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Sub Themes In Thematic Analysis Essay

Com 473--Baldwin—Communication—Illinois State University

Thematic Analysis Out-of-Class Observation Exercise

Objectives: Through this exercise students should

  • Develop practice at finding a focus of a research, locating clear (logical and cohesive) categories, and providing examples of those categories.
  • Demonstrate abilities at using varying analytic methods (grounded theory, a priori coding, Spradley’s semantic dimensions, or some other approach) to make sense of actual data
  • Demonstrate the ability to create tentative conclusions and possible directions for research from analysis of an interview

Details: To accomplish this exercise, students should:

In a real analysis, one would use several interviews and would likely look at several category sets (causes, effects/consequences, strategies, etc.) present across the interviews, or would, depending on the approach, present a ‘case history’ of a smaller number of individuals. For this project, we will treat the interview as a “respondent” interview (not a “case history” interview) (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002).

  • Begin with the interview [or open-ended questionnaire responses] provided to you. Read through it lightly once to orient yourself with the overall theme of the interview.
  • Choose a particular research focus. For example, if the interview is about a wide array of teaching experiences, you might choose to focus specifically on aspects relating to “strategies for effective teaching” or any comments related to “student challenges of the instructor.”
  • “Code” a printed copy of the interview:
    • Set R margin wide—at 1 ½ to 2 inches. Print off interview
    • Write “codes” in the margin—words, phrases that you may want to look at later as you develop your categories. See below for coding ideas.
    • Draw lines in interview to indicate “units” you would see (especially those that pertain to the focus you choose. There may be segments of the interview that you do not code at present if they are not focused on your topic). This is the unitizing stage of analysis. You will not seek intercoder reliability in this assignment.
  • Categorize the statements/comments that you have unitized that pertain to your specific focus. There are different possibilities here:
    • You could use an a priori framework, as long as you let me know what that framework is in your memo. For example, you could group teaching strategies around Aristotle’s notions of logos, ethos, and pathos.
    • You could use “elements of grounded theory” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). This could include everything from “open coding” to “selective coding” (though that would produce a much longer paper than you are able to write!) Or you could locate a particular phenomenon and develop a description of categories that fit “the paradigm” (pp. 127-137). For example, if on student challenges, you might have categories for conditions under which challenges occur, types of challenges, and instructor’s response to the challenges (w/or without the outcomes of those responses). Or you might use “inductive categories” only of some aspect of the phenomenon in the interview.
    • You might consider “semantic relationships” to locate categories. For example, if on teaching effectiveness, your entire paper (for this project) might be a set of categories, with definitions and examples of different teaching strategies (X is a type of Teaching Strategy). If this is well-developed, you would not need conditions, consequences, etc., for a well-developed paper.
  • Final Product should include:
    • The printed copy of the coded interview (appendix)
    • A set of categories (with/without subcategories) that has: List of categories, definition (clear, discrete, logical), and examples from the interview.
    • A summary memo that (a) reviews what you did and how; (b) draws some tentative conclusions about this participant, and (c) discusses possible directions for research.

Example: [from a different class, so without the summary memo! Sorry!]. See my notes at end…

Thematic Categories Evaluation Page

Final grade will be subjective (A = excellent, B = very good/above average; C = average, etc.). However, the following rubric will help you know what I’m looking for.


Categories: (10 pts)

  • Category development (e.g., appropriate number and development of categories); definitions? Appropriate exemplars provided
  • Category thought (clarity/cohesion of categories—do the exemplars/ideas included within a category fit well in a single category?; logical consistency of cats—do items or ideas in “this” cat fit better in another cat? Should these two cats be condensed to one?)

Focus: (5 pts)

  • Is focus appropriate?
  • Does focus make sense given nature of the comments in the interview (for example, does your focus really reflect what one of the major themes of the interview seems to be?)

___ /15 pts

___ /20 pts

___ / 5 pts


Does it provide a thoughtful analysis (tentative interpretations) of the categories?

Does it tell how you did your analysis?

Does it provide directions for potential research?

10 pts

Note: Overall writing is not as important here as in “field notes,” though writing can either boost a borderline grade. . . or otherwise.

Overall Comments

Fulano de Tal

Com. 473

Thematic Analysis

November 9, 2001


Positive Categories/Units

1.      Practical Application of Course Concepts

·         “I had a positive experience in an undergrad course in which the professor related all concepts taught in the class to how those concepts could be applied in the real world.”

·         “The instructor was able to relate writings done around 400 B.C. to current writings/styles we were finding in today’s political speeches.”

·         “…through definitions, examples that relate to students’ lives, and animation.”

·         “…all while showing us how the concepts he teaches are applicable to outside academia.”

·         “…but also focused on it applications”, “We all came to class discussing things we saw and felt in our routine that dealt with the theory.Things that we would not have paid attention to before.”

·         “…and ability to apply concepts of class to life.”

2.      Fun Interactive Teaching Style

·         “He gave valuable feedback on homework…”

·         “I had a positive learning experience when my instructor always seemed to make the material we had covered fun in some way.”

·         “There was never any lecturing…”

·         “…only discussion…”

·         “…activities, etc.”

·         “There was a direct link made between the information with substantial examples.”

·         “I’m not sure if there is one thing about this teacher that I enjoyed.I would have to say there are several aspects of both her teaching ability and style that amaze me.For example, she can take a difficult concept, and explain it well…”

·         “She began with open-ended questions about the topic…”

·         “…and followed up with students to understand their point.”

·         “Then she summarized the main learning points while writing them on a flipchart.”

·         “One positive learning experience I had was in a class that not only focused on learning and discussing theory…”

·         “When I was an undergraduate, I had a class in the English dept. which I felt changed my perspective on thinking and life, in general.The class was extremely unstructured…”

3.      Enthusiasm for Teaching

·         “She walked in to the room with a quick pace and smile.It was clear she was excited to teach this session.”

·         “The professor that I’m thinking of in a positive light combines a fantastic rapport with students…”

·         “…a visible passion for the course material…”

·         “…an attitude that classwork is important, but secondary to understanding and learning…”

·         “I see students, including myself, really respond to this combination of enthusiasm…”

4.      Concern for Students

·         “While in college, I have encountered many professors who have left a lasting impression on my life, however, there is one professor who is responsible for encouraging me to stay focused and achieve my goals.”

·         “…encouraging…”

·         “He noted student outside interests.”

·         “…and always has time to help students when things begin to get rough.”

·         “She is not only involved in students’ academic careers…”

·         “…but she cares deeply about their lives outside of the classroom.”

·         “…and thoughts of students were highly valued.The instructor was respectful of students’ thoughts so much that he tried to work with us on research he conducted as part of the research process.”

5.      Student Connection to the Teacher

·         “This teacher is insightful…”

·         “I felt I was much more interested this way…”

·         “…and it helped me absorb better even the most dense material.”

·         “…approachability…”

Negative Categories/Units

1.      Un-engaging Teaching Style

·         “His approach to teaching was punctuated with directed lectures.”

·         “The points were made quickly…”

·         “…and half scribbled on the board.”

·         “Questions were encouraged by his words but discouraged by his response.”

·         “…choosing instead to lecture from overheads all day nearly every day.”

·         “I felt I could have read the book and gained as much as I gained by attending class.I felt cheated.”

·         “Further, he/she violated many teaching strategies by wanting an exact answer from a student and by not using “wait time”.

2.      Lack of Respect for Students

·         “Onthe other hand, I have had my share of professors who have been very discouraging and almost caused me to give up.When I first declared my major there was an instructor who told me in front of other students that I would not be good in the major and that I needed to rethink my decision.”

·         “There are several things that irk me about particular professionals (teachers), one being when a teacher yells at a student.I just believe conversation is the key to understanding and yelling is not rational conversation.There’s more times than not, a better way to handle a situation.”

·         “As a graduate student, I took a course where I felt the instructor did not respect the ideas of students who conflicted with his/her perspective.Whenever discussion was raised that deviated from the instructor, it was quickly struck down.”

·         “Finally, I felt the instructor did not care about our time.He/she came to class at least 5 minutes late each day and kept us at least 7-10 minutes after every day.”

·         “One negative experience I have had was when my instructor, by mistake, let the entire class leave 25 minutes early from class.Instead of just providing the students with a handout of the missed material, he decided to keep the entire class 5 to 10 minutes late for the next two weeks.This made the class very upset overall and put the students on the defensive.The climate of the class was never the same again.”

3.      Poor Interaction with Students

·         “I disliked a teacher who called on students who did well on tests and announced that student’s name and test grade to the class.”

·         “I had an instructor who was frequently unavailable to meet to answer questions, did not return e-mailed questions…”

·         “…and as a result was often unclear on assignments.”

·         “A poor learning experience I had took place in a class of about 30.I mention this because the course was not a seminar yet not a lecture hall.However, the professor provided little interaction with the students…”

4.      Lack of Control

·         “While he demonstrated his enthusiasm for the topic his control of the class mitigated its effect.”

·         “I have been in classroom situations in which the discussion was uncontrolled.Meaning, a question or thought was posed and discussion would just get entirely off-base and thoughts shared were too biased or personal at times.”

My responses: The category set looks very good. What is missing here is (a) clear definitions of what each category means (without using same word). In some cases, many more examples are given than needed. It would be better to give fewer examples but with clear defs. B/c there are cats for both positive and negative (a broad focus), the student does not need to go into more depth (i.e., subcategories, etc.). However, the student could also have focused on only one aspect (e.g., only the positive aspects) and then developed some subcategories under the 5 main dimensions. (Indeed, the 5th dimension might eventually be subsumed under one of the above categories, as it seems to be a response to the instructor, rather than something the instructor does for effectiveness.). Also, there needs to be a theoretical memo!

I hope this gives you an idea!



Communication 473

Thematic Analysis


The purpose of this paper is to unitize, categorize, list, label, and give examples of the responses graduate students wrote about both positive and negative teacher experiences they have encountered.Strauss and Corbin (1998) state, “An analyst is coding for explanations and to gain an understanding of phenomena…” (p. 129).Those phenomena are then placed into categories driven by the students’ responses, which are labeled and exampled below.

The three category labels for positive teacher experiences are:

1. Applicable information: Applicable information is course content that is taught in such a way that the information can be applied to students’ daily lives.Students are able to see the importance of learning the material and they are able to apply it to pre-existing schemata.According to one graduate student, the instructor was able to “relate writings done around 400 B.C. to current writing/styles we were finding in today’s political speeches.”Another student stated, “I had a positive experience in an undergrad course in which the professor related all concepts taught in the class to how those concepts could be applied in the real world.”Other students commented that they liked when teachers “showed us how the concepts he teaches are applicable outside academia,” or when the course was “not only focused on learning and discussing theory but also on its applications,” and when teachers used “examples that relate to students’ lives…”

2. Student-focused classroom: Student-focused classrooms assign much attention to students’ input toward the content of the course.Students are encouraged to discuss what they learn and offer their thoughts, which are visibly valued by the professor.Graduate students responded positively about “open-ended questions,” and “discussions” as an alternative to traditional lectures.Student-focused teachers are not only concerned with students’ academic success inside the classroom, but they are concerned about their students as people and value their students’ lives outside the classroom.As one graduate student indicated, “She is not only involved in students’ academic careers, but she cares deeply about their lives outside of the classroom.”Others stated, “This teacher is insightful, encouraging, and always has time to help students when things begin to get rough,” and “He noted student outside interest.”

3. Passionate teaching style: Passionate teachers have a lively demeanor about them when they teach.They are knowledgeable and passionate about their content area, and they have an ability to engulf students with their insight and enthusiasm while students are in their presence.Several adjectives were given to describe positive teacher characteristics, which led to the label “passionate teaching.”Several positive teacher experience response, there was one of these words or phrases: “visible passion,” “animation,” “enthusiasm,” “insightful,” “excited to teach,” and “fun.”

The three category labels for negative teacher experiences are:

1.Lack of concern: Teachers’ lack of concern was an issue in several graduate students’ responses.The two major areas where students identified the lack of concern were students’ time and students’ ideas.One graduate student “felt the instructor did not respect the ideas of students…” Lack of concern for students’ time was the second issue.Negative instructor experiences involved instructors who were “frequently unable to meet to answer questions, did not return emailed questions and as a result was often unclear on assignments.”One student “felt the instructor did not care about our time.He/she came to class at least 5 minutes late each day and kept us at least 7-10 minutes after every day.”A similar response reported a teacher who “decided to keep the class 5 to 10 minutes late for the next two weeks” after having ended a previous class 25 minutes early.

2.Teacher-focused classroom: Teachers that direct teacher-focused classrooms restrain from student participation in the classroom.Teacher-focused classrooms are just as it sounds; the focus is on the teacher, not the students.Little or no discussion is encouraged, and the course content is usually delivered through lectures.The graduate student respondents reacted negatively to this type of classroom atmosphere.Students responded, “the instructor provided little interaction with the students, choosing to lecture from overheads all day nearly every day.”This same student “felt cheated” after experiencing a teacher-focused classroom.Another student also reacted negatively to a teacher’s approach that was “punctuated with lectures.”

3.Discouraging teaching style: This type of teaching style causes a feeling of divestiture in many students.A student feels as though he/she has been deprived of something and the possibility to undergo a pleasurable and educational experience is doubtful.Several students reported this type of experience in their negative comments.For example, one student made the comment that “Questions were encouraged by his words but discouraged by his response.”One student had experienced enough professors “who have been very discouraging” that they almost “caused me to give up.”Another graduate student recalled a time when the teacher only “called on students who did well on tests and announced that student’s name and test grade to the class.”Other incidents involved a teacher who “yells at a student” instead of a “rational conversation,” and an instructor who “quickly struck down” ideas raised by student that did not mesh with the instructor’s idea.“Further, he/she violated many teaching strategies by wanting an exact answer from a student and by not using ‘wait time’.”

Theoretical Memo

It was interesting to note that what students liked about their teachers and what they disliked about their teachers were direct opposites.For example, positive responses revolved around a student-focused classroom and a passionate teaching style, whereas the negative responses focused on a teacher-focused classroom and a discouraging teaching style.Grouping similar students’ responses formed the labels.

According to Strauss and Corbin (1998), “conditions” are “a conceptual way of grouping answers to the questions why, where, how come, and when” (p. 128). Strauss and Corbin identify three types of conditions, causal, intervening, and contextual. However, the importance does not lie in defining the conditions, but in the “interweaving of events (conditions) leading up to the problem, an issue, or a happening to which persons are responding through some form of action/interaction, with some sort of consequences” (p. 132).I began the exercise by reading through each positive comment and marking the separate ideas mentioned about positive aspects of a student’s learning experience.Units were formed and from those units, key words were identified to design the categories.I drew a diagram where the categories branched out from the block “positive teacher.”I then studied the categories and from the categories made three labels, applicable information, student-focused classroom, and passionate teaching style.Next, I crossed off and place each category into the appropriate label.Overall, students enjoyed teachers who were enthusiastic to teach, applied course information to students’ lives, cared about students, took time to help students, and encouraged discussion and students’ responses.

The same process occurred for unitizing, categorizing, and labeling the students’ responses for negative teacher experiences.Overall, students disliked teachers’ lack of concern, for both students’ ideas and students’ time.Students also responded negatively to a teacher-focused classroom and a discouraging teaching style.

Many of the students’ responses were aligned with each other.Graduate students have obviously spent numerous years observing teachers’ styles and some may even be teachers themselves.Who better to critique positive and negative teacher experiences?Strauss and Corbin (1998) state “Actions/interactions among individuals acting in groups may or may not be in alignment, that is, coordinated.Actions/interactions evolve over time as persons define or give meaning to situations” (p. 134).It was apparent how the students’ responses related to each other. For example, one student would describe a positive teacher as one whom “cares deeply about their lives about of the classroom,” and another student enjoyed a teacher whom “noted outside interests.”The same type of alignment occurred with the negative teacher responses. Teachers’ lack of students’ concerns where scattered throughout the responses.For example, students reported negatively toward teachers who “did not respect the ideas of students,” or teachers who “did not return emailed questions.”

The reduction of responses allowed me to understand and explain what students liked and disliked from the teacher experiences they have encountered.Breaking down the data and categorizing it gave me a general sense of what the students viewed as positive and negative teacher experiences and gave me the ability to conceptualize and structure the responses.


Strauss, A., & Corbin, A. (1998).Basics of Qualitative Research. (2nd ed.), TO: Sage.

A few different scholars have written about TA, defining it, and describing the way to do it. We initially outlined our approach in a 2006 paper, Using thematic analysis in psychology.

Although the title suggests TA is for, or about, psychology, that’s not the case! The method has been widely used across the social, behavioural and more applied (clinical, health, education, etc.) sciences.

The purpose of TA is to identify patterns of meaning across a dataset that provide an answer to the research question being addressed. Patterns are identified through a rigorous process of data familiarisation, data coding, and theme development and revision.

One of the advantages of (our version of) TA is that it’s theoretically-flexible. This means it can be used within different frameworks, to answer quite different types of research question. It suits questions related to people’s experiences, or people’s views and perceptions, such as ‘What are men’s experiences of body hair removal?’ or ‘What do people think of women who play traditionally male sports?’ It suits questions related to understanding and representation, such as ‘How do lay people understand therapy?’ or ‘How are food and eating represented in popular magazines targeted at teenage girls?’ It also suits questions relating to the construction of meaning, such as ‘How is race constructed in workplace diversity training?’ Note these different question types would require different versions of TA, informed by different theoretical frameworks.

Ways to approach TA

There are different ways TA can be approached:

  • An inductive way – coding and theme development are directed by the content of the data;
  • A deductive way – coding and theme development are directed by existing concepts or ideas;
  • A semantic way – coding and theme development reflect the explicit content of the data;
  • A latent way – coding and theme development report concepts and assumptions underpinning the data;
  • A realist or essentialist way – focuses on reporting an assumed reality evident in the data;
  • A constructionist way – focuses on looking at how a certain reality is created by the data.

More inductive, semantic and realist approaches tend to cluster together; ditto more deductive, latent and constructionist ones. In reality, the separation isn’t always that rigid. What is vitally important is that the analysis is theoretically coherent and consistent.

Our approach to TA

The approach to TA that we developed involves a six-phase process:

  1. Familiarisation with the data: This phase involves reading and re-reading the data, to become immersed and intimately familiar with its content.
  2. Coding: This phase involves generating succinct labels (codes!) that identify important features of the data that might be relevant to answering the research question. It involves coding the entire dataset, and after that, collating all the codes and all relevant data extracts, together for later stages of analysis.
  3. Searching for themes: This phase involves examining the codes and collated data to identify significant broader patterns of meaning (potential themes). It then involves collating data relevant to each candidate theme, so that you can work with the data and review the viability of each candidate theme.
  4. Reviewing themes: This phase involves checking the candidate themes against the dataset, to determine that they tell a convincing story of the data, and one that answers the research question. In this phase, themes are typically refined, which sometimes involves them being split, combined, or discarded.
  5. Defining and naming themes: This phase involves developing a detailed analysis of each theme, working out the scope and focus of each theme, determining the ‘story’ of each. It also involves deciding on an informative name for each theme.
  6. Writing up: This final phase involves weaving together the analytic narrative and data extracts, and contextualising the analysis in relation to existing literature.

Although these phases are sequential, and each builds on the previous, analysis is typically a recursive process, with movement back and forth between different phases. So it’s not rigid, and with more experience (and smaller datasets), the analytic process can blur some of these phases together.

TA home

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