Written by Sarah M. Ginsberg, Ed.D., Professor at Eastern Michigan University
A common thread that runs through various cross-disciplinary SOTL research is the concerted effort made to understand what the accomplished professional is thinking when she solves a work problem so that we can use that knowledge as teachers to better prepare future professionals. That problem might be how a mathematician completes a technical calculation, or in clinical fields, it might be how the clinician arrives at a diagnosis. The value for all of us in understanding what our accomplished colleagues do in their heads when faced with a technical problem is that in identifying how the pros do it, we can uncover insights into how we should be teaching our students to think and to problem solve. This type of understanding relies on a process of collecting data while the person is actively engaged in solving a problem out loud. This type of study is often referred to as a think aloud (TA) and can yield important information to inform evidence-based educational practices
The TA method is a validated method of learning about cognitive processes by having participants verbalize their thinking in a metacognitive manner (Ericcson & Simon, 1993; Wineberg, 1991). TAs were popularized by Wineberg (1991) in his ground-breaking study that examined the differences between how academic historians processed information while reading historical texts and how students processed information regarding historical texts. Since then, TAs have been used to study how novice thinking compares to experienced thinking in a wide variety of disciplines, including the health sciences, mathematics, and political science (Banning, 2008; Bernstein, 2010; Forsberg, Ziegert, Hult, & Fors, 2013; Wainwright & McGinnis, 2009). These types of studies are often referred to as “expert-novice” studies (Bernstein, 2010).
The process of data collection using a TA approach is quite simple and requires minimal technology and cost. Typically:
- Study participants are presented with the problem to be solved by the researcher and asked to solve it aloud.
- Specific directions are provided to participants. Prompts (e.g., “tell me how you would solve this” or “describe how you would approach this problem”) are used to elicit responses and gather additional information if a participant falls silent or struggles with the process.
- Participant responses are recorded for subsequent transcription and analysis.
- Once the TA is transcribed, the most challenging part of the process becomes the subsequent data analysis. Consistent with qualitative methodology, verbalizations may be read as a whole to determine initial emerging codes and impressions about the thought process (Creswell, 2002; Denzin & Lincoln, 2012). Using an inductive approach to identifying specific thought processes or strategies allows the researcher to move forward to developing secondary, axial coding. Themes emerge as the iterative process expands to include all participants and commonalities and differences can be appreciated.
Having recently completed a study comparing the diagnostic problem-solving of experienced speech-language pathology (SLP) clinicians compared to the problem-solving of SLP graduate students, I found that the most challenging aspect of analyzing the data was determining the level of thinking to focus on. I used studies in comparable clinical professions, such as nursing, physicians, and physical therapists to identify frameworks that might be useful to me. In determining the focus of my study, I chose to concentrate on the heuristics (thinking strategies) of my participants, to understand differences in approaches to problem solving and to create a framework that fostered comparisons to previous literature, potentially increasing the value of my findings.
For more details on the think aloud method and some outstanding examples of its use in a variety of fields, see the items included in the following references. It should be noted that a number of authors also advocate for the use of TA as a teaching method. For those unfamiliar with qualitative research methodology, several references are included here as well.
References for Additional Information on Think Alouds:
Banning, M. (2008b). The think aloud approach as an educational tool to develop and assess clinical reasoning in undergraduate students. Nurse Education Today, 28, (1), p. 8–14. doi: 10.1016/j.nedt.2007.02.001
Bernstein, J. L. (2010). Using “think-alouds” to understand variations in political thinking. Journal of Political Science Education, 6(1), p 49-69. doi:10.1080/15512160903467695
Ericcson, K. A., & Simon, H A. (1993). Protocol analysis: Verbal reports as data. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Forsberg, E., Ziegert, K., Hult, H., & Fors, U. (2013). Clinical reasoning in nursing, a think-aloud study using virtual patients-A base for innovative assessment. Nurse Education Today, http://dx.doi.org./10.1016/j.nedt.2013.07.010
Wainwright, S. F., & McGinnis, P.Q. (2009). Factors that influence the clinical decision-making of rehabilitation professionals in long-term care settings. Journal of Allied Health, 38(3), 143-51.
Wineberg, S. S. (1991) On the reading of historical texts: Notes on the breach between school and academy. American Educational Research Journal, 28(3), 495-519.
For Additional Information on Qualitative Research Methodologies:
Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. K. (2006). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theories and methods, (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Creswell, J. W. (2002). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2012). Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials, Fourth Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.