Through the research lens

One more post before I draw a line under my work and prepare my self-assessment assignment.  I feel that this record of reflection would not be complete without blogging about how our two weeks of learning about research have now coloured how I look at all manner of new information, particularly the news.

In the Victoria News from Friday (August 3, 2012) I read about a U.Vic researcher who is looking for participants in her study on the effects of moderate exercise in the cognitive functioning of seniors.  As I read through the article, I was looking at her methodology, a topic that would have made my eyes glaze over just three weeks ago.  Sample size? 100 participants.  Selection criteria? The research is selecting her participants according to screening criteria, e.g. they can’t already be active for 150 minutes per week.  What kind of research? Mixed method, featuring quantitative testing and interviews.  Researcher bias? She has an interesting background in neuroscience and kinesiology.  Is that going to colour her interpretation of the results?  We’ll see.

And that’s just one article!  How will I cope with Dr. Art Hister on the Global Morning News, with his daily look at the latest health research?  I’m sure I’ll be running to the internet to look up the journal, or emailing Dr. Art myself to say, “What are your sources?”

I’m even planning to read one of my favourite books with my research cap on.  That would be Now you see it: The brain science of attention and how it will transform the way we live, work and learn, by Cathy N. Davidson (2011).  As the chair of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, she *should* have some very solid research behind her claims.  I haven’t examined them with my research hat on yet, but it’s on my to-do list for the month of August.

Yes, this program has changed me already.  I hope Paul and my kids get used to seeing me with my nose in a book or in my laptop… Reference: Davidson, C.N. Now you see it: The brain science of attention and how it will transform the way we live, work and learn. (2011) New York, NY: Penguin.

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A bit of applied research in our final days on campus

Which way should we go?It was Charmaine’s idea to get Bill and Lisa a gift. Very thoughtfully, she emailed the whole cohort for ideas… not realizing that Bill and Lisa were on the cohort list (sneaky of them!).  We had not even really decided on a present when Charmaine got a note back from Bill saying that he “couldn’t accept gifts from students”.  Was this the truth, or just a handy bit of “truthiness” created as a deflection?

About the same time, as we were discussing at my table what we might choose as a thank-you gift, John Dallas raised a similar point. “Do you think it might look like we are trying to buy their favour?  Maybe it’s a conflict of interest.”  Smart guy – that had never occurred to me.

What could we do?  Should we take Bill at his word and forgo any thank-you gift?  Should we go with our intuition (most of us are Ns, after all) and get something nice?  I decided to research the matter. I put together a quick question for an expert in the field of ethical process in post-secondary institutions, Colleen Hoppins.  I guess this would be a Delphi study of very limited scope and narrow focus.

My question was, “Our cohort would like to present Bill and Lisa with a gift tonight to show our appreciation.  Are they allowed to accept? Should we specify that it should in no way affect our marks? 😉 ” (Novak, C., personal communication, August 2, 2012)

She answered very quickly.  The feedback I received from my question was as follows:

Thanks, Catherine! 🙂

Yes, quite right, small gifts of appreciation when transparently given from the group as a token of appreciate [sic] are fine.

It was a pleasure to meet with the class and I so appreciated all the great questions and energy.

Best wishes.

Cheerio,
Colleen (Hoppins, C., personal communication, August 2, 2012)

I had the answer within 30 minutes, proving that it needn’t take long to design a question, nor does the research period need to be lengthy or the cost expensive.  It’s not Master’s level in scope, but my conscience was clear as I went to Purdy’s for two boxes of assorted chocolates.

I hope you enjoyed them, Bill and Lisa!

Research ruminations

Photo image creative commons attribution to Stephen Harris on FlickrTwo weeks of residency are done.  I’m back at home, and flipping back and forth in my mind between looking back on my experience in residency at Royal Roads, and looking ahead to the next 23 months with more courses, assignments… and research.

Last week, Bill gave us an introduction to research, going over both qualitative and quantitative methods. Quantitative research is what most people think of when they imagine graduate studies.  It has the hypothesis, carefully-controlled experiments, objective data, and lots of statistical analysis.  When I imagine what quantitative research must be like, I can almost see people running around with clipboards and lab coats.  It has always felt like an unfamiliar world to me, though I am sure I could like it if I knew the rules.

Qualitative research, however, trades in the clipboard for careful listening and questioning.  Qualitative research is all about the interview, probing the participant for rich layers on information, and getting to the core of the story.  It’s what good journalists and storystellers do.  Coming from the humanities end of things as I do, it feels like “home” to me.

I wasn’t expecting to feel this way about qualitative research; years back, a good friend of mine did qualitative research, interviewing seven divorced fathers on how they felt their divorce had affected their relationship with their children.  My reaction at the time was, “Interesting stories – but surely it’s bad science.”  Where was the hypothesis?  The large sample size?  What could you derive about cause and effect from this study ?  I literally didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Now I know that depending on the question you ask (and it ALL depends upon your question – make sure you are asking what you mean to ask!), you can design your research in many ways.  It’s not all about causation.  Sometimes the question is, “What is it?”  Sometimes it’s, “What is more effective?”  Sometimes it’s, “Tell me about your experience.”  These are all valid questions that research can answer – provided the methodology addresses the question.

Thanks, Bill, and thanks to Bickman and Rog (2009), for giving me a solid foundation on research methods!

Reference:

Bickman, L. &  Rog, D. Eds. (2009). The Sage handbook of applied social research methods, 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA: 2009. pp. 3 – 44.