The SoTL Advocate

Photo Documentation: SoTL Methods Series #4


Written by Jennifer Friberg, Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL and Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Illinois State University

Over the last five years, students from my academic department have traveled to six countries on two continents as part of our program’s study abroad experience. Offered for independent study credit, these study abroad experiences have transpired as “short term” opportunities (e.g., spring break or two weeks in the summer session) and have focused on cultural immersion, rather than disciplinary content knowledge. I led our most recent trip to Spain during spring break 2017 and was joined by two faculty colleagues and 32 students. Prior to this year’s trip, students self-reported gains in what Miller-Perrin and Thompson (2014) would consider internal learning (e.g., emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth) as well as external learning (e.g., second language acquisition, intercultural learning, globalization, disciplinary knowledge). While this was lovely to hear, these impressions were anecdotal, as we had never systematically studied student learning that occurred as a result of engagement as a study abroad participant.

I decided to study this year’s students to measure the impact of short term study abroad for this cohort. Initially, I thought I would restrict my study design to traditional methods of reflection and content analysis. In the weeks prior to travel, I asked students to set three goals for themselves based on self-perceived areas of weakness or interest. Students were asked to keep track of their growth in these goal areas via reflective journals, which were analyzed carefully for evidence of progress or growth in their goal areas. Eighty-one of these goals fit into one of the following categories: taking chances, engagement, flexibility, gaining independence, archiving, budgeting, social interaction, or understanding culture.

Around the time that I was developing the plan for collecting data from travelers, I read about photo documentation, a method derived from visual sociology wherein researchers seek out patterns in photographic data collected using something called a shooting script. I was intrigued as to how I might introduce this new method into my study abroad project. I tried, and I was able to extend what I learned about my students in doing so. The remainder of this post is a description of my “rookie experience” with photo documentation. I am certainly not an expert, but I did enjoy exploring this visual methodology!

Photo documentation is a research method developed by Charles Suchar (1997). Specifically, “photo documentation is a method that assumes photographs are accurate records of what was in front of the camera when its shutter snapped – ‘a precise record of material reality’ — and takes photographs in a systematic way in order to provide data which the researcher then analyzes” (Rose, 2016, p. 310). The key to photo documentation is a shooting script which consists of “lists of sub-questions” (derived as topical to overarching research questions) which act as a guide for taking pictures connected to the topic of the research being conducted (Rose, 2016, p. 311). Photos are taken in accordance with a shooting script, then analyzed for categories and patterns via a systematic coding process.

In the case of the study I described above, I wanted to understand changes that occurred in students in self-identified areas of need/interest. Thus, in addition to reflective (written) journaling, I asked that students use the following shooting script to document learning visually before and during travel:

  1. What was I doing/seeing when I recognized that I had made progress toward meeting one of my goals?
  2. What things/people/experiences influenced this progress?

In applying this shooting script, students were directed to take pictures to answer these questions as they were going about their study abroad experiences. After travel, they submitted three photos per goal to me, along with their written journals. I printed out all photos that students submitted and searched for patterns across goals and photos. I was able to find many! As an example, many students set goals to improve their understanding of different cultures. Looking at the photos submitted along with written reflection for this goal, I could see that students represented “increases in cultural understanding”  via photos of food (see right), religious symbols, architecture, or Spanish citizens they interacted with during their travels. Students who set goals to “take chances” represented growth in this area with photos of new foods they tried or photos of experiences where they conquered personal fears (e.g., communing with the macaques in Gibraltar after a prior bad experience — see left).

Overall, what I found interesting is the different stories these data told. While written reflections told me WHAT changes students had realized as a result of study abroad, the photographs told me HOW how these changes occurred. The combination of these different data types were powerful to tell the story of my students’ experiences in Spain and made a powerful case for the possibility of significant learning in a short amount of time.

I have always been intrigued with what the visual representation of learning might look like for different students. Using photo documentation helped me to see the possibilities of visually-based data in a way that I appreciate and hope to use again in the future!

Blog References:

Miller-Perrin, C. & Thompson, D. (2014). Outcomes of global education: External and internal change   associated with study abroad. New Directions for Student Services, 146, p. 77-89.

Rose, G. (2016). Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual methods (4th ed.). Sage: Los Angeles.

Suchar, C. S. (1997). Grounding visual sociology research in shooting scripts. Qualitative Sociology, 20(1), 33-55.