Lesson Idea: Understanding thematic analysis

Travis DixonQualitative Research Methods, Research Methodology, Teaching Ideas

A thematic analysis in qualitative methodology is much easier for students to comprehend if they give it a go themselves.

The aim of the activities in this lesson is to help students understand the process and purpose of conducting a thematic analysis in qualitative research.

It is not necessary to study how qualitative data is analyzed in the new IB Psychology curriculum, but it could be useful to help deepen your understanding of qualitative methods (and it could be used in response to one of the Paper 3, Question 3s, but it doesn’t have to be).


In order to conduct a thematic analysis you first need some data to analyze. I like to use a google form survey and ask students to write 50-100 words in response to this question: “How does social media affect your life?”

You can download a spreadsheet of data I prepared earlier here (but it’s more fun if you do it yourself.

After the data is collated in the google form, you have to go through the process of a thematic analysis.

How an inductive content analysis is conducted is explained in detail in the textbook, pg. 461-63. 

Quick Summary

  1. Read and re-read the data to become familiar
  2. Identify themes that are recurring throughout the responses
  3. Group these subordinate themes into larger superordinate themes
  4. Draw conclusions based on the findings

In a nutshell, what you are doing is trying to identify patterns and recurring themes – similarities of participants across the data.

Qualitative research methodology can be difficult for students to understand if it’s taught in the abstract; practical activities like the one suggested in this post can help students grasp the methods and concepts more readily since they become concrete. 

Extension Activity #1: Evaluation

Can you identify any strengths and limitations of a thematic analysis? How might researcher bias influence the analysis process?

Tip: A thematic analysis could be applied to either observational data or interview data – there’s no need to revise different approaches, although because of the nature of the notes and data, the process might be a bit different.

Extension Activity #2: Qualitative versus quantitative 

After all groups have finished the analysis, the next task is to discuss in what types of situations qualitative methodology would be advantageous and when quantitative methods might work better.

This works well if social media use is the subject matter because you can also think first think about questions you have about the use of social media and then thinking about which methodologies would be more appropriate.

For example, in our class some students talked about doing an experiment that studied the effects of social media on concentration spans. Another group came up with the idea of using interviews to see how using Facebook made people feel.  I then used these two different approaches to highlight the fact that quantitative methods can be useful to test hypotheses, whereas qualitative methods are useful to understand subjective experiences.