An Investigation of Graduate Students Reflections on Research

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1 An Investigation of Graduate Students Reflections on Research Frances K. Bailie, Ph.D. Department of Computer Science Iona College United States Abstract: The research component common to many Masters Degree programs poses significant challenges. Instructors strive to create a meaningful experience to demonstrate the intrinsic link between research and teaching as well as the central role of research in professional development. Students sometimes feel ill-prepared and pressured to complete a project requiring skills that are often lacking or underdeveloped. The purpose of this study was twofold: 1) to explore solutions to these problems by investigating how students view the research process and think of themselves as researchers; 2) to observe student reaction to being part of a research study, anticipating that participation would afford first hand experience with the process of collecting, analyzing and reporting data. The expectation was that this process of self reflection and engagement in a research study would suggest improved methodologies to allow students to reap the many benefits of the research experience. Statement of Problem Iona College, a mid-sized private suburban institution, offers a Masters Program in Educational Technology that recently instituted a two-step capstone experience consisting of a research methods course in which students create a research proposal that is conducted in a following research project course. The capstone sequence is far more than a degree requirement. It is an investigative process that utilizes prior knowledge to answer a question of interest and pertinence in the classroom. Ideally the outcome should be the realization that research results can not only lead to better teaching but can also be a springboard for future research and inquiry. The overarching objective of the research component of the Masters Program in Educational Technology is to inspire teachers to appreciate the value of research to 1) improve their teaching strategies, 2) engender systemic educational change, and 3) fuel a commitment to professional development and lifelong learning. Student evaluations over the first few years have revealed both the rewards and frustrations of the course. While most students reported that, in the final analysis, the experience was valuable and gave them a sense of accomplishment they had never anticipated, numerous difficulties came to light. For example, students struggled to formulate a viable research question, lacked the confidence to tackle an unfamiliar problem, felt pressure to complete the research within the timeline of the courses and, in general, were hampered by an unclear concept of research itself. It became evident that until students overcame these difficulties they would be unable to attain the broader objectives of the course. To investigate these problems from the students perspective, data was gathered from written student reflections, interviews, and surveys. In addition, it was hoped that immersion in the study would add a critical dimension for the students and demonstrate the integration of research and teaching. Literature Review Researchers appear to agree that a principal goal of action research is to elucidate the connection between research and teaching, thus closing the gap between theory and practice (Burnaford and Hilsabeck 2000; Ross 1987). Graduate courses of this type must challenge students to make these connections to foster more effective teaching strategies (White 1999). Research can also empower teachers to have an impact not only on their own teaching strategies but also on school policy as well (DeCorse 1997; Radencich 1998). The research process can be a tool for reflection that can awaken in teachers both an increased awareness of teaching practices and a deeper awareness of their own students learning (Gore 1991). Courses that expose teachers to research and afford them the opportunity

2 to engage in their own research serve as a preparation for a lifelong pursuit of inquiry and professional growth (Radencich 1998). In short, understanding the meaning and nature of research is closely tied to the very essence of being a good teacher (Burnaford and Hilsabeck 2000). However, the path to an effective research course is fraught with difficulties. Upon entry to the course, most students have not had formal exposure to research techniques and lack the skill to identify good research (White 1999). They are daunted by what they view as numerous, and often insurmountable, obstacles: lack of skill and confidence to conduct meaningful research, limited time in which to complete their work, inability to see the connection between their research and what happens in their classrooms, anxiety over what their research could contribute to their teaching practice, resistance to writing a formal research report (DeCorse 1997, White 1999). Given this list of problems, any investigation that could lead to the alleviation of even some of these difficulties would be valuable for instructors and students alike. Other studies have addressed student reflections on the research process. DeCorse conducted research to monitor student reactions in an attempt to model action research. Students were asked to write weekly about their views of themselves as researchers. Other evidence was gathered through interviews at the beginning and end of the course. Over time, students developed a more focused view of themselves as researchers and some came to the belief that their teaching would improve from the research experience (DeCorse 1997). Burnaford and Hilsabeck as well as Mullen asked students to reflect upon the research process and used results as feedback to improve their course. Gore & Zeichner noted the benefits of reflection and writing as a way for students to articulate their feelings and confront their problems. Methods The subjects of this study were seven students enrolled in a research methods course that comprised the first part of the capstone experience for the Masters Degree in Educational Technology at Iona College. The instructor/researcher encouraged graduate students to reflect on the nature of research, its implications for their careers and their role as researchers by asking them to write for fifteen minutes at the beginning of class on a question provided by the instructor. Students were unaware that they were subjects of a research study until they had completed the reflections. The following questions were asked: 1. What is your concept of research? (asked on the first day and last day and two other classes) 2. How do you view yourself as a researcher? (asked twice) 3. What connection do you see between research and teaching? (asked twice) 4. What are your thoughts in finding a research topic? ( asked once) 5. How prepared do you feel to do your research? (asked once) To provide anonymity, each subject drew a number at random that was used to identify the various responses and form a continuum throughout the course. This procedure preserved anonymity while allowing examination of each student s responses as the study progressed. Subjects were interviewed at the beginning, midpoint and end of the course to elicit deeper responses. Among the questions posed were: 1) What are your expectations at the beginning of the course? 2) How confident do you feel about conducting a research project? 3) How are you going about refining your topic to formulate a research hypothesis or research questions? 4) What do you see as a benefit of this process? Students were asked to sign consent forms so that their reflections could be used in the research report. Data collected were analyzed to see the progression during the course of student thinking on research, their selfreported role as researchers, and the career implications of the research process. Results Reflections Students concept of research at the start of the course varied but most viewed it as a process of extensive reading, followed by organization, reflection, and writing. Many students related research to the practical task of looking up information before teaching it. As this question was repeated at regular intervals, their concepts became more refined. One student noted:... there are many ways of obtaining information... I did not realize the research could be so complicated... Research is more than just gathering data and drawing conclusions. By the end of the

3 course, most students wrote that research was an investigation of a problem, using various research tools whose end result was to extend knowledge and improve teaching. Most students were self-described novice researchers but were eager to learn. As might be expected, there was a sense of hesitancy at the beginning of the course as evidenced by the following student thoughts: Am unsure of myself. What should I do it on? Can I write as well as others? Can I gather information correctly? Can I? It s overwhelming! Others were more confident of their abilities from the start. They recognized that they possessed some essential research qualities such as investigative and organizational skills, patience, and objectivity. Beginning the research process posed a serious challenge for the students. Finding a topic was, for most, a difficult task. They had vague ideas but were unsure they would work. Paramount to most, was finding a topic that would not only interest and excite them but be beneficial. As the course continued, students began to understand what is expected of a researcher and even expressed confidence in their ability to follow through with their proposal. Yet, they were well aware that they were facing a daunting project. I still consider it a cumbersome project, stated one student. Another commented, Do I have the gumption to pull it all together?...you don t prepare, you jump into it. When questioned about the connection between research and teaching, several students reported little or no connection at all. Others thought of it in terms of researching a topic to teach it more effectively, focusing on the content of the lesson rather than on pedagogical considerations: Through research we obtain knowledge to impart to students. However, one student wrote that research and teaching should coexist and explained how each relies on the other: There is a big connection if one is interested in improving his/her methods.... Research can be a valuable tool in teaching Teaching also depends on research... Interviews Students were interviewed at the beginning, middle and end of the course. Initial apprehension and reluctance gradually gave way to a sense of confidence and possibility. Course expectations appeared to be met and sometimes exceeded. A number of students had anticipated the course to be more theoretical and were pleased to discover the empirical aspects of the research they were planning. When asked if they perceived research as having any value to them as teachers, two students claimed none. On the other hand, as students began to select topics that they genuinely cared about, they expressed enthusiasm and excitement in the hopes their results would add to the knowledge base of their topics and yield benefits to students and teachers alike. Surveys Students completed end of semester surveys in which they were asked if they would use the results of their current research project in their teaching. The majority of the students responded positively. For example, they reported that they would work harder to get computers in more classrooms and would find more effective ways to integrate technology to improve student learning. However, when asked if they would use research results in the future to improve classroom strategies, only two students claimed they would do so. The rest responded rarely or not at all. All but one student planned to seek changes in their schools based on their research. Students were planning research studies investigating technology use by K-12 students and teachers as well as experiments to test the effectiveness of specific technology interventions in the curriculum. As a result, one student planned to conduct technology workshops to train teachers in the use of specific interventions; others reported they would assist districts in getting more technology (hardware and software) in classrooms. Students were also given a short survey to determine their reaction to being participants in a research study. Certain students remarked on the usefulness of this method of data gathering in that it provided a flexible way to anonymously collect data. Another student responded that the experience demonstrated that research entails more than one might imagine. When asked if this experience caused them to consider the connection between research and teaching, all but one student replied positively. One student wrote, I recognize the research method as a useful tool for the teacher to improve and change if needed. Being a reflective educator allows the teacher to increase student achievement and motivation.

4 Discussion The purpose of this study was twofold: 1) to explore solutions to some of the problems instructors and students face in a research methods course by investigating how students view the research process and think of themselves as researchers; 2) to observe student reaction to being part of a research study, anticipating that participation would afford first hand experience with the process of collecting, analyzing and reporting data. The hope was that examining student reflections on research would suggest methodologies to assist students in realizing the intrinsic connection between research and teaching as well as professional development. With regard to the first purpose, data collected supported the assumption that many students have real fears of embarking on a research project. They question their ability to formulate a viable hypothesis and wonder if they have the courage and perseverance to succeed. As one student exclaimed, Research is a struggle. Since the class was small (seven students), the instructor was able to meet several times with each student. During these sessions, students could voice their concerns and the instructor could suggest possible solutions to their problems. As the interviews proceeded, several students became enthusiastic about the potential results their research might reveal and, subsequently, gained confidence in their ability to succeed. Understanding the connection between research and teaching was not an easy matter for students. Their reflections on the nature of research itself revealed a narrow definition of research. For example, several students defined research as extensive reading and then writing as one might do for a term paper. Their initial thoughts on the connection between teaching and research were of a practical nature. Students seemed to view research in terms of investigating a topic they were going to present to the class. These students did not appear to grasp the more encompassing concept of research as informing the teaching process. They were focused on their own specific research project and how it might relate to their teaching. As noted above, some students saw no relationship at all between research and teaching. Their goal was to complete the research proposal because it was a requirement for the degree they needed to maintain their teaching positions. There was little or no effort to see the broader or long range implications of research on their profession. Few students claimed that they might use research in the future to improve classroom strategies. The second purpose of the study was to observe student reaction to participating in a research study. At the end of the course, students were told they were subjects of a study and were then asked to reflect on this experience to determine if it shed some light on the research process. Students remarked that it provided them with another example of how to collect data. Earlier in the study, most students failed to grasp any real connection between research and teaching. However, when asked this question again in light of their participation in the study, most students admitted that the experience did indeed help them understand the connection between research and teaching. Two students in particular seemed to comprehend the true purpose of the study: to discover ways to improve the learning process. Conclusion What conclusions can we draw from the data collected in this study? Did the data provide evidence to suggest methodologies to improve the research methods course for students? How can instructors assist students to realize the many benefits of research? To address the problem of student fears, it appears that frequent meetings, if feasible, provide a forum for students to articulate their concerns. Once expressed, their problems become easier to overcome. As the course proceeds, their self-confidence, so vital to success, appears to increase. To drive home the intrinsic connection between research and teaching, between theory and practice, is a far more daunting task. This study indicates that students must somehow move away from the parochial view of research as only their own project. Instructors must emphasize the global aspects of research. Perhaps assignments that examine research reports and then discuss how the results could be applied in the classroom might be of value. Students are grounded in practicality. If they are to become consumers of research, they need to see concrete examples of how research results can improve classroom practices before they will be convinced that research can play a significant role in their professional development in the future.

5 It appears that an important finding of this study is that students must bridge the gap between focusing on their own research project that they are undertaking to complete their degree and the realization that the body of knowledge in educational technology that the research community continually nurtures and enhances is an invaluable source of ideas and pedagogical strategies that can invigorate and inspire their teaching and subsequent student learning. Participation in a study seemed to have a modest effect in this regard. More research needs to be done in this area to delve more deeply into students perceptions of research. Instructors, then, must model for their students the process of using research results to create a more exciting and productive learning environment. References Burnaford, Gail & Hilsabeck, Alison. (2000). The master s project: negotiating identities as teacher researchers. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service NO. ED443854) DeCorse, C. (1997). I m a good teacher, therefore I m a good researcher. Chicago, IL: Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service NO. ED411267) Gore, J. & Zeichner, K. (1991). Action research and reflective teaching in preservice teacher education: A case study from the United States. Teaching and Teacher Education, 7 (2), Mullen, C. (2000). Linking research and teaching: a study of graduate student engagement. Teaching in Higher Education, 5(1), Radencich, M. (1998). Planning a teacher research course: Challenges and quandaries. The Educational Forum, 62(3), Retrieved October 3, 2003 from Education Full Text (via Wilson Web) database. Ross, D. (1987). Action research for preservice teachers: A description of why and how. Peabody Journal of Education, 64(3), White, E. & Gary, T. (1999). Does research matter to the classroom teacher? Point Clear, AL: Annual Meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research Association. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service NO. ED436575)

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