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“Like a Fish Out of Water Coming Together” — What Students Learned as Research Team Participants for SoTL Grant-Funded Studies

Written by: Brandon Hensley, doctoral student and Phyllis McCluskey-Titus, Associate Professor, Department of Educational Administration and Foundations

At Illinois State University (ISU), grants are awarded to research teams that include students conducting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) studies. There hasn’t been an assessment of students’ learning as members of these research teams, so this project was undertaken to understand what students learned from their experience conducting SoTL research with faculty. We hope this research contributes to knowledge of student-faculty research team learning outcomes on our campus.

We conducted a face-to-face focus group and email survey for data collection. Student participants involved in these teams since 2010 (n=7, 5 female and 2 male) were contacted and asked to participate. Only 3 students were able to be on campus for a face-to-face audio-taped discussion, but 4 students agreed to respond via email to the same discussion prompts. Two participants were undergraduates at the time of participation and five were graduate students.

The written email responses and transcription were analyzed using the constant comparative method. We engaged in thematic analysis of the data, reading the documents separately and then coming together for several sessions to identify patterns/clusters, meaningful quotes, and possible themes from the responses.

Students involved on these research teams had different responsibilities, like writing the literature review or IRB protocol, managing and analyzing data, or reviewing draft surveys. Some students were co-researchers, compiling research notes, analyzing and interpreting results, co-authoring or presenting conference papers, posters, peer-reviewed articles or book chapters.

Insights we gained from the results of this research included:

How much the students valued the collaborative process gained from conducting research with a team. “I think the most valuable thing I learned was how to be a part of a research team…and that’s tremendously valuable to me because I feel like now if I want to go forward and do more team research, I’ll probably walk in with more confidence…”

The value students placed on being able to “talk-through” or “reflect” about their learning. If reflection and communication did not occur between students and faculty, students reported feeling “undervalued, misinformed, and confused about their roles on the research project team.”

How students felt more socialized into their discipline by “…expanding the scope of my own academic pursuits and becoming more involved in the academic community.”

How students learned to struggle with theoretical concepts. A feeling of struggling “like a fish out of water” when learning and applying theory was expressed by a few respondents, with almost all of them noting some degree of difficulty in connecting theoretical frameworks to their research and their larger projects.

Students recognized research as a process rather than a destination. Students expressed learning the journey can be as significant as the outcome. “I also learned about how much work goes into the research process and what that process includes.”

In addition to the themes noted, we grouped students’ perceived learning outcomes into four clusters and used some of their own words to illustrate what they meant.

Cognitive/intellectual learning: “I think being a [research] partner made me a better thinker, made me a better writer. You persevere through these projects…that process of coming together, of thinking out loud, working toward end goals, made me a much better student and… a better researcher.”

Affective/interpersonal learning: this project “…increased my awareness of my own biases in working with diverse folks from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as academic fields (i.e. nursing, political science, etc.).”

Life/career skills: “I think this experience helped me gain more confidence in my talent and knowledge on certain subjects. This allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and learn that I am capable of doing research and presenting it to other professionals.”

Self-awareness: “I developed the ability to judge my own performance and abilities based on my limited knowledge of the type of research I entered into as a graduate student.”

What students did as members of their research teams and what meaning they made from these experiences was underscored by most of the participants as critical to their learning in college. Taken together, the findings in this study strongly suggest that SoTL research teams offer rich terrain to study student learning and development in ways that are engaged, critically reflective, and out of the traditional, often passive classroom lecture setting.

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