Why Open-Ended Survey Questions Are Unlikely to Support Rigorous Qualitative Insights

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Health professions education researchers are increasingly relying on a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods to explore complex questions in the field. This important and necessary development, however, creates new methodological challenges that can affect both the rigor of the research process and the quality of the findings. One example is “qualitatively” analyzing free-text responses to survey or assessment instrument questions. In this Invited Commentary, the authors explain why analysis of such responses rarely meets the bar for rigorous qualitative research. While the authors do not discount the potential for free-text responses to enhance quantitative findings or to inspire new research questions, they caution that these responses rarely produce data rich enough to generate robust, stand-alone insights. The authors consider exemplars from health professions education research and propose strategies for treating free-text responses appropriately.

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