benefits include the sheer capacity to carry out the work, interdisciplinary interactions that promote creativity and insights, reducing premature drawing of conclusions, and increasing the chance of recognizing problems with a project (Garland et al., 2006). Diversity among scholars raises challenges from rivalries, conflicting norms, and “ethical, logistical, methodological and political struggles between team members,” intensified by power and status differences (Morrison et al., 2015, p. 315; Garland et al., 2006; Whitt & Kuh, 1991). These conflicts are reduced (but are not non-existent) in hierarchical team models.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Hierarchical Team

            The first advantage for undergraduate teams’ research is that it introduces students to hands-on research, motivating and engaging them to apply book learning to field research. These experiential opportunities offer pedagogically sound approaches to learning. They expose students to new ways of thinking and demonstrate connections between theory and the real world.

Benefits also inure to scholars, especially those who conduct unfunded large-scale research studies in departments without graduate programs. Training undergraduate students to collect data makes these large-scale projects possible. The lead researcher (usually the professor) manages the research design. And unlike with teams of equals, students might offer insights and suggestions; the “control” rests with the lead researcher (Rogers-Dillon, 2005).

Undergraduate students collect or gather the data for the project and reduce the bias of the lead scholar, who may have spent years studying a phenomenon. In my personal experience, undergraduate students have been better equipped to conduct more neutral courtroom observations than the principal investigator (and author), who has over 25-years of experience as a public defender and more than ten years studying the courts (Argyrou, 2017). However, in gathering the data, the in-the-field decisions and judgments, observational perspectives, and spontaneity of interviewing participants raise questions about the ethical limits and difficulties of relying on undergraduate research assistants (Rogers-Dillon, 2005). Interviews by undergraduate researchers, who lack experience and in-depth training, might miss rich data opportunities attendant to spontaneous dialogue, open-ended, and semi-structured questioning. Still, undergraduate researchers are (at least for my work) perceived as more accessible and approachable by participant-defendants in court settings, open to asking questions, understanding, and learning without judgment about lived experiences. On the other hand, undergraduates are more likely to be intimidated by lawyers and judges, reducing their ability to gather that rich information. The following section provides recommendations to increase the chance of successful undergraduate research teams working in research in criminal justice settings or other professional settings such as health care or education.


Some recommendations for improving hierarchical teams of undergraduate students range from training to organizational skills. Training students for observations and interviews is critical. Allowing undergraduate students to practice and pilot data collection with hands-on training proves helpful. Students working in teams, gathering data, writing observational and reflective memorandums, and maintaining records provide the lead researcher the opportunity to notice inter-observer (in)consistencies (for field research) and regularly reviewing audio-recorded interviews offer instructive opportunities to improve future interviews (Fernald & Duclos, 2005). Collaborating, record keeping, and timely evaluating students’ work allow for oversight and assessing the ethical, judgment, and quality issues likely to arise (Rogers-Dillon, 2005). “[C]ritical issues of protocol, power relationships, emotion management, and interpersonal dynamics within the qualitative research” team should be expected, and lead researchers must plan and structure the project to reduce issues, yet also foster flexibility among hierarchical teams (Rogers-Dillon, 2005, p. 438; Ferland, & Duclos, 2005). Flexibility empowers undergraduate research students to respond to issues as they arise and permits them the authority to modify interview questions rather than perform mechanistically following overly structured protocols (Rogers-Dillon, 2005). Practically, large research assistant teams require organization through secure cloud-based software programs, similar to Dropbox, One-Drive or Teams; and qualitative data analysis tools, like NVIVO or ATLAS.ti to support juggling multiple peoples’ work and life commitments, communicating, navigating different work ethics or styles, and managing large datasets (comprised of field notes, observations, and interview transcripts). The technology reduces project delays and frustrations (Ferland & Duclos, 2005). Rogers-Dillon (2005, pp. 451-52) summarizes some of the recommendations that work well for managing hierarchical teams: (a) making power dynamics explicit; (b) allowing research assistants to adhere to their ethics; (c) hiring different research assistants for various parts of the project, and (d) encouraging the use of field memorandum by research assistants to capture their observations, feelings, and insights on the project.

Alisa Smith


Argyrou, A. (2017). Making the case for case studies in empirical legal research. Utrecht Law Review, 13(3), 95-113. (https://doi.org/10.18352/ulr.409).

Fernald, D.H., & Duclos, C.W. (2005). Enhance your team-based qualitative research. Annals of Family Medicine, 3(4), 360-364.

Garland, D.R., O’Connor, M.K., Wolfer, T.A., & Netting, F.E. (2006). Team-based research: Notes from the field. Qualitative Social Work, 5(1), 93-109.

Levitt, H., Kannan, D., & Ippolito, M.R. (2013). Teaching qualitative methods using a research team approach: Publishing grounded theory projects with your class. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 10, 119-139.

MacQueen, K.M. (1998). Codebook development for team-based qualitative analysis. Cultural Anthropology Methods, 10(2), 31-36.

Morrison, J., Clement, T., Nestel, D., & Brown, J. (2015). “Underdiscussed, underused and underreported’: Pilot work in team-based qualitative research. Qualitative Research Journal, 16(4), 314-330.

Rogers-Dillon, R.H. (2005). Hierarchical qualitative research teams: Refining the methodology. Qualitative Research, 5(4), 437-454.

Whitt, E.J., & Kuh, G.D. (1991). Qualitative methods in a team approach to multiple-institution studies. The Review of Higher Education, 14(3), 317-38.

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