Instructors have unique and valuable insights into what works in practice, particularly when teaching on a new course. Things like teleport timings, the density of certain lessons, and points that learners consistently seem to get stuck on are all important elements of training that can identified by instructors on the ground. The aim of this article is to introduce you to a practical research approach for gathering data to support the claims you make about training when proposing areas to be changed or sustained.


First, let’s cover some research basics. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to refer to the observations you make in the instructional setting as educational research. I’m also going to speak specifically about an approach called qualitative descriptive educational research.

You’ve probably heard about quantitative and qualitative research before. When you think quantitative, think numbers. The learning evaluation system Defence commonly uses is what you’d call quantitative, in the way it asks a number of people the same series of questions using a learning survey and looks for trends in those numbers.

When you think qualitative, think descriptions and observations. There are a couple of things you should know about qualitative descriptive research before we go on:

  1. Your subjectivity is viewed as a strength. You’re not going to be able to remove the bias you have as an instructor, and this type of research doesn’t want you to (Hamilton & Corbett-Whittier, 2013). In this case, being an instructor will enable you to observe things that others might not be able to see about the realities of the way the course is taught. That’s a major strength.
  2. Instructing and learning are messy human experiences, and qualitative descriptive research accounts for that (Taylor & Newton, 2013). This type of research was designed for social sciences, where human experience is at the heart of what’s being researched. In the Defence learning environment, you can’t predict when a trainee is going to be badly homesick and not be able to concentrate in the classroom that week. Qualitative descriptive research is all about observing a setting over a long period of time, so don’t worry about those inevitable bad days or weeks throwing off what’s being observed.


If you think gathering observational data about a course is something that you’re interested in doing during your posting, follow this guide to get started.

  1. Give yourself a couple of months in the job before you start documenting your observations. You don’t want to risk making a snap judgement about what’s “good” or “bad” about a course, based on what you’ve heard.
  2. Use resources you’ve already got. Qualitative descriptive research isn’t resource intensive, so you’ve likely already got the resources to start observing. Section off an area in your notebook and keep that as the space you can quickly jot down observation notes when sitting in on a lesson or teaching one yourself.
  3. Identify two or three things you want to keep a track of and observe (Hamilton & Corbett-Whittier, 2013). These can change, but it’s good to have a starting point. I like to frame my points for observation as questions, for example:"How much content are learners retaining from their first aid lessons?"


  4. Pick some tangible ideas to follow (Hamilton & Corbett-Whittier, 2013). Using my example, I can’t tangibly see how much content learners are retaining. What I can see, however, is how they perform in a test of objectives or how they recall their knowledge in a practical assessment. In that case, I might choose the test of objectives as the idea I follow to get a window into the question I’m asking.The ideas I’m going to follow: Lesson test of objectives, Practical first aid assessments


  5. Have questions ready to go for quick check-ins with your learners (Hamilton & Corbett-Whittier, 2013). Did a learner absolutely ace their assessment? Maybe they didn’t, and you could see they were lacking confidence? You could ask these learners questions to get their perspective on their own learning in that moment. Using my example, here are two questions I would have written in the back of my notebook:Check-in questions: “What are the things you found easiest to remember from the original lesson?” “Were there things in the lesson you wish we spent less/more time talking about?”


  6. Socialise your ideas with your team. As well as pulling your observations together at the end of the year, remember to talk about them with your team throughout your time as an instructor. This could be as simple as bringing up trends you’re seeing in conversation with your colleagues. The observations you make can enable the start of discussions, help your team look at things from a different angle, and assist in solving the problems you come up against in your day-to-day instruction (Roche, 2001).


  • Instructors have a unique perspective when it comes to seeing what works in training, especially where new courses are being implemented. Your observations can have meaningful, course-wide consequences (Tight, 2017).
  • Observational data from instructors can be easily collated in the back of your notebook over the course of your posting. The longitudinal observations you collect can help frame the realities of training in a different light (Tight, 2017).



Hamilton, L., & Corbett-Whittier, C. (2013). Using Case Study in Education Research. Sage Publications.

Roche, V. (2001). Professional development models and transformative change: A case study of indicators of effective practice in higher education. The International Journal for Academic Development, 6(2), 120–129.

Taylor, J. A., & Newton, D. (2013). Beyond blended learning: A case study of institutional change at an Australian regional university. The Internet and Higher Education, 18, 54–60.

Tight, M. (2017). Understanding case study research: Small-scale research with meaning. SAGE Publications.