The purpose of the paper is to demonstrate how a research diary methodology, designed to analyse A-level and GNVQ classrooms, can be a powerful tool for examining pedagogy and quality of learning at the level of case study. Two subject areas, science and business studies, are presented as cases. Twelve teachers and thirty-four students were studied over a four-week period in May 1997 and contrasts were drawn between lessons from three A-level physics teachers/three Advanced GNVQ science teachers and two A-level business/economics teachers/four Advanced GNVQ business teachers. Lessons were analysed within a cognitive framework which distinguishes between conceptual and procedural learning and emphasizes the importance of metacognition and epistemological beliefs. Two dimensions of lessons were identified: pedagogical activities (e.g. teacher-led explanation, teacher-led guidance on a task, question/answer sessions, group discussions, working with IT) and cognitive outcomes (e.g. structuring and memorizing facts, understanding concepts and arguments, critical thinking, problem-solving, learning core skills, identifying values). Immediately after each lesson, teachers and students (three per class) completed structured research diaries with respect to the above dimensions. Data from the diaries reveal general and unique features of the lessons. Time-ofyear effects were evident (examinations pending in May), particularly in A-level classrooms. Students in business studies classes reported a wider range of learning activities and greater variety in cognitive outcomes than did students in science classes. Science students self-rating of their ability to manage and direct their own learning was generally low. The phenomenological aspects of the classrooms were consistently linked to teachers' lesson plans and what their teaching objectives were for those particular students at that particular time of the year.