Use nodes and models to guide your academic writing

When I started my MEd in Holocaust education by full dissertation, I was given a great piece of advice. Start with the correct software from the outset. I was advised to familiarize myself with and use EndNote, which I found on my university’s software repository, along with a whole bunch of other programmes that I knew nothing about, including NVivo.

Using EndNote proved invaluable and with my background in computers, I knew from the outset that academic software was the way to go but didn’t really know what else I needed.

The low tech approach

Once I’d completed my data collection (post-visit feedback forms by teachers who had visited the local Holocaust centre and interviews with six museum educators), I was ready to begin my data analysis. rolodex_smallI was told that I should start by highlighting emerging themes with different coloured koki pens, sorting them with cut-up pieces of paper, and storing the information on rolodex-type cards for quotes and so on. This felt ridiculously antiquated in the digital age but clearly no-one in my department was using much computer software!

Running out of colors

So I began merrily highlighting the printed post-visit evaluation form data that I’d placed into an Excel spreadsheet. Yellow for teachers, blue for learners, green for emotive issues and so on. The themes piled up quick and fast. But as they expanded I started to run out of colours! My next strategy was to combine colours, ending up with ghastly shades of brown, sickly purple and a greenish sludge. Clearly I had to find a more efficient and 21st Century way to analyse my data!

Searching for academic software on Google led me to a few computer aided qualitative data analysis software packages. Then a bell rang. I’d seen NVivo on the university website; so without further delay, I downloaded NVivo onto my computer, despite deep scepticism emanating from my supervisor!

Once I began exploring the interface, I was hooked. It was a revelation and I guessed that anyone who had spent so much time developing such complex software could surely assist me, a novice researcher.

Plotting my way forward and learning as I go

I began coding tentatively, initially using trial and error, reading the balloons on the software itself to learn about the various functions, accessing the Help system and most importantly, watching YouTube videos to guide me. These were fantastic.


I was soon creating free nodes, dragging and dropping bits of data into the containers, and moving them around like a pro as my themes evolved.

Not only was I able to store relevant bits of information from my documents, I was also able to develop a hierarchical tree structure, which logically laid out my thoughts and resonated with my mode of thinking.

Over the next couple of months, I constantly categorised and re-categorised my themes, building a comprehensive, coherent structure. The outline of my data analysis chapters was unfolding before my eyes.

Mapping my writing journey with a model

I eventually created three super categories: Guides, Holocaust education and Museums. Each time I needed advice, I turned to the support videos, teaching myself on the fly how to create models, use the various functions such as autocoding, memos and annotations and set up queries. And in order to plot my writing journey, I created a model into which I pulled the now well-populated nodes.


Using these tools, writing up the data analysis chapters was in many respects one of the easier parts of writing my dissertation.

With the hierarchical node structure and my model to guide me, the paragraphs unfolded in a logical sequence and provided me with easy access to relevant quotes.

In fact, it was so successful that I wrote sixty pages of findings, which eventually had to be reduced to forty.

From learning to teaching

This year, having embarked on a PhD, and with NVivo already set-up in preparation for the literature review, my previously sceptical supervisor asked me to teach my fellow PhD and masters’ students how to use NVivo in a day-long course, insisting that all his students at least try it out.

Who would have guessed that my NVivo journey would entail not only using the software but also teaching it?

And this is something I hope to continue doing in the future. With my passion for technology and academic software, and NVivo in particular, teaching others how to use it would be a dream come true.

So what tools are in your qualitative researcher’s toolbox? And where has your NVivo journey led you?

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Choices, choices … story or narrative, History or history?

I have just completed my PhD proposal, which uses narrative inquiry as the theoretical and methodological framework. One of the dilemmas I was faced with is when to use ‘narrative’ and when to use ‘story’. Another was trying to decide if my participants are history teachers or History teachers.

There’s a great deal of literature available and I found some useful pearls of wisdom on the topic, but it’s like having a baby with all and sundry advising on what you should and shouldn’t do. And of course the advice differs from person to person.

On the question of narrative vs. story, this is narrative inquiry after all, so I initially decided to use the word ‘narrative’ in my topic, talking about teachers’ narratives. But after a while, this started to feel too contrived.

As my objective is to listen to teachers’ personal accounts and experiences, ‘story’ felt like it should be centre and front. As my thinking has crystallised, I decided to follow the lead of Connelly and Clandinin who use ‘story’ as the phenomenon and ‘narrative’ as the inquiry. They explain, “People by nature lead storied lives and tell stories of those lives, whereas narrative researchers describe such lives, collect and tell stories of them, and write narratives of experience” (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990, p. 2).

Other researchers such as Kramp (2004, p. 106) use the words ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ interchangeably. She explains that narrative is more formal and story more familiar terminology. The latter seems more fitting for my study.

Not everyone agrees with my choice and I’ve been cautioned to think about it by my supervisor. So this definitely needs more investigation as my thesis progresses but for now, for my proposal, story it is.

On the question of history teacher vs. History teacher, I took my lead from the South African Department of Education in their discussion about “the Social Sciences classroom” (Department of Basic Education, 2011, p. 9). They talk about “the aims of History” (p.10) and that the aim of History is to write “history in an organised way” (p.10). So I’ve decided to use the lowercase history to refer to a period in the past and the uppercase History when referring to the subject, as in Mathematics or Geography.

However, when it comes to history teachers or History teachers what role does history/History play? The former seems to be more common in the literature. For instance, Pettigrew speaks about history teachers in Teaching History (2010) but my supervisor writes about History teachers. My thinking goes that as the teachers are teaching about the past and not about the specific subject, therefore I will refer to them as history teachers, not History teachers.

So my decisions are made and only time will tell if they will stand the test of time. Do you agree with my choices? How do you arrive at yours?


Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5), 2-14.

Department of Basic Education. (2011). National Curriculum Statement – Curriculum & Assessment Policy Statement Social Sciences Grades 7-9. Pretoria: Government Printing Works Retrieved from

Kramp, M. K. (2004). Exploring life and experience through narrative inquiryFoundations for research: Methods of inquiry in education and the social sciences. In K. deMarrais & S. D. Lapan (Series Eds.), (pp. 103-121): Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Retrieved from

Pettigrew, A. (2010). Limited lessons from the Holocaust? Critically considering the ‘anti-racist’ and citizenship potential. Teaching History: The secondary education journal of The Historical Association(141), 50-55.

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Presenting my first full-day Nvivo workshop

When I started out with Nvivo three years ago, little did I realise that it would set me on the path of teaching other people too. The success of my M.Ed data analysis led my previously sceptical supervisor to ask if I would teach it to other History Education post-graduate students. Of course I was delighted! I love technology, I love teaching, and I love teaching about Holocaust education. To be able to combine them into one package was a great opportunity.

Although I’ve previously given short introductory lectures on using Nvivo, this will be my first venture into a full-day workshop. I have to say – it’s rather daunting. Will I have enough material to keep everyone occupied for a full day? How successful will switching between my PowerPoint presentation and Nvivo be? And do I really know enough of the answers to the questions they might ask? I keep reassuring myself that I’ve been working with it longer than they have, but these self-platitudes are cold comfort at this stage. All I can really hope for is that everyone goes away feeling enriched in some way and empowered to work with the software for their own data analysis.

I’ve prepared handouts, a course outline, my PowerPoint presentation and sent out the sample data. It’s a bit like making a cake – I’ve put in all the ingredients and now only time will tell if everything comes together successfully!

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