This is the third post from a series I wrote in 2012 about writing and publishing with undergraduate students. I’ll be publishing this series every other Thursday over the summer. For more recent research and resources, visit the new International Journal for Students as Partners and a special issue of Teaching and Learning Inquiry that I co-edited on students as co-inquirers.
Nearly every Monday this semester, (well, in 2011) my writing partners and I have met in my office at 10am, laptops on, Dropbox open, discussion flying. We are writing an article about student motivations in a service-learning class. After about 10 weeks of stealing research and writing time in between classes and meetings, we have a solid draft that we are now heavily revising and editing, each person commenting on the others’ sections, making suggestions for improvements and asking questions when information or connections seem to be missing.
This might sound like your writing groups, but in this case my collaborators are three undergraduate students. These three young scholars took the class last Fall, and we have worked this semester to determine research questions, collect extra data, draft a scholarly article, and hopefully have it accepted for publication in a disciplinary journal.
How do you determine what teaching and learning experience make good opportunities for research with undergraduates? How do you develop solid, empirical SoTL research questions? How do you select students to join the research?
The answer to these questions is honestly “in the usual way.” But of course the usual way is complicated when the lead researcher/author also serves as mentor to new scholars who most likely do not plan futures as academics. In this post, we’ll cover the first two questions, and next week I’ll address developing solid SoTL research questions. This particular post will draw more on my personal experiences than the first two, not because my way of approaching the process is superior to others, but simply a way to start you thinking about what strategies might work for you.
Determining the Research Opportunity
Like most research opportunities, ideas spring out of questions and experiences, successes and failures. We’ve all had courses that were almost magical – everything just comes together in the right time and right ways. But of course we’ve all also had inexplicable failures – groups that never gel, students who don’t engage, assignments that fall flat. Sometimes those best and worst experiences can happen in the same course with the same assignments at different times with different students.
Randy Bass argued early in the SoTL movement that we often consider “problems” exciting in our research but taboo in our teaching. Yet we all have questions about our teaching. Why do some students seem to grasp a concept immediately and others lag? Why does one type of assignment work in one context but not another? What motivates student performance in a traditional course section vs. a service-learning or problem-based learning section?
In the two instances that I’ve decided to explore writing an article about a course with undergraduates, I chose to write about unique experiences that already fell within my personal SoTL research agenda. I am interested in student collaboration strategies, extended client-based and service-learning experiences, and the possible advantages to using Scrum project management strategies in my courses. In both cases, I was already collecting data for my own research and by the end of the courses had additional questions about student learning and motivations. So inviting students from the courses to help me explore these additional questions was a natural extension of my on-going work.
Not everyone is in the same position, but think about courses that worked well for you (or didn’t), particular assignments that seemed to encourage learning better than others (or not), or general questions you have about the learning experience in a particular course. Choose a course or assignment that you really want to learn more about so that you can sustain and share enthusiasm with your student co-researchers during the project. Once you invite students to participate, the commitment is made, so pick something that you are really curious about; that might be relatively easily researched via post-experience surveys or focus groups; and that might contribute to the growing body of SoTL research.
Choosing Student Co-Researchers
Though it might seem to make sense to talk about developing the research question as the next step, consider instead inviting students into the process before that question is fully formed – after all, developing the RQ is an important and exciting part of the research experience that helps ease the student co-researchers into the inquiry team mentality. In the last post, we discussed the value of student voice(s) in research, and that voice should extend to developing the inquiry as well.
When you think about choosing student co-researchers, the obvious choices are the stars – the students who shine in class, seem to really get the disciplinary perspective, and would be honored by the invite. These are often the students we see ourselves in. When we include these students in the project, we know that we’ll work well together and that they will perform well in the experience. On the flip side, these are the students who are often getting the most opportunities to extend their education and might take on the project more out of the desire to add resume fodder than genuine interest.
A second group of students to consider are the ones that show potential but might not have been the A students in the class. These are the students who might have struggled more but who also exhibited some level of determination, engagement, and commitment. These students might care just as much, if not more, about the discipline than the A students but might not be offered the same opportunities. Maybe these students just want an opportunity to shine or to approach their education from a different angle. Might these students be a risk? Possibly, but sometimes the risk is really worth it.
A third group of students to consider are the convenient ones. I know how that sounds, but sometimes time and availability are really important. When I decided I wanted to write an article with some students about the use of Scrum project management strategies in a very successful iteration of my Publishing class, it was the end of the Spring semester, and I knew I’d be busy collecting data for another project in the fall. So I thought about the students in the class, considering who might be interested in working with me, who had a unique experience in the course, and who might be in the area over the summer. The three young women I asked were excited to participate and worked with me all summer to submit the article before fall semester began.
For the article I am currently writing with students, I used the same process (Update: this article was published in 2014). I thought about students who might be interested, who had different experiences in the course, who might benefit by experiencing the research process to grow their confidence or disciplinary skills, and who would have time during the semester to commit to the work. I also talked with a colleague about my preliminary choices, just to bounce the idea off of a peer and think about what students might work well together. I invited three young women to participate, and all were excited about the opportunity (yes, my co-authors have all been women, but this is representative of our student population in my program rather than any bias on my part. Only three men took part in the two courses mentioned here.).
Do you need to offer incentives for students to participate? That probably depends on the students. In my experience, the students are just happy to be asked and to have the opportunity to be published with a professor. During the Publishing article project during the summer, we worked at my apartment usually, and I provided food and snacks for their time. On a few occasions I took them out for a meal to discuss our revisions. This time around, since we were working during the semester, I offered options for credit. One student chose not to take a credit option since she was a part-time student finishing up her degree, but two others signed up for an advanced studio course I teach, and the project has been part of their work for that course.
Once you have an idea for a project and a student or group of students in mind, the fun part of the process can begin. Next week, we’ll discuss developing appropriate SoTL research questions with your students for these projects and consider possible publication venues for the work.
Until then, what suggestions do you have for choosing a project or co-researchers? What challenges do you foresee getting the process started? What ethical questions should we be considering when beginning these types of projects?