Lesson: Research Interviews


(this is designed for two class periods)

Research interviews!
I required my students to interview “an expert’ for their synthesis/research projects. In addition to actually doing the interview, this required them to identify what sort of expertise was needed for their projects, reach out to the interviewee, and create appropriate interview questions — all important skills, I think.
We spent two class periods preparing for the interviews. During the first class, we watched a Steven Colbert interview and discussed what to do and what not to do in interviews.

Day 1: Interviews

Today we’ll be thinking about how to conduct a research interview, thinking carefully about what to do and what not to do.
We’ll start by looking at an interview model, which we’ll then critique. Pay attention to the way Steve Colbert conducts this interview and think about the things you think he does well vs. not well.
(10 min) Show Colbert interview: https://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/406796/january-24-2012/grim-colberty-tales-with-maurice-sendak-pt–1
Discuss Colbert interview: (10 min — write on board)
What did Colbert do well?
What did he do poorly?
How could he have improved his interview?

Re-watch and pause for these moments (20 minutes)

  1. He tells the motivation behind his research project. This is important for you to do at the opening of an interview. Introduce yourself and tell your interviewee exactly what you’re working on and what you hope to get out of the interview. Sometimes it’s a good idea to ask if the interviewee has any questions for you
  2. He chose an expert in the field — a famous author. Your expert does not by any means need to be famous, nor does he/she have to have such a comprehensive knowledge of the field as Sendak does. You might be interviewing someone not about every piece of your project, but about one smaller part.
  3. Starts with a very general question: “Tell me about children’s literature’ — this is good
  4. BUT, he then qualifies so narrowly that Sendak can’t answer — it becomes an uncomfortable yes-no question.
  5. His second question is a comment — “Let’s talk about kids: I don’t trust ‘em’. Again, difficult to respond to. You want to make sure that all your questions are indeed questions
  6. Sendak talks about the “complexity of children and Colbert follows it up with a related question and clarification. This is excellent. If you don’t understand something your interviewee says, or he says something and there’s a good follow-up question not on your list, ask it! Sometimes you get the best, most unexpected info this way.
  7. So Sendak bashes Gingrich. Could you quote this in your research? Remember that in this case, this is Sendak expressing an opinion and not speaking on behalf of all writers of children’s book. I realize this is an extreme example, but you want to be careful to parse out what is fact and what is opinion when your interviewee says it.
  8. Colbert is taking notes! This is great. When something really significant is said, and you know you’d like to have it word-for-word, just ask for a pause and write it down. You may want to, later on, check in with the interviewee and double check that you got his/her words correct
  9. “New topic’ — Colbert completely switches the flow of the interview and warns his interviewee. You can definitely be covering multiple things in an interview and they don’t always have to be closely related — the point is for you to get all your questions out there
  10. If your interviewee starts pointing at you with his middle finger, you’re in trouble!
  11. Colbert does something bold when he challenges Sendak’s choices. You can certainly do this but be aware of the risk you are taking. For example, if you’re doing a project on oil exploration in the Arctic and you want to interview a BP exec, that’s cool. If you want to ask some inflammatory questions, that’s also cool. Just be aware that once you start riling up controversy, you are risking ending your interview quite soon. Save inflammatory questions for last, after you have everything else.

Have students take 5 minutes at their desks brainstorming:

  1. Who do you think you should interview for your project?
  2. What sorts of questions might you ask them?

Workshop in small groups (15 minutes)
Split students into groups of 4 and have them discuss their brainstorms and get suggestions from their peers about who to interview and what to ask.

Day 2: Interviews

On the second day of working on research interviews with my students, I had them interview one another. It was meant to be practice for them, but also an activity in synthesis, as they were tasked with finding similarities between their projects.

(5 min) At the start of class, intro the day’s activity: So today we’re going to interview each other. Perhaps you’re sick of talking about interviews, but these interviews are multi-purposed. They’re meant to get you guys

  1. Some practice in interviewing a person;
  2. Talking about your project and identifying where there are holes, misunderstandings, and confusion — the places you still need to work on;
  3. Lastly, I’m giving you a challenge during these interviews. During these interviews, I want you to be looking for the connections between your project and your partner’s.
  • Find 3 connections between your projects. I’m less interested in connections like “Mona and I both like food and it has a big role in her project and a little one in mine.’
  • Think broadly: Do you guys have similar motivations? What drove you each to these projects? What forms have you chosen to present your projects in and why? Good connections will be about more than content.
  • Is there meaning in these connections? What does it say about you and your research?
  • At the end of class, we’ll go around and share a bit about each of our projects and the connections we found.

Assign students their pairings. It’s best if you can draw the pairs out of the workshop groups from the day before — that way the students are familiar with one another’s projects.
(5 min) Instructions: You’ll have 2 minutes to share your research questions with one another, in case you’re not already familiar. Based on your understanding of your partner’s project, spend about 10 minutes writing up some questions that you’ll use to interview your partner. It may not take 10 minutes to write them, but you should spend that time reading over and organizing them. Consider:

  1. For each question, ask yourself: what sort of information am I trying to get out of this question? Is it phrased such that I will get that info? Can I think of any good follow-up questions?
  2. Remember that in your interview, your purpose is twofold: 1. Help your partner find areas in need of improvement — you can just point them out as you go and 2. Find connections. Your questions should be geared toward finding these connections between your projects.
  3. You’ll also likely want to reorder your questions. Remember, introductory questions come first, potentially inflammatory ones come last.
  4. These are all things you should be thinking about for your “interview an expert’ questions.


  1. Get each other’s research questions. (2 min)
  2. Write up your interview questions (10 minutes)
  3. Interview One (10 minutes)
    1. As you ask your questions, think: was this a good question? Did it get the info I wanted?
    2. Interview Two (10 minutes)
    3. Recap, prep to share with class (3 min)

(15 minutes) Return to class discussion and have each pair share their research projects and the connection(s) they found.
Discuss the activity. Some guiding questions might include:
Was it important to have questions written down? Did you use them?
Did the order matter? Why/not?
Were there any questions that really didn’t work? Why do you think that happened?

For homework, students write out the interview questions they plan to ask their expert and secure an interview date with that expert.


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1 Comment

  1. I used this prompt as a jumping off point for an interview exercise that we did in class, adapted to the essay that we were currently reading. I provided a few questions to use, but I also included in the prompt that they needed to create some of their own questions. They interviewed partners in class, and then they were given the homework to interview an expert. I showed the class how to find an expert on campus. The essay was related to environment, civilization studies and anthropology, so I had the students email someone in one of those fields on campus, and ask that person if they would be willing to answer an interview question for a research project related to their field. This was an exercise in finding interviews as resources, as well as in getting to know the campus as a home to experts in many fields. Not all students received answers to their questions, but several did, and several students used either the in-class interview, or their expert source in their essays. All the interviews were to be typed and submitted as part of the process, and we had a lesson on how to use a personal interview as a source in an essay.

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