6. Students’ Experiences in Learning Communities within Teacher Education (2/6) – Best Practices for Education Professionals

72 Best Practices for Education Professionals
culled from recently published professional and academic literature. Using these defi-
nitions, it was expected that participants would then respond to the survey questions
more clearly and accurately. Researchers also learned that a more standardized expla-
nation in the introductory administration of the survey was needed in order to help
participants better understand what they were going to do. The findings of the pilot
study related to the survey instrument resulted in revision of the instrument for the
primary investigation.
METHOD––PRIMARY INVESTIGATION
Participants
Participants in the primary investigation consisted of 10 male and 39 female graduate
and undergraduate pre-service teachers in professional preparation programs at the
same institution where the pilot study occurred. None of these participants were certi-
fied to teach and none had completed student teaching. All were in the latter portion of
their program of study, ranging in age from 21 to 51 years old. Not all participants in-
dicated ethnicity; 33 identified as Caucasian and one identified as Black. Twenty-four
individuals were studying Childhood Education, 14 were studying Special Education,
and 10 were studying Adolescence Education. Fifteen participants indicated they were
first generation college students and 33 indicated that they were not. One survey was
discarded because the student was not matriculated in teacher education.
Procedures
As in the pilot study, teacher education classes were targeted for participation in the
pilot study. Courses were selected if students in them were in the last semesters of their
coursework. All courses were on-site, with some at the graduate level and some at the
undergraduate level.
Surveys were again administered in classes by one of the researchers, who read,
verbatim, the letter of consent to the participants, rather than simply outlining the
study and requesting volunteers. Letters of consent and surveys were then distributed
to the participants, and completed and returned during class time. No classes were per-
mitted to take the instrument home and no extra credit was offered for participation.
For this study, the consent letter included requests for permission to participate in the
survey and for researcher access to the students’ GPA data.
After all surveys were administered and returned, focus groups were scheduled.
Because only three individuals ultimately volunteered, the focus groups became three
face-to-face interviews with one participant, one interviewer, and one recorder per
interview. As in the pilot study, the interviewer asked four open-ended questions, with
several possible sub-questions, and utilized an organic discussion process.
Criterion Measures
A 14-item, paper-based, Teacher Education Learning Communities Survey was used
to assess participants’ knowledge, perceptions, and experiences of learning commu-
nities. Modifications were made to survey questions based on pilot study data. The
primary modification was in the approach to the first question. For the pilot study, the
Students’ Experiences in Learning Communities within Teacher Education 73
first question essentially asked participants to define a learning community, however,
pilot study participants were unable to do this meaningfully. This question was al-
tered for the primary investigation to first introduce informal and formal definitions of
learning communities (The Washington Center, 2008), followed by survey questions
based on this information about learning communities, as follows:
The following are descriptions of some of the more formal varieties of learning
communities (www.evergreen.edu/washcenter/lcfaq.htm):
Student cohorts/integrative seminar: a program in which a small cohort of student
enrolls in larger classes that faculty does not coordinate; intellectual connections
and community-building often take place in an additional integrative seminar;
Linked courses/course clusters: involves two or more classes linked thematically
or by content which a cohort of students takes together; the faculty does not plan
the program collaboratively;
Coordinated study: involves coursework that faculty members teach in teams; and
course work is embedded in an integrated program of study.
More informally, a learning community can be:
An informal group of individuals who learn, grow, share together in a less struc-
tured format and settings.
1.
Based on your understanding of learning communities, do you feel you are or
have been part of one or more learning communities? Why or why not?
All questions remained open-ended except three, which allowed participants to
select as many responses as were applicable. One question consisted of two parts,
allowing participants to give more details about their response. The survey also re-
quested demographic information at the beginning, and, at the end, asked participants
to provide their name and contact information if they were willing to participate in a
follow-up focus group. Cover letters outlining the research and requesting informed
consent and signatures from the participants were attached to each survey. (See Ap-
pendix A for survey used in the primary investigation.)
Follow-up interviews (originally intended as focus groups) were facilitated to fur-
ther explore information from completed surveys. Sample interview questions, with
possible sub-questions, were:
1.
How do the members of your learning community include all members and
account for differences in learning?
2.
Have your learning communities provided opportunities to experience diverse
perspectives and stimulate thought and creativity?
(a)
Was there a person who joined this learning community later (in program)?
What did you do?
(b)
Did any of you have learning community experiences before entering the
(education) program?
74 Best Practices for Education Professionals
Data Analysis
Quantitative and qualitative analyses were conducted on data obtained from the pri-
mary investigation. The process for data analysis with respect to the survey items and
focus group/interview questions was identical in the pilot study and primary investiga-
tions. However, unlike in the pilot study, all participants in the primary investigation
gave permission to access their GPA scores. A spreadsheet was created representing
demographic information, overall GPA, and survey responses for each participant. A
coding scheme was created for survey responses, serving as the basis for entering the
survey data into a spreadsheet. An initial set of response types for the coding scheme
was created by one researcher, while two researchers assigned codes to participant
responses. To ensure reliability of the coding, a third researcher verified the response
types with the codes for each survey. (See Appendix B for the coding scheme.) Fre-
quencies were calculated to determine the rate of response for each survey item, as
well as the incidence of various demographic factors.
Overall GPA was obtained for each participant and categorized by undergradu-
ate and graduate students. Total institutional GPA range was 0.0
-4.0,
however, under-
graduate education students were required to have a 2.5 or higher to be in the major
and graduate education students were required to have a 3.0 or higher to be in the
major. Therefore, total GPA range for the entire participant sample was 2.5–4.0, total
GPA range for the undergraduate participants was 2.5–4.0, and total GPA range for the
graduate participants was 3.0–4.0. Although the actual GPA range for this group was
somewhat compressed due to degree program requirements, for purposes of the study,
GPA categories were created to indicate academic achievement. For undergraduates,
High GPA = 3.6
-4.0, Medium GP
A = 3.1–3.5, and Low GPA = 2.5–3.0. For graduate
students, High GPA = 3.68–4.0, Medium GPA = 3.34–3.67, and Low GPA = 3.0–3.33.
Two survey items (#8: In what ways do you consider the members of your learn-
ing communities an academic support system? and #9: In what ways do you consider
the members of your learning communities a social/emotional support system?), were
identied as informing the answer to the research question about the effect of learning
communities on participant academic performance and success in the teacher educa-
tion program. Mean liberal arts, major, and cumulative GPA (or achievement) scores
by undergraduate/graduate status were computed on these questions. Tests of between-
subjects effects were also computed for each question by GPA type and undergraduate/
graduate status.
RESULTS
Survey––Primary Investigation
Data from the primary investigation are reported in Table 6.1. The survey item that had
the highest response rate overall was question five, a forced-choice response item ask-
ing participants to identify members of their learning communities. Identified mem-
bers of the participants’ learning communities included other students (41 responses)
and education faculty (32 responses). Nineteen respondents indicated P-12 school
teachers as part of participants’ learning communities.
Students’ Experiences in Learning Communities within Teacher Education 75
Table 6.1. Most Frequent Survey Responses––Primary Investigation.
Question Most Frequent Responses
1.
Based on your understanding of learning communities,
do you feel you are, or have been part of one of more
learning communities? Why or why not?
Participated in linked courses/course
clusters (18)
2.
How were your learning communities formed? Con-
structed by an instructor, administrator etc. or construct-
ed by a peer, or both?
Both instructors/administrators and peers
(14)
Instructor (11)
3.
Are your learning communities formal or informal?
Please describe
Informal (14)
Formal (13)
Both (11)
4.
Who are members of your learning communities? Peers/other students/classmates/education
majors (36)
5.
Do you consider any of the following to be members of
your learning communities (please check all that apply):
Other students (41)
Education faculty (32)
P-12 schoolteachers (19)
6.
Of the following, who would you like to have as mem-
bers of your learning communities(please check all that
apply):
Other students (34)
Education faculty (33)
P-12 schoolteachers (29)
7.
In what environments do your learning communities
meet?
Classrooms/classroom settings/university
or college classrooms (28)
8.
In what ways do you consider the members of your
learning communities an academic support system?
No majority response rate for this item
9.
In what ways do you consider the members of your
learning communities a social/emotional support
system?
No majority response rate for this item
10.
In your learning communities, do you collaborate in
problem-solving and critical thinking about teacher
education issues?
Yes (36)
10a.
If yes, briefly describe. Discussion/sharing ideas (13)
10b.
If no, please describe the focus of your learning com-
munities.
No majority response rate for this item
11.
In your learning communities, do you engage in any of
the following, (check all that apply):
Sharing knowledge and experiences for mu-
tual learning (36)
Project groups (35)
Discussion groups (informal) (34)
Study groups (25)
Pose questions about practice and search for
answers in practice as well as theory (25)
14.
To what extent, if any, have your initial conceptions of
what it means to be a teacher changed as a result of
your participation and membership in learning com-
munities?
No majority response rate for this item
15.
How has your participation in learning communities
influenced your educational philosophy/belief system?
No majority response rate for this item
16.
How has your participation in learning communities
nurtured your instructional and theoretical understand-
ing of teaching?
No majority response rate for this item
76 Best Practices for Education Professionals
Corresponding with item ve is item four, which asks participants about current
members of their learning communities. Thirty-six responses to this item indicated
that peers/other students/classmates/education majors were members of participant’s
learning communities. Item six, a forced-choice item asking participants to identify
desired members of their learning communities, also had a high response rate. Par-
ticipants indicated they would like to have as members of their learning communities
other students (34 responses), education faculty (33 responses), and P-12 schoolteach-
ers (29 responses).
In response to question 10, an overwhelming 36 respondents indicated that, as
learning community participants, they collaborated in problem-solving and critical
thinking about teacher education issues. Question 11, a forced-choice item, asked par-
ticipants if they engaged in any of several types of activities in their learning com-
munities, thus participants could check multiple responses. Thirty-six respondents
indicated that participants shared knowledge and experience for mutual learning, 35
respondents indicated they participated in project groups, 34 respondents indicated
they participated in informal discussion groups, 25 respondents indicated they en-
gaged in study groups, and another 25 respondents indicated they posed questions
about practice and searched for answers in practice as well as in theory.
While questions about learning community membership and activities garnered
the highest response rates on the survey, questions eight through 16 (items at the end
of the survey) received the lowest response rates. These items asked participants about
the types of support that learning communities provided, and how participation in
learning communities may have altered their perceptions and beliefs about education
in general. Unfortunately, these questions did not yield informative data in the primary
investigation. In future, it may be prudent to ask these sorts of deeper queries earlier in
the sequence of questions on the survey.
Focus Group and Interviews: Trends
The pilot study focus group which followed up on the pilot study survey took place
at the end of a spring semester with seven undergraduate participants. Focus group
participants were all from one major and had several classes together. At the end of the
following fall semester, three interviews were conducted as follow up to the survey
administered in the primary investigation. Each interview lasted between 50 and 65
minutes. Two interview participants were in the same undergraduate major and one
was a graduate student. Due to the small number of participants in the focus group
and interviews, the data were combined to yield more information and identify trends.
Transcript analysis yielded several trends. Consistent with qualitative research,
the intent was to gather data that were auditable (dependable), credible, conrmable,
and that possessed ttingness (Cherian, 2007; Gay, Mills, & Airasian, 2006). Repre-
sentative participant statements, supporting the determination of identied trends are
provided below:
Trend 1: Learning communities are inclusive and account for academic
differences