Ethics approval Mentoring training
By Peter Muir, educational developer within the SET Portfolio Academic Development Group
The purpose of this paper is to examine the role of action research in the scholarship of learning and teaching at RMIT. I have been involved in the Action Research (AR) in Teaching and Learning funded by the SET Portfolio Academic Development Group since its inception 2002.
ARTL is a competitively funded project based initiative where a group of SET staff are funded to undertake AR around an educational issue/problem/opportunity. The ARTL scheme aims to:
- Develop and foster the scholarship of learning and teaching
- Provide a framework for continuing professional development in teaching
- Support progress towards RMIT targets for teaching quality improvement
2. The Origins and Orientations of Action Research
Action research has its origins in the pioneering work of Kurt Lewin in post WWII America. Over the past 60 years, the design and practice of action research has evolved into a diverse range of approaches that include Action Science (Argyris, Putnam & Smith, 1985), Action Learning (Revans,1982), Experiential Learning (Kolb, 1984); Reflective Practice (Schon, 1983) and Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland & Scholes, 1990) to name just a few.
As Reason and Bradbury state: “the action research family includes a whole range of approaches and practices, each grounded in different traditions, in different philosophical and psychological assumptions, pursuing different political commitments” (2001, p.xxiv).
Notwithstanding the diversity of approaches and practices, there is a basic model on which action research and the other traditions of ‘action oriented inquiry’ have been elaborated (see Figure 1). In this model, learning is represented as a cycle where the ideas we hold about the way the world works inform, and are informed by, our experiences of the world. From this perspective, effective learning is sustained though repetition of a cycle that involves action and reflection – what is often referred to as ‘learning-by-doing’ or ‘ideas-in-action’.
Action research represents a more sophisticated development of this basic ‘trial and error’ model of learning. The foundation stones of Lewin’s conception of action research were as follows:
- It should “marry the experimental approach of social science with programs of social action in response to major social problems of the day” (Kemmis, 1988, p.29)
- it should proceed in a spiral of steps, each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action, fact finding about the result of the action” (Newcombe & Hartley, 1952).
It should be pointed out, however, that the range of approaches outlined above typically diverge from Lewin’s conception in emphasis rather than substance. The general principles guiding the design and conduct of action research are as follows:
- Real problems in context: research in action (direct intervention in ‘real problems’ in ‘natural settings’) rather than research about action (detached observation in ‘artificial’ settings).
- Collaborative engagement: active personalised participation in all steps of the process - researcher and researched as co-researchers as opposed to passive depersonalised participation in only some steps of the process - researcher as remote expert and the researched as the subjects/objects of the study.
- Iterative cycles - progressive and coherent building of knowledge in ‘real time’ (as it unfolds) rather than ‘one off snap shots’ reported in retrospect.
- Dual outcome – to apprehend and solve practical problems (benefits to me and us) as well as generate new knowledge (benefits to them).
These principles have informed the model of inquiry described below. The model illustrates the progressive change in the setting, or situation, over time, as well as the specific steps within a single cycle of inquiry.
The steps in this model are described in further detail below.
Engage with the ‘real world’ setting
The focus of concern at this stage is to establish the scope and purpose of the project. To be successful, any research project must identify and mobilise a range of people and resources. In this project, the key participant groups are mentees, mentors, project investigators, and School and Portfolio teaching and support staff. To mobilise these groups, it was necessary to frame the purpose(s) of the project in ways that appealed to their individual interests and expectations.
In a similar way, non-human resources and infrastructure, such as ARTL funding, LEAD program, ICT’s supporting email, spreadsheets, timetables, ethics forms, and Biggs survey must also be mobilised. The absence of any one of these resources would necessarily impact on the scope and purpose of the project. It should also be noted that the commitment and support of people and the availability of resources can fluctuate at any point in time (people lose interest, equipment fails) and to deal with this the research process needs the flexibility and responsiveness to accommodate these fluctuations.
Defining the issue
Identifying issues and diagnosing the problem, albeit provisionally, provide the basis on which the relevance of the project to others can be gauged, as well as informing the way subsequent action will be planned. As stated earlier, the key issue addressed by this project focuses on improving the mentoring program through a better understanding the benefits and drawbacks of the program to the mentees and the mentors
Previous research and earlier iterations of the mentoring program provided important information on which this issue was understood and explored. One of key observations from the literature was the potentially diverse, ambiguous and potentially conflicting range of variables that can influence the success of mentoring programs (eg Jenkins, 2002; Fekete et. al, 2000). This made it clear that there were no simple explanations and sustainable improvements would only come from an understanding of the people and conditions in the specific setting under investigation.
A number of actions were planned as part of the study. These included the actions/interventions designed to elicit the evidence needed from key stakeholders, especially the views and perceptions of mentees and mentors, to understand how to improve the program. In addition, plans were necessary to ensure that the conceptual and methodological design and issues of informed consent met the standards set by the scientific community for publication and dissemination.
The implementation of the plans is outlined below.
Focus group interviews
E-journal reflective feedback
Meeting agendas and notes
teaching staff/support staff
Analysing and reflecting on actions/interventions
A key point here is that the evaluation and assessment of the observations and reflections collected from the various stakeholders is not confined to a discrete point in a lock step sequence, but occurs throughout the research process. By collecting data from a variety of stakeholders, using variety of techniques, it is possible to triangulate the data and in doing so strengthen the confidence in any conclusions drawn from the data.
Consistent with the Lewinian traditions of adding to knowledge in the social sciences, the model also includes the reporting step. Communication may include a wide variety of audiences, be written or oral and range from informal to formal settings.
Lewin, K., Group decision and social change, in Swanson, G.E., Newcombe, T. M. & Hartley, E.L., (eds), Readings in Social Psychology, Henry Holt, New York, (1952), pp.459-473.
Argyris, C., Putnam, R. & Smith, D. (1985), Action Science, San Francisco, Jossey Bass.
Revans, R. (1982), The Origins and Growth of Action Learning, Bromley, Chartwell-Bratt.
Kolb, D. (1984), Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall.
Schon, D. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco, Basic Books.