Smoke Alarms and Smoke Screens: The Learning Journey of an Undergraduate

Anne O'Grady


This research project examined the use of photographs as a valid data collection tool within educational action research. It was a small-scale qualitative study focussing on the lifelong learning journey of BA Education Studies students at the University of Derby.

Whilst empirical research is an integral element of many undergraduate programmes, most often students use traditional methods to collect data, predominately interviews and questionnaires. This project aimed to demonstrate to students the value of collecting data using more contemporary forms-in this instance photography-to enhance other data collection methods.

The study involved working with a group of second year BA Education Studies students studying Research Methods as part of their degree programme. They were invited (over the course of one week) to take a photograph that represented for them their current views and feelings associated with being a second year undergraduate. Using photography as part of a set of data collection tools (photography and reflective interviews) the study records students’ views as they traverse their undergraduate programme and reveals the highs and lows of their experiences. In particular, the study considered how, or if, undergraduate students accumulate and transmit cultural and social capital within their experience of learning, through the construction of their ‘self’, (discussed as habitus by Bourdieu (1977), and through their interactions in higher education (discussed as practices within fields of experience by Bourdieu, 1977).

The findings from the project suggest that the use of photographs to support qualitative research studies can be used successfully by researchers and students alike to enhance the richness of data collection. Lecturers can support students to understand the research process more effectively by engaging them as active participants in research projects and by demonstrating data collection tools in action i.e. in this study photographs and reflective interviews. The study concludes that the use of photographs enabled the development of a more meaningful and reflective research interview, resulting in a rich data set. Additionally, the study records the lifelong learning journey of undergraduates who reflect that more needs to be done by higher education providers to support them to achieve their degree successfully. Further findings indicate that the undergraduate experience is felt very differently and individually by students, who traverse the higher education system.

O'Grady, A. (2012) Smoke Alarms and Smoke Screens: The Learning Journey of an Undergraduate. Educationalfutures, [online] Vol. 5(1). Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr, 2024].