Crafting a Purpose of the Study Statement…

…is not easy. It’s one of the shortest parts of a research proposal, yet is the most critical because it is the study. Everything stems from this one, seemingly simple sentence. One of the hardest things about writing the purpose of the study (POS) is actually the first time we write one. Most of us struggle with this because we either say too much, say too little or say it unclearly. And then there’s someone (usually a professor in a class) who asks, “So why is this important to study?”

And here’s where we learn that it’s not enough to feel passionately about a topic or issue. We have to use current research and scholarship to literally craft a path from an description of a broad topic to a focus on a problem that interests us to a study that’s needed — and then, ta-dah, our POS. And it’s only by providing that context — the topic, an overview of the problem/issue, and gaps in current research — that we can answer that (annoying) professor’s question.

Writing the POS is also a challenge because it takes so much finesse to write in clearly, yet completely. Last night in class we spent time working on students’ statemetns. The prior week, things seemed to go more smoothly. Last night was definitely more challenging. We actually left class with little to no closure on students’ statements. After thinking about them overnight and some early morning brainstorming with Bill, I was able to send students some suggestions to consider. While I think the suggestions do help move students in the right direction, students may feel the suggestions don’t quite hit the mark. That’s okay because this will help students move closer to where they want to be as they say, “No, that’s not what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was this …” Writing these statements does get easier over time, but the first few times can be trying.

I don’t see the students for a couple of weeks — next Wednesday is a university holiday and the following week they’re covering stats for the entire session — and look forward to working with them even while we’re apart. It’s really a journey of discovery as we not only learn about our studies, but learn about ourselves as well.

Magical Moments

In teaching, there are some real magical moments that deserve to be acknowledged. Last night’s class was one of those … During the past week I had been reading students’ papers (a mini-qualitative research proposal). For most of them, this was the first time they had put together something like this, and like many of us, their “purpose of the study” statements were generally unclear or too ambitious. As a result, the subsequent research questions and study design needed development. Everything in a study stems from that purpose of the study (POS) statement. I thought, “Next year when I teach this class, I’m going to include a writing workshop that will allow students to really focus on that POS. A good POS and the rest will fall into place.” As I continued thinking, I wondered: “How could I include this now as they work on their mini-quantitative proposals?” And so, last night’s writing workshop was born. I asked the students to send me their current POS statements and we worked on them. We only got through five of the ten, but oh, the learning! The students realized that (1) they weren’t alone in struggling to write the POS, (2) seeing another’s POS helped them better see the strengths & weaknesses in their own statement, and (3) the connection between the study design and POS is mutual (they inform one another — you have to have a sense of the study design to craft the POS & the POS will, in turn, influence the study design). We reviewed and revised five of the statements in about an hour. The first one took us 20 minutes and each subsequent one took less time — another indicator of their learning. At the end of the discussion I asked students to send me the revised versions of the statements we worked on tonight and for those remaining to incorporate ideas from the conversation and send me a revised POS that we’ll cover next week. We then reviewed the key learning moments from the past hour. What an exciting class — high level of student engagement on an activity that was personally relevant to them … and it brought them together as a community of writers instead of feeling like they were slogging through things alone.

The first part of the class was equally magical: We had planned to discuss two articles in the class & prepare an analysis of the article using the wiki tool on our course management system, Sakai. When I arrived in class, two of the discussion leaders asked to talk about their idea for approaching the project. Rather than divide into groups, they asked, could we keep the whole class together and discuss the article? We had divided into smaller groups because our first large group discussion was a bit awkward and we had agreed that smaller groups would allow for more conversation. Last night’s discussion leaders made a good pitch for their approach and the other discussion leaders were willing to wait until next week (the students took ownership of the class and co-created the learning experience — ah, just warms my heart). So, we forged ahead and had a truly amazing conversation about the article. Students shared their questions, areas where they felt unsure about their interpretations, offered areas for further study, pointed out where to find the theoretical framework (that most couldn’t locate — the power of a group conversation), questioned the structure of the article, and considered the study in its entirety. A completely different experience from our first article discussion 10 weeks ago. *Lightbulb moment* Evidence of more learning — something to celebrate. I loved seeing the students’ faces as I asked them to reflect on tonight’s discussion in relation to our first one, highlighted the ways they have learned to analyze articles, and suggested that they can, in fact, trust their judgment as they assess articles.

What made the class session even more special for me was that I had just received evaluations from last Fall when I taught this same course. The evaluation data had gone missing until this week — and somehow it reappeared at the perfect moment. The feedback from last year wasn’t good. I struggled with that class and was not confident in teaching it. Students had feedback that’s tough to accept. Yet … like the students’ experience in class last night, that feedback was evidence of my own learning over the past year. The course (and my approach to it) has shifted from chaotic to organized, from uncertain to confident, from disconnected to well-connected. What a journey we are on!

Imagining the Future

A couple of weeks ago our faculty worked together for several hours as part of the university’s strategic planning process. Our task was to imagine the future of of our discipline (education). We began by identifying current issues that impact education, K-12 as well as higher ed. The issues for K-12 run the gamut from unequal distribution of resources to increasingly diverse students & families to the impact of decreased funding for public education. For higher ed, we identified similar issues including decreased access that result from fewer classes offered, reductions in financial aid, and increasing fees. But we also discussed other issues changing the look of higher ed: the amount of information available via the Internet means that students can get information quickly and from so many sources. As a result, information (knowledge) is no longer vested in the professor. The class becomes more of a learning community where knowledge is co-constructed. I saw this play out in class last night when a guest student was making a presentation about reflective practice and another student was looking up related information on-line that he then integrated into the class discussion.

In our faculty meeting we also looked forward to imagine what education might look like in 10 years. As we considered the impact of technology, we looked to the past 10 years to identify how much has changed. Email, which was pretty lively 10 years ago is still used in business but is quickly being replaced text messages, tweets, and posts on Facebook. Facebook, now an integral part of our culture, has only been available to any potential user since the mid-2000’s (prior to that access was restricted to people with a .edu email account). Like Facebook, Twitter is a new tool that now has millions of users. In 2000, not many people saw how social networks would change the way we interact on-line. And now in 2011 it’s hard to envision how we might be interacting on-line in 2021. Perhaps social networks will have a Skype-like interface that allows us to connect in one giant video conference.

And how will technology change the way we deliver (higher) education? We certainly won’t be place-bound, restricted to a classroom. We’ll reach students in different ways using video conferencing — maybe even holograms (wouldn’t that be cool?). Technology will allow us to collaborate in new ways … “Beyond the wiki” may be my new mantra. I love the wiki tool for collaborative learning and while I may use it more than some others, I feel like I’m still under-utlizing its capacity. I’m already thinking about ways to better use the wiki tool when I teach this class again next Fall. In our meeting we also looked at video conferencing for learning. The WebX tool we saw builds on some of the efforts we already make when a student is absent. For example, several of us have used Skype to include a student who can participate in class but is otherwise restricted from coming to campus. WebX would allow all of us to attend from a difference, thus reducing our carbon footprint (less driving) but still meet together. This tool seems best suited for smaller classes but would definitely would have worked for Applied Inquiry III (a course I taught last Summer) and could work with our Hanford students. I imagine it would be useful as we continue our work with our students from Shanghai both to help them prepare for their visit to the U.S. and support them with their research after they return to China.

It’s hard to imagine all of the possibilities for teaching and learning in the future. I’m excited to be a part of it!