Critical incident analysis

Compiled by Ross Woods, Mar-06

Critical incident analysis is commonly used when most incidents of a kind are fairly routine and well understood, but a few offer challenges or insights and need analysis. A Critical Incident (CI) is an incident that helps you understand a phenomenon much better. It may be:

The advantages of CI analysis are that it helps to:

  1. see each case uniquely on its own merits.
  2. develop solutions to problems.
  3. discover general principles about the phenomenon (e.g. for research purposes).
  4. assess students' analytical, interpersonal, or problem-solving abilities
  5. examine anything that is encapsulated in incidents (emergencies, accidents, interpersonal relationships, teaching, aid programs, business)
  6. collect research data (sometimes to inform another research method)
  7. reflect on professional practice (e.g. for Professional Development)
  8. give some relief from traumatic or stressful memories
  9. build group skills
  10. develop respect and tolerance between group members.
  11. encourage self-evaluation

CI analysis in a discussion group

The suggested main steps for doing CI analysis in a discussion group are as follows:

  1. Establish guidelines of trust and confidentiality. It is an opportunity to learn together, not to defend what you did or to complain.
  2. Choose a critical incident that is surprising, worrying, or in some way unusual. Many will be incidents when things went wrong but it can also be useful to analyze incidents that went particularly well. Focus on incidents that had strongly influenced on the outcome of the interaction.
  3. The sources of incidents can be:
    1. A group member volunteers to tell the story of an experience
    2. The tutor could select a scenario
    3. The tutor could interview someone
    4. The group could use existing written incident records, diaries, etc.
  4. If you can, collect more details of the incident. Make notes as near to the incident as possible. It helps to describe the event in detail with as much context as possible. It can be embellished with your feelings and responses as well as observations and facts. Detail collecting may be done over a period of time as significant aspects become clear.
  5. Tell the story of the incident. You might get other group members to fill in a paper form based on clear instructions and the questions below.
    Describe the incident to include:
    1. When and where it happened (time of day, location)
    2. Who was involved?
    3. What was the context? (E.g. social context, preceding events, etc.)
    4. What actually happened (Who said or did what?)
    5. Describe what led up to the incident.
    6. What you were thinking and feeling at the time and just after the incident?
    7. How did you respond afterwards?
  6. When all of the facts are collected, the next step is to identify the issues by asking questions of the incident. Allow time for each individual in the group to answer the following questions about the incident individually and in writing:
    1. Why did this incident stand out?
    2. What was going on?
    3. What were the consequences?
    4. Did I bring personal bias or a particular mindset to the event? Could I have interpreted this event differently from another point of view?
    5. What do I feel about that now?
    6. What were the significant factors?
    7. Explain what meaning I have given to it
    8. What problem or problems does the incident suggest?
    9. What is the next step toward resolving that problem or problems?
    10. Were there different levels of 'behavior' or activity?
    11. Is there any useful theory I can apply here?
    12. What have I learnt from this - about the people involved, about the context, about my colleagues and about myself?
    13. What, if anything, am I going to do about this?
    14. What have I learned?
    15. What can I learn from this incident?
    16. What would I do differently next time a similar situation arose?
  7. Where appropriate, you may want to compare your analysis with the views of other key people involved in the episode (students, colleagues, etc.).
  8. As a group, decide how to resolve the issues based on various possible solutions.
  9. Evaluate the solution you selected. Will it solve the root cause Will it cause no further problems? Could it prevent further problems?
  10. The tutor may ask you to write up a report of your analysis. For a classroom context, it might not need to be long (e.g. one or two pages) and the detail you choose to include depends on the purpose of the report. If you name colleagues and students, clarify issues of confidentiality if you wish to make your report public.

Give time for each student to explain their critical incident and the answers that they have given to the questions and for the rest of the group to engage in discussion to suggest their own solutions and possibly share similar critical incidents which they have experienced.

What about assessment?

When used in a training context, Critical Incident Analysis is not a highly structured assessment process that seeks predetermined answers. It is simply an opportunity for each student to present evidence of competence.

Competence may be defined in terms of:

The evidence actually used in the assessment may be either the contribution to the oral discussion, a formal presentation, a personal journal, or a formal report.



Glynis Cousin, CHED, Coventry University.
Tripp D (1993) Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing Professional Judgement, Routledge (this book outlines critical incident analysis procedures and presents case studies from the schooling sector).
Martin, K. (1996) 'Critical Incidents in Teaching and Learning', Issues in Teaching and Learning, V2, No.8, November 1996, University of Western Australia, Centre for Staff Development. Available HTTP: (University of Western Australia).