Working with undergraduate student researchers

This blog has been updated from one published in 2019.

Another summer has come to an end and for the third year in a row I have had the opportunity to work with an undergraduate student researcher. We are fortunate at my institution to have funding for students to apply to do research over the course of their four month summer break. This has been especially important this year with students not being able to find work due to Covid-19 challenges.

For summer research, students need to come up with a proposal and be supported by a supervisor. Beyond that it is very open-ended as students can work on projects in a wide variety of fields. Initially, the list of accepted students were primarily from the sciences, working in the summer in established labs with sub-projects under the supervision of a faculty researcher. More and more education students are seizing the chance to learn about research through doing.

This year (2020) Nancy Liu explored the linguistic landscape of Bilingual Program schools and their surrounding neighbourhoods to examine how their external signage reflects the languages spoken in the neighborhood. Last summer (2019), Lisa Anderson explored language learning and music through the context of a school-based action research study I am doing on the application of intensive weeks of language instruction to a bilingual school program: “Intensive German Weeks for Bilingual Education: Investigating Practices for Oral Language Development.” She chose to disseminate knowledge from her research at a student teacher conference and an academic conference. The first summer (2018), Janessa Bretner  interviewed graduates of our pre-service study abroad experience to find out how their teaching practices were influenced by their volunteer teaching abroad in my project: “Reflective Writing for Sojourn Preparation, Reflection, and Debriefing.” I mentored all three students through the processes of ethics certification, data collection, and data analysis. 

Here are some tips for working with undergraduate student researchers:

  1. Welcome them! I like to take them out for lunch and celebrate their achievement in receiving this highly competitive funding. In the case of the second student, I made a formal introduction to the principal and staff of the school where she would be collecting data. With my third student, I asked a colleague, whose work she had read, to join our Friday Zoom meeting to discuss her methodological choices.
  2. Help them with logistics – After they have their ethics certification, I make an ethics modification that includes their proposed work. I enroll them in my shared drives for the research, advocate for them to get office space and printer access, and make sure they know how to get support for the various aspects of their research. I share my knowledge of effective use of Twitter to disseminate blogs.
  3. Make things explicit – for undergraduates, almost everything we do with research is new, so we met regularly to go over aspects of research. To facilitate the lit review, I ask students to read and take notes on at least one article a day. I ask them to blog about their learning each week and we work on accurately citing using APA. When we meet, we go over data collection and later analysis. Depending on how the student would like to disseminate the findings, I assist them in articulating their results through their writing and presenting.

What does a research gain from working with undergraduate student researchers?

  1. Whether you see this as teaching or service, you are mentoring a current undergraduate who may do research in the future as a part of graduate or professional work.
  2. Making research explicit allows you to reflect upon your own practices and clarifies your own understandings of ontology, epistemology, and methodology.
  3. Since the student is pursuing a related but new idea, your work together allows you to experiment with a new direction for your research.

Based on the work with these three undergraduate student researchers, I have pilot research for a study that was recently funded (in the first case) an expanded understanding of the work I am doing with teachers (in the second case), and a co-authored article in the works (with the student as lead author). I have an appreciation for the enthusiasm and creativity of this emerging scholars and, because I get them to document their learning, I have a wealth of resources to share with the next undergraduate to come along.

Going to the grocery store: A metaphor for writing up results and discussion

Academics and graduate students sometimes struggle to write up the results and discussion sections of their articles and dissertations. When they receive feedback like “too descriptive”, “need to synthesize”, or “where are your conclusions?”, they wonder what they can do to improve their writing.

During a recent discussion on how to guide our students in writing up their results and discussion, a colleague shared with me a metaphor that she uses: going to the grocery store. She explained how she used it and I have expanded it here to demonstrate how to think of the results and discussion sections of articles and chapters in a dissertation.

When you go to the grocery store, you enter the produce section (research context) and see tables of all kinds of produce imaginable (raw data). You decide what you want based on particular criteria (your research questions) and fill your basket. When you get home, you empty your shopping bags and the phone rings with a call from your curious friend. She asks,“what did you buy?”. You could answer with a list (unsynthesized data): apples, eggplant, bananas, celery, bean sprouts, and a watermelon. However, if you do that, she might say “what an odd assortment! You must not like round foods, because most of what you bought is not round”. Based on what you told her, she has drawn a conclusion.

However, it is unlikely that you went to the store buying foods based on their shape. By providing her unsynthesized data without drawing conclusions, you have left her to draw her own, in the same way that writing up results by only presenting the raw data, you leave the reader to draw his own conclusion.

Perhaps instead, you answer “I bought three kinds of fruit and three kinds of vegetables”. Here you have synthesized your data by grouping the food according to type. What type of conclusion do you want her to draw from this? You add “I wanted a variety of both fruits and vegetables”. Your friend is now much less likely to criticize what you bought because she has been presented with synthesized data and a conclusion and can better follow your rationale. She goes on to ask you about the rest of what you bought, and you present your shopping her in a similar way: “I also bought flour, sugar, and milk. Now I have all the ingredients needed to do some baking” and “I bought lentils, quinoa and rice. Now I have different grains in my pantry”. The results of your shopping trip as presented to your friend on the phone parallel the presentation of your results in your article or dissertation. This may seem obvious, but it is very common for novice writers (I still do it sometimes) to present the synthesis, but forget to draw a conclusion, because to them, it is obvious, although not always to your readers.

Now on to the Discussion: Your curious friend is momentarily satisfied as she hears your results, but then she asks “why?” She may be wondering if you plan to do try some new recipes, cook or bake some old favorites, or go on a raw food diet. The Discussion section of your article or dissertation is where you satisfy the ‘why’ of the reader. You might answer your friend “I chose these items to buy because I am expecting a lot of company and the guests have different food preferences, so I want to cook a variety of foods from scratch”. Now she has an overall idea of what your rationale was.

Now you have her interest as you break down the results with reference to previous supporting literature. “I can cook using the lentils and quinoa. Lentils are naturally gluten-free (Smith, 2020) and a favorite among vegetarians because they are quick to cook (Jones, 2019). Quinoa is considered a highly nutritious ancient grain (Thoms, 2018) and cooks up easily in the pressure cooker, so I want to try that as well. With lentils and quinoa, I have the two quickest cooking grains for those who are vegetarian or gluten intolerant”. With these four sentences you have 1) recapped your results briefly 2) tied your results to the previous literature (which should appear in your lit review) 3) drawn a conclusion demonstrating critical thinking, rather than just description. Ok, you may not do that in real life, but in academic writing, that is exactly what we are called to do.

This last element, demonstrating critical thinking, is crucial to your Discussion conclusions. You need to identify significance, timing, or suitability; structure evidence in order of importance; evaluate significance or strengths and weaknesses; or argue a case. To help my students with the distinction between descriptive and critical writing, I refer them to a useful chart found on p. 12 in the book listed below (Cottrell, 2012). Recently one of my students shared a video that also addresses this aspect of writing. Once you have a sense of what the difference is between critical and descriptive writing, you may find it helpful to create your own chart to post near your writing area as a regular reminder.

The Results and Discussion writing are the parts of our academic writing where we get to share not only what we found in our research, but what it means for answering our research question. That is why I often structure my Discussion by revisiting the research question. By keeping it at the forefront, it reminds me, as well as the readers, what I was hoping to learn from the study, while I situate it in the larger field in which I am writing.

Having a clear concept of the Results and Discussion will strengthen your writing, in the same way that shopping with particular criteria in mind, while not obligatory, will make your grocery shopping more purposeful (but less likely to result in your bring home potato chips 😊). Carrying a metaphor this far may be an overextension. I welcome you to test it out and let me know in the comments if you feel it works!

(Please note that Smith, 2020; Jones, 2019; and Thoms, 2018 are invented citations for the purpose of illustration). If you wish to share this post as a pdf, please cite it as:

Dressler, R.. (2020). Going to the grocery store: A metaphor for writing up results and discussion. University of Calgary. http://hdl.handle.net/1880/112375

Cottrell, S. (2012). The study skills handbook. Palgrave Macmillan.

The responsibility (tyranny) of the digital footprint

Do our digital footprints have more impact?

I recently decided to update my professional photo online, having had my picture taken for an academic journal cover featuring research with a colleague. I normally update my social media every month, but I had never sat down to make a list of all of the places I have a profile. In discussing a similar task with a colleague who just received a promotion, the magnitude of the task hit me. How does one keep a digital footprint current when there are ever increasing places where we as academics might be expected to have a profile?

My digital footprint started out small and purposeful. My name has a unique spelling so if you google me, you get – me! When I was on the academic job market, I positioned myself as someone whose research could be found as I realized how much that would help my research get to the people who most need to read it. I keep Twitter professional and I have this personal blog where I write about professional topics.

Once I got a position, my responsibilities increased. I update my faculty profile regularly, but the platform is currently in flux so there are two, as well as a university profile to promote graduate supervision. We were encouraged to start a Google Scholar profile and I thought I should try my hand at LinkdIn, Researchgate and Academia.edu.

Now I realize I am swimming in profiles. While I had set up an OrcID, I didn’t realize that I needed to keep up a profile, otherwise when people click on the number, nothing comes up! As well, I have to keep up a SSHRC CCV for funding purposes and an additional internal one for merit, tenure and promotion.

My list now consists of six places where my photo appears and twelve that I update whenever I get a new publication. It is too late to go back to the pre-digital footprint world as I cannot bear to leave any of these out-of-date, but over the course of this next year, I will give some serious thought as to how/whether there are platforms I will drop. Making this list has motivated me to revisit how I organize this blog so that I can provide different information here than I do on the other platforms. Perhaps in doing these two things, I can reduce the feeling that my digital footprint is tyrannizing me.

Ethics Applications – Here and Abroad

Ethics applications involve negotiating expectations of the researcher and the IREB.

Academics sometimes use the term “ethics” to refer to the application process with a given institutional research ethics board (IREB). So, one may overheard the comment “Country X doesn’t have ethics” and wonder what the state of research ethics is in said country. Ethics meaning “the fair dealing with participants during the research process” exist, whether or not a given country or institution has an IREB, as ultimately fair dealing is the responsibility of the researcher. However, in my recent research in Germany, I experienced what IREB approval entails there in comparison to how I experience it generally in Canada, which draws attention to the many aspects of research that are not always apparent at first glance.

In 2016, I embarked on a research project exploring responses to linguistic diversity, primarily the influx of refugees to the school system in Hamburg. I envisioned a very full month of data collection: document analysis and interviews at various institutions. For this, I applied for, and received, IREB approval from my home institution. This is a familiar process that involves answers a large number of questions in a specific institutional portal, creating the accompanying forms, translating those into German, running my translations by a native speaking friend, and hitting submit. After a 57 day review with some questions to answer mid-way, I received approval.

From previous casual conversations with German academics, I was under the impression that school-based research was not yet requiring IREB approval. However, to be sure, I asked my host to share corresponding ethics information for both the university and the school board that I was interested in doing research with. While there was no application procedure at the university at that time, my host was able to share with me a website link regarding research in Hamburg schools. Although my German is relatively advanced, I found the website she pointed me too was a challenging read. Once through it, I concluded that classroom research required IREB approval equally complicated and time-consuming as what existed in my institution and that I did not have adequate time to prepare for such data collection during my first visit. For the initial stay then, I opted to focus on publicly available documents so I could learn more about the IREB processes before endeavouring to branch out to interviewing.

While planning to return to Germany this year with an expanded project, I decided it was time to pursue approval to interview instructors who work directly with pre-service teachers in order to find out how their university teaching education prepared them to teach refugee children. I learned that the university did not require an IREB process as I was familiar with, but because of new regulations, my consent documents did require a vetting with regards to data security.

Data security means giving consideration to where research data is stored and how private or safe it is. While my university’s IREB process requires me to stipulate how my data will be stored securely, the degree to which the German process focused on that was much more. Data security falls under the General Data Protection Regulation of the EU, which came into effect May 25, 2018.  Coming from Canada was a privilege, as it was considered a secure third country with adequate levels of protection. This meant that I could securely transfer research data back to Canada. Still, I was required to create parallel German documents to the ones I had from Canada, vetted by the university’s data security office, which handled my queries in a speedy manner. I am grateful for the patience of the data security officer as I endeavoured to make sense of the legalese German on the website, tip sheets, and template. In the end, two weeks into my one month stay (having begun before leaving Canada), I had approval.

I was excited for the opportunity to interview university instructors and, after a whirlwind recruitment cycle, eight agreed to participate. Erring on the side of caution, I had participants sign both sets of forms. Looking forward, I would still like to interview teachers in the school system, but that is for a future visit. Based on my experience this round, I am cognizant that I will need to start early on getting IREB approval.

Difficult conversations – Working in a second language

It can be difficult to get you point across in your second language.

I have mused before about working in three languages, but I was reminded last week about the less glamorous side of speaking more than one language well: not speaking the language of a particular conversation as well as one would like. I was having a conversation in German describing my research, which I do primarily in English. I had the distinct impression that my conversation partner wasn’t being won over by my argument, but what frustrated me most was feeling like I didn’t express myself well enough. There are so many subtleties that I know, just know, I am not expressing because I often pick verbs that are too general. Then, when I do use a precise verb, I can tell by someone’s reaction that I picked the wrong one. Now I am being too precise and have inadvertently focused the conversation on another matter than I had intended. Ladled on that are the differences in research or classroom culture where you want to say “So macht man das nicht!” (We don’t do it that way/That would never work).

Ultimately, deciding to continue to work in another language means a combination of giving up some pride in one’s ability to express a specific point and determining anew to learn more of that language, especially as it pertains to the particular domain you want to talk about, in this case, classroom research. I am also reminded that I have some of the same problems in conversation interactions where I am doing something new like going to the gym to workout (I asked for a locker instead of a lock!). I tell myself we all need to have some self-compassion in these difficult interactions, which in turn should lead to compassion for others in similar situations.

 

Visiting Scholar – Take 2

I am back at the University of Hamburg for a month – this time as a visiting scholar under the German Academic Agency’s (DAAD) Short-term Research Stay program. I will be continuing my research into how the University of Hamburg is preparing pre-service teachers for working with refugee children. This research has expanded to a comparative study of the US and Canada with two international colleagues: Drorit Lengyel and Barri Tinkler.

I have three main goals while I am here:

  1. continue the document analysis I started two years ago and getting it ready for publication
  2. (tied with that) pilot a document analysis workshop with graduate students here and if successful, offer at home and at a US institution
  3. interview university instructors regarding their work with pre-service teachers in this area.

I am still waiting for clearance to do #3, but the ball is rolling for that.

I have a few personal goals to expand my German repertoire:

  1. take in some movies at the Abaton Kino which offers lesser known titles in German (as opposed to Hollywood blockbusters)
  2. make use of the university fitness studio where I just bought a guest membership for the month
  3. try out a few new restaurants to add to my list of favourites (and pictures on Instagram)

So far, other than jetlag, I have also had to deal:

  1. with temporarily losing the ability to do bank transfers with my German account (long story – even longer to settle)
  2. accidentally walking into the mens’ change room (can’t I read German?)
  3. converting my personal training program from mph to km/h (didn’t I learn to convert in school?)

Stay posted for progress reports.

Developing a Sense of Style – Thanks Steven Pinker

When I entered graduate school I knew I had to learn to do research, I didn’t realize I would have to learn to write, really write, a lot! I thought of research articles as research reports, rather than the persuasive writing pieces they actually are. As I started to get articles reviewed, I noticed similar comments each time. Without going into detail, those comments taught me that I needed to invest in the craft of writing. One way I do that is by reading and trying to apply the suggestions in books on writing.

Recently I have been working on “The Sense of Style” by Steven Pinker. My favorite factor chapter is #2 on the classic style of writing. I appreciate his criticism of writing that is wordy and lofty, since academia is full of unclear prose that I have always struggled to understand. Pinker uses three very different writing excerpts to discuss what makes a piece of writing exceptional. My motivation to write more clearly was strengthened by the examples.

Rather than geek out on the many aspects I liked, suffice it to say that all of us who write for a living, and I consider academics to be professional writers, can benefit from greater clarity in our writing.

 

Research Update: Reflective Writing for Sojourn Debriefing

How do we know if international teaching sojourns are more than a great travel experience? That is the question we have asked ourselves for the past three years as five of us have researched sojourn preparation, reflection and debriefing. The term “sojourn” refers to a period of time spend abroad. In the case of this research, the sojourn is the time the BEd students in our Teaching Across Borders program spend volunteer teaching and living abroad. While our larger project examines reflective writing in the preparation and time away, this research update focuses on reflection upon return home.

Sojourn debriefing – usually we like to begin at the beginning, but in the first phase of our research we started where most research, and programs, do not even venture – the end. We designed a reflective writing model that we used during a reflective writing workshop the participants attended after they had been back home for two months. We wanted the participants to reflect deeply on one significant event from their time away. The model provided quite effective as students were able to use it to think and write about this event, starting with descriptive writing, but moving on to descriptive reflection, dialogic reflection, and in some cases, critical refection (These are four types of reflective writing described in other research as levels of depth of reflection).

What did we learn?

First, we learned about ourselves as researchers who have also each spent time abroad. In designing the model, we tested out three widely known models on ourselves: Gibbs’ (1988) Reflective CycleRolfe, Freshwater, and Jasper’s (2001) Reflective Model; and Johns’ (2010) Model for Structured Reflection. We met, tried writing based on each model, and then discussed which aspects of each we felt should go into a hybrid model we would use for our program participants. Through sharing our writing and developing this process, we became more aware of the strengths each of us brought to the project. We found this method effective for helping us design a model we could envision using, because we had lived the experience of assembling it. The new model was more than a sum of its parts because we added to it from our own insights. We have written about our design of the model in this scholarly publication:

Dressler, R., Becker, S. Kawalilak, C., Arthur, N. (2018). The cross-cultural reflective model for post-sojourn debriefing. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 19(4), 490–504. doi:10.1080/14623943.2018.1530207

Second, we learned about reflective writing and our participants. Reflective writing forces writers to think about their experiences and consider what they might learn from them. Some of the experiences were difficult ones: experiencing homesickness, encountering systemic racism, questioning one’s career choice (in this case, teaching). Others were poignant: reaching out to a misunderstood student; seeing the historical, political significance of the place one was living, surprising oneself with language and intercultural competence that was previously unnoticed. While not all students reflected to the degree of dialogic or critical reflection, each had the opportunity to reflect, grow, and make sense of their experience.

We have recently submitted an article about these post-sojourn reflections and anticipate writing more about them when we look at the cases of individual participants over time.

Looking back at our work summarized so succinctly does not do it justice. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming year.

5 years after graduation: A PhD journey retrospective

As I drove into campus today and witnessed students in convocation garb being photographed by family, I was reminded that on or near this day, five years ago, I was awarded my PhD.  Here is a numerical retrospective of my PhD journey:

10 teacher workshops

9 professional association memberships

8 different graduate courses taught

7 single-authored conference presentations

6 refereed journal articles

5 years since convocation

4 grants as Principal Investigator (PI)

3 grants as co-investigator

2 office moves

1 academic appointment

These numbers represent some picking and choosing to match up with the countdown and the list is by no means exhaustive. What they represent for me is dynamic interesting work that has also been emotionally and intellectually challenging. I look forward to celebrating more milestones in the coming five years. I will keep you posted.

Researching social media: Facebook

My research took an interesting turn when I invited one of my daughters to explore the role of social media in the identity positioning of one particular study abroad sojourner – herself. We focused on her use of Facebook and that project resulted in an article for the Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics.  Not only did we learn a great deal about how she, as a study abroad sojourner, used Facebook to position herself as an emerging bilingual over the course of two sojourners, but learned that there was so much more to using Facebook to study abroad than I had first thought.

I had once read a great book about EBay and its history. I believe it was The Perfect Store by Adam Cohen. It provided an overview of how it came to be as well as how the platform evolved over time. Although it is now dated, I felt it provided the perfect example of a storehouse of apparent trivia that a researcher might appreciate when studying EBay. Unfortunately, such a book does not exist for Facebook. While the history of how it started is well known and has it’s own movie, documentation of its evolution is much harder to track down. On top of that, when Facebook changes, it does so retroactively, so you can’t look back at your older Facebook posts to get a sense of what used to be. As a researcher, it is frustrating to realize that you can’t  easily and reliably claim that Facebook was a certain way at the time of the research.

So, after the first article was written, my daughter and I embarked upon a project about a project – exploring the methodology of using Facebook to research study abroad. In doing so, some questions were answered – we connected with researchers who shared how they establish procedures and came across this nugget: a Wikipedia entry for Facebook Features (not Facebook history which one usually discovers first). Our work resulted in an article that is currently under consideration for another journal. Stay tuned to this space to learn more!

Update: You can find our methodological article here:

Dressler, R., & Dressler, A. (2019). The methodological affordances and challenges of using Facebook to research study abroad. Study Abroad Research in Second Language Acquisition and International Education, 4(1), 126-144.