An Introduction to Grounded Theory


The study presented in the paper was an evaluation of an individually configured multimedia learning application used in real contexts. The necessity to evaluate learning applications in this way has been discussed by Squires (1996). The study involved staff and students using the application in a range of environments and educational contexts as part of their normal curriculum. The application also provided a complex, rich and differentiated environment. Each learner would have a different experience of the application, depending on how it was configured for them personally. Grabinger and colleagues (1997) have emphasised the importance of extrinsic factors in learning, including motivational aspects, collaboration, meta-cognition and other factors leading to greater invested effort and dynamic generative learning. The control of these important external factors was impossible in an experiment.

In addition, the aim of the study involved assessing the benefit of the application to a user in the delivery of effective learning. The measurement of learning itself presents a challenge. Reeves (1992) cautions us against the direct and inappropriate use of science to answer such complex questions.

Thus, the complexity of the final study precluded a simple experimental approach, yet there was a great deal of useful data available that would facilitate qualitative analysis. It was therefore decided in this study, to employ a combination of qualitative and quantitative research approaches. In the next section, reasons for the choice of the ethnographical method employed in the final study are presented.

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Selection of a qualitative methodology

The general area of qualitative research includes several research methods, often referred to as ‘ethnography’. These include Case Studies, Participant Observation, Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology, Grounded Theory, Biographical Methodology and Clinical Research Methods. Denzin and Lincoln (1994) describe many of the features and applications of qualitative research methods.

An important qualitative method that has regularly been employed in educational and social research is Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967). It has several important advantages for this study over other ethnographical methods. Grounded Theory, for example, presents a single, unified, systematic method of analysis. Other qualitative methods often rely upon the application of general principles rather than systematic method, making their application and interpretation more difficult. Methods for validating findings and can integrate well with quantitative methods are also provided by Grounded Theory, in fact, both forms of data are necessary in many instances (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Grounded Theory is also well documented and had been used systematically in studies since the 1960s (Strauss and Corbin, 1990). These factors assist the rapid application of the methods of Grounded Theory and also provide a framework for the interpretation of results. A rigorous methodology based on the canons of scientific research is also employed by Grounded Theory (Scott, 1996). There have been other claims regarding the benefits of Grounded Theory. These are summarised by Strauss and Corbin (1994) and explained in the next section. Quantitative researchers are becoming less satisfied with purely quantified results and are turning increasingly to supplementary qualitative analyses according to Strauss and Corbin (1994). Grounded Theory was selected therefore, as the research method used in the final study. Features of the Grounded Theory method are described in the next section.

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Grounded Theory

Grounded Theory is a research method developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967). It is a general methodology for developing theory that is grounded in data systematically gathered and analysed (Strauss and Corbin 1994). Theory develops and evolves during the research process due to the interplay between data collection and analysis phases. It is important to note that the result of a Grounded Theory study is the generation of a theory, consisting of a set of plausible relationships proposed among concepts and sets of concepts. This differs from other ethnographical methods where often the information is often presented with little comment from a researcher.

A Grounded Theory, it is claimed, is a theory which is inductively derived from the phenomenon it represents and meets four central criteria: fit, understanding, generality and control (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Fit entails that the theory fits the substantive data. Understanding entails that the theory be comprehensible to all involved in the area of study. Generality entails that the theory is applicable in a variety of contexts. Control implies that the theory should provide control with regard to action toward the phenomenon. Grounded theory provides a systematic method involving several stages which is used to ‘ground’ the theory, or relate it to the reality of the phenomenon under consideration (Scott 1996). A Grounded Theory is derived from the phenomenon under study. This contrasts with the hypothetico-deductive method, where theories are generated from cyclical testing and refining of a previously constructed hypothesis. In Grounded Theory studies, theory emerges from the systematic examination of the phenomenon.


An important feature of Grounded Theory is theoretical sensitivity, which refers to a personal quality of the researcher and relates to understanding the meaning and subtlety of data. Theoretical sensitivity has been described by Glaser (1978) as the process of developing the insight with which a researcher comes to the research situation. Such insight should be conceptual rather than concrete. It is often referred to as a creative aspect of Grounded Theory and involves the researcher working in the area to obtain experience and expertise. By gaining theoretical sensitivity the researcher will be able to recognise important data and formulate conceptually dense theory.


An important feature of the Grounded Theory method involves systematic methods of data collection and analysis. These methods are described by Strauss and Corbin (1990) and are summarised below.

Stages in Grounded Theory

An important feature of Grounded Theory is that it represents a systematic method that may be applied to research problems. The systematic nature of the method is useful in judging, generalising and comparing the results of Grounded Theory research. This is not always possible with alternative ethnographical methods where no clear system is involved. In the following sections, the stages of the Grounded Theory methodology are outlined.

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Research question

The process starts with the selection of a suitably complex research question. In the context of this study, the research question related to the aims of the project, which were to develop a multimedia application based on a student model and to investigate the benefits of individual configuration of multimedia to learning within the application. As Grounded Theory is inductively developed from the phenomenon it represents and theories emerge from data obtained from the phenomenon under study, the research question will be re-stated in the next chapter in a form that can be tested by Grounded Theory.

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Data acquisition

In Grounded Theory methodology, data is collected in the same ways, using the same techniques as in other research methodologies. Data may be qualitative or quantitative or combinations of both types. The analysis of data collected in research is often referred to as ‘coding’. Data is coded differently depending on the purpose of the data and the stage of the project. Three stages of data analysis are involved in Grounded Theory. These are open coding, axial coding and selective coding. The features and uses of these methods are explained below.


a) Open coding


Open coding is the process of selecting and naming categories from the analysis of the data. It is the initial stage in data acquisition and relates to describing overall features of the phenomenon under study. Variables involved in the phenomenon are identified, labelled, categorised and related together in an outline form. The properties of a category are described or dimensionalised at this stage. This involves placing or locating the property along a continuum within a range of possible values.

b) Axial coding

Axial coding is the next stage after open coding. In axial coding, data are put together in new ways. This is achieved by utilising a ‘coding paradigm’, i.e. a system of coding that seeks to identify causal relationships between categories. The aim of the coding paradigm is to make explicit connections between categories and sub-categories. This process is often referred to as the ‘paradigm model’ and involves explaining and understanding relationships between categories in order to understand the phenomenon to which they relate.

c) Selective coding

Selective coding involves the process of selecting and identifying the core category and systematically relating it to other categories. It involves validating those relationships, filling in, and refining and developing those categories. Categories are integrated together and a Grounded Theory is arrived at.

The process involves the following stages:


The core category is the central phenomenon around which all other categories are based. Once this has been identified, the storyline is generated as a restatement of the project in a form that relates to the core category. Validation is done by generating hypothetical relationships between categories and using data from the field to test these hypotheses. Categories may be further refined and reclassified and the storyline may be further refined. This completes the grounding of the theory.

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The following table summarises the relationship between the stages in the Grounded Theory methodology and the data collected in the final study


Table showing the relationship between the data collection and analysis stages described in the following chapters and the Grounded Theory method

Stage in the final study

Grounded theory stage

Preliminary stage





Data collection



Open coding starts


Producing a preliminary structure of categories, sub-categories and variables.


Axial coding starts

Modification of structure

Final study - Data collection stage


Data collection methods

  • Video
  • Interviews
  • Pre-test and post-test
  • Data logging
  • Questionnaire
  • Tasks and questions
  • Focus groups
  • Staff evaluation
  • Staff diary
  • Staff interviews
  • Staff report
  • Expert evaluation

Axial coding continues


Identification of causal relationships


Selective coding starts


Assigning values to variables from data

Modification of structure based on data

Identification of the core category

Generation of theory

Validation of theory with data

Final study - Data analysis stage








Selective coding continues

Grounding the theory

Core theme specified

Emergence of the theory

Production of narrative

Presentation of theory

Validation of theory with data


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The relationship between theory and reality

A constant criticism of qualitative methods is their inability to relate to aspects of the real world (Hammersley 1992), although it is generally accepted that they have their own internal logic and validity. The relationship between theory and reality in a Grounded Theory study is a complex issue. Often the goal of experimental science is to discover laws and universal truths that may be generalised and widely applied. The goal of social research involving humans however, is often to describe and understand the rich and complex phenomena they engage in. Such descriptions and understandings are usually placed at a certain time and located in specific societies and social contexts. The goal then of such studies is to understand contemporary social relationships. In the rapidly changing world of multimedia, information technology and education, the fact that these relationships change equally rapidly ensures that any insight into such processes is likely to be temporary.

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Denzin, N. K. and Lincoln, Y.S. (1994). Introduction: Entering the field of qualitative research, In: Handbook of Qualitative Research (Denzin, N., K. and Lincoln, Y.,S., Eds.). Sage Publications, London, 1-18.

Glaser, B. (1978). Theoretical Sensitivity, Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press.

Glaser, B. and Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago: Aldine.

Grabinger, S., Dunlap, J. C., Duffield, J. A. (1997). Rich environments for active learning in action: problem-based learning. Association for Learning Technology Journal, 5 (2), 5-17.

Hammersley, M. H. (1992). What’s wrong with ethnography? Routledge, London and New York.

Reeves, T. C. (1992). Evaluating interactive multimedia. Educational Technology, (May) 47-52.

Scott, D. (1996). Making judgements about educational research, In:, Understanding educational research. (Scott, D. and Usher, R. eds.). Routledge.

Squires, D. (1997). An heuristic approach to the evaluation of educational multimedia software. Proceedings of CAL-97 conference, University of Exeter, March.

Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Sage Publications.


Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. (1994). Grounded Theory methodology: An overview, In: Handbook of Qualitative Research (Denzin, N., K. and Lincoln, Y.,S., Eds.). Sage Publications, London, 1-18.

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