Doing Educational Research: A Guide to First-Time Researchers

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Clive Opie

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    Notes on Contributors

    Ann-Marie Bathmaker is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield. She started her career in education as a teacher of English as a Second Language, later becoming a local authority coordinator for the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative. She worked at the University of Wolverhampton for six years, becoming Principal Lecturer with responsibility for teaching and learning. Her areas of research and publication include policy and practice in post-compulsory education and training, teacher and learner identity, young people's transitions and qualifications and training for teaching and learning professionals.

    David Hyatt works in the University of Sheffield where he is the Director of the MEd in English Language Teaching Programme and the Singapore Distance Learning Programme. He is also a tutor on the MEd Literacy and Language in Education Programme. David has considerable experience in the supervision of postgraduate students and regularly leads sessions on academic literacy and critical reading for study. David's present research interests centre around political and media discourse, critical literacy and academic literacy, and he is currently researching feedback on postgraduate work.

    Clive Opie is a Deputy Director of the Institute of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research interests have centred on the use of ICT to support and enhance teaching and learning with a variety of groups such as teachers and pupils in schools, students on initial teacher education courses and those undertaking higher degree courses. He has had substantial experience of teaching and tutoring students on MEd courses where, amongst other areas, he has taught research procedures and data analysis both of which have included the exploration of using computers to assist in such work. In June 2002 the Open University published a text jointly authored with Judith Bell Learning from Research: Getting More from your Data.

    Mike Pomerantz is an Associate Tutor to the MSc Course and the EdD Programme both in Educational Psychology at the University of Sheffield where he has been teaching for almost 20 years. His teaching interests focus on assessment and interventions with emotional and behavioural difficulties, group dynamics, professional well-being and information technology. He is a Senior Educational Psychologist and team manager in Derbyshire providing services to a range of primary, secondary and special schools including assessments, interventions, consultation, work with parents, conflict resolution, staff development and Child Protection work. He was the Convener of the Standing Committee on Supervision of DECP (British Psychology Society) during 1984–93. This group produced professional guidelines and organised National Conferences in 1987, 1988 and 1993 at the Tavistock Clinic and the Institute of Education. The work culminated in a series of articles published in I. Lunt and M. Pomerantz (eds) (1993) ‘Supervision and Psychologists' Professional Work’, Educational and Child Psychology, 10:2. His more recent research concerns database development, confidentiality in record keeping, evaluation of Educational Psychology Services and underachievement especially amongst able pupils. In August 2002 David Fulton and NACE published his latest work (co-authored by Kathryn A. Pomerantz) entitled Listening to Able Underachievers: Creating Opportunities for Change.

    Jon Scaife is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield. He has a particular interest in learning and in the nature of knowledge and the construction of meanings. These interests underpin his research interests in the relationship between learning and teaching, in Interpersonal Process Recall, and in the construction of rich learning environments. He studied and taught Physics and Mathematics and in the field of Science Education has written on learning, on equity and equality, and on uses of ICT. He directs Educational Studies courses for doctoral students and for PGCE students at Sheffield University.

    Pat Sikes is a lecturer at the University of Sheffield. Throughout her academic career, the study of aspects of teachers' lives and careers through qualitative research methodologies in general and life history/narrative approaches in particular, have been the central strand of her research interest and activity. In pursuit of this interest her work has focused on, and developed in, four main interrelated areas. These are: teachers' lives and life cycles; life history methodology; social justice issues, and qualitative research methodology. She has published extensively in all of these fields, and, in addition is Series Editor of an Open University Press series entitled Doing Research in Educational Settings. Her current research project: Strengthening the Research Base in A New University, takes an auto-ethnographic, reflexive, collaborative, action research approach to the task of strengthening and developing the research base of, and research activity within a school in a new university.

    Preface

    Although this is a book about educational research it differs from the proliferation of texts that already exist in this field in that it is written specifically with the needs in mind of those embarking for the first time into educational research. The undeniable value of many of the existing texts in educational research is not in question. Neither is the fact that they provide comprehensive and informative discussion of areas such as research methodology, research procedures (methods) and the use of technology in supporting qualitative and quantitative data analysis. The point is, though, that the very comprehensiveness of such texts often results in a level of redundancy of information for the beginner researcher. So while no criticism of existing texts is intended there is recognition, from the experience of those contributing here, that for the beginning researcher they often offer far more than is required. The argument made is that those commencing educational research need to be provided with a carefully orchestrated source of information, which while being necessarily correct is reduced to a digestible size and level of comprehensibility so as to provide the supportive framework essential to their stage of development. This book sets out to do just this.

    Collectively, the authors have brought together over 60 years of experience in the field of educational research, to provide a text aimed at meeting the particular needs of Masters students new to its intricacies. These needs include simplicity of expression of apparently complex issues such as those associated with methodological and ethical concerns; support strategies for the academic writing required for a dissertation; straightforward presentation of standard aspects of research approaches and procedures (methods); informative, but clear and helpful, frameworks for exploring data analysis; and a comprehensible insight into the world of statistics at a level appropriate to the beginning educational researcher.

    Others will undoubtedly argue this book misses out key areas, or is too superficial in places. Such criticism may or may not be legitimate and the educational fraternity will inevitably continue to argue over such points. However, while making no excuse for focusing on a grounding in the basics of educational research, its use of a wide range of references sets out to provide a springboard for further exploration should it be required. The chapters and their contents have arisen from much discussion with colleagues involved in Masters teaching and, importantly, students embarking upon educational research for the first time. It is supported throughout with ‘teaching points’ and exemplars from actual student material. The intention is then that while meeting the needs of Masters students, equally it will provide a starting point for higher degrees such as PhD.

    Each of the chapters can be read independently although they make reference to each other for the purposes of coherence. The first chapter offers a general overview of educational research and sets out to answer the fundamental question asked by all newcomers, ‘Can I do Educational Research’? The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’ and the reader is led to this result through a process of reflection of a number of ‘typical’ views held by beginning researchers. Having attempted to allay any fears that educational research is not just the prerogative of a chosen few, the chapters that follow each present a key issue involved in its undertaking.

    In Chapter 2 Pat Sikes provides an eloquent insight into methodological issues clarifying the distinction between this and research procedures (methods). It is worth noting at this point that throughout this book the term ‘procedures’ is used in preference to ‘methods’ as experience indicates that the latter term throws up unnecessary confusion with the term methodology. The chapter also addresses the central importance of considering the ethical issues, which arise when undertaking educational research.

    Many beginners' level of anxiety rises sharply when faced with the actual process of undertaking academic writing. The view often held is that such writing is shrouded in mystique, which only the very gifted writers can handle. Nothing could be further from the truth. Admittedly conventions exist but there is nothing mystical about them that a suitably presented analysis cannot unravel. Such an analysis is provided in the third chapter by David Hyatt who uses his years of experience as an ELT expert to provide a down to earth approach at unravelling the apparent intricacies of academic writing.

    Another key issue for those commencing educational research is how to make appropriate claims and construct credible accounts of their research so as to gain and maintain the confidence of their readers, in short to gain the reader's sense of trust in what he or she is reading. This forms the basis of the fourth chapter by Jon Scaife. Although addressing issues such as validity, reliability and causality the focus is not on the technical issues associated with these areas but, and arguably more importantly, on the quality of the communication between the reader and writer.

    More often than not students new to educational research show an emphasis for the practice of doing it, that is, the approach to be taken and the procedures used, rather than considering the theoretical issues that should underpin it. This is not surprising as ‘doing’ the research is seen as synonymous to collection of real data, which in turn provides the material for analysis and presentation of conclusions and after all isn't this what research is all about? The actual approach taken to any research and the procedures used are, though, of no more importance than the contents of the earlier sections, arguably they are less so as without thought being given to methodological issues the whole raison d'être for the research approach and procedures cannot exist.

    It is for this reason, and like many other texts, that the ‘doing’ aspects of research are only now raised. Chapter 5 details three main approaches to research – Case Study, Action Research and Experiments – and the decision to focus on these has been guided by the consideration outlined earlier, namely their suitability for the beginning researcher undertaking a Master's degree. Each approach is defined and then explored through student example(s). There is also a consideration of Grounded Theory which although deemed unlikely to find wide use at Master's level is raised as it links to later chapters which consider the use of qualitative data analysis software in the organisation and analysis of the data obtained from using such an approach.

    Questionnaires, Interviews and Observational research are considered within the next chapter on research procedures. Each is discussed in terms of its appropriateness to the methodological stance underpinning the educational research being undertaken and in terms of the particular issues raised, such as question types, interview styles and the types of observations, which might be undertaken.

    Too often thoughts of data analysis are left until after the data have been collected. This is fatal and any researcher needs to keep in the forefront of their mind that shoddy, ill-conceived or inappropriate data analysis can make an otherwise sound research project worthless. To help understand this, the next chapter begins by looking at the types of quantitative data one could collect and the kind of analysis it lends itself to.

    It is also at this point that the introduction of computer data analysis programs such as Microsoft Excel and, the Sage product SphinxSurvey are introduced. These are powerful and useful tools for quantitative data analysis but equally can be the bane of a reader's life as this chapter goes on to consider. Graphs, pie charts, tables in a variety of formats and colours are achievable at the press of a few buttons. Used wisely, they present data in an informative, easy to understand and simple to read format. Used indiscriminately, they do more to confuse and frustrate the reader than help him or her to appreciate the significance of the research findings.

    Given the small volume of qualitative data which is likely to arise from Masters research much can be said for simply reading what is collected and extracting various points using the in-built facility of a word-processor to search for keywords. The value however, of looking at the potential of computer data analysis programs to enhance any such analysis should not be underestimated. As such exploration of the Lexica edition of SphinxSurvey as a relatively simple to use, but still powerful, text analysis program is given some prominence in the last section of this chapter.

    Had this book done no more it is likely it would have provided sufficient introductory material for the beginning Masters students to help them embark upon their research. The recognition that technology is increasingly advancing the ease at which both quantitative and qualitative data analysis can be undertaken and that statistical analysis used correctly is important prompted the addition of three further chapters.

    Chapters 8 and 9 provide a carefully orchestrated venture into two computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) programs. Both authors reflect on their own research work and ask the important question ‘How did it help me’?

    Ann-Marie Bathmaker provides an extremely salutary excursion into the potential of using the Sage software NUD•IST (now upgraded and-renamed Nvivo 2.0) for the analysis of the semi-structured interviews she undertook with staff and students in a further education college and which formed the basis for a case study of teaching and learning in further education. Although NUD•IST helped her bring together relevant texts a great deal more easily than if she had attempted to do so by manually cutting and pasting, the interpretation of the data, and telling the story, came from detailed reading of the interviews, talking about them to others as well as reading the excerpts placed under each theme produced by the software. She makes an important point when she advises others to try out such software using tutorials provided and to not be seduced by what it can do, but to ask ‘Did I want to do that’?

    In Chapter 9 Mike Pomerantz, an educational psychologist, also discusses his own research, which was exploring, through interviews, the needs of able, underachieving pupils in one Local Education Authority in the UK and how he used another Sage software product ATLAS.ti. His chapter provides a valuable narrative of his own inroads into the world of qualitative analysis as well as a comprehensive insight into the value of CAQDAS programs to assist in supporting the Grounded Theory approach he used. What is possibly even more interesting and perhaps reflects the symbiotic relationship of manual and computer based analysis is that his partner Kathryn, also an educational psychologist, elected to examine the interview transcripts without the benefit of ATLAS.ti. Although she used notes in margins and coloured highlights, they found congruence. There is though perhaps the additional value of using CAQDAS in that it provides the potential for readily revisiting the data in search of that ‘elusive’ something else.

    The final chapter may seem somewhat out of character in as much as it is written in the format of a glossary of terms associated with quantitative analysis. This was done purposefully. Arguably many of the terms and details could have been included in Chapter 7. However, many need not concern beginners to educational research and so including them just for the sake of completeness seemed inappropriate. As editor, the final decision, rested with me and as such I have argued that while an understanding of many of the terms included here could be of value at Masters level their inclusion in other chapters was not justified. Too often students shy away when confronted with statistical terms – this is not the intention of this book. What is offered then is a glossary of terms associated with quantitative analysis, which should provide the reader with all the necessary information he or she might need but without making their reading conditional.

    This is a beginner's text, which although necessarily minimalising the discussion of a range of issues does not marginalise their importance or significance to educational research. The authors hope you enjoy reading and using this text and find its contents useful and stimulating and its references substantially wide to allow further depth of exploration should you require it. The first chapter ends by stating to all those new to educational research and worried about their ability to undertake it – ‘You can do it’ – and we sincerely hope this book will help you in doing so.

    CliveOpie

    Acknowledgements

    My grateful thanks go to a number of people for their help and support in ensuring this book ever saw final publication. First, to all my colleagues based at the University of Sheffield not only for contributing selflessly to the writing of their chapters but in providing me with the encouragement to ensure my own were completed. Without their various expert contributions the worth of this book would be sorely reduced. To Zoë Elliott from Sage for her patience, guidance, constructive criticism and unwavering support. To all the hundreds of students who I have had the pleasure of working and, more importantly, learning from. Constraints of space permit but a few to be cited but they have all, in their own way, helped me in the development of my thoughts. Finally to my wife and family for their patience and willingness to give up countless weekends in allowing me to complete this book. To you all I owe a great debt of gratitude.

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