Josipa Roksa / Sociology

A Higher Education Research Team Tackles the Question: Why Students Don’t Seem to be Learning Much in College?

My dream idea is to organize a higher education research team which will design and carry out a research project, culminating in a presentation at the Southern Sociological Society meeting, and possibly a publication.  This dream emerges from my own experience as an undergraduate.  The most transformative experience of my undergraduate years was becoming involved in research.  How many students know what a sociologist is or does?  I certainly did not, and I would have never considered a career in research, not to mention becoming a sociologist, were it not for working as a research assistant and subsequently conducting my own research.  Participation in research provided an opportunity for the most invigorating and intellectually stimulating discussions outside of the classroom and for many personally and professionally rewarding experiences.

I would like to engage students in a very timely and relevant discussion on learning in higher education.  One of the projects I have been working on examines the extent to which students develop critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills in college, as well as how different factors shape the development of these skills.  The overarching finding from this research, corroborated by other scholars, is that students on average do not seem to be making much progress on these core academic skills during college (although, as would be expected, there is much variation across students and schools).  While the pattern of “limited learning” is emerging across studies, we know relatively little about why students are not developing these skills which are deemed to be at the core of the higher education mission.  Moreover, students’ voices are largely absent from current discussions.  Students are surveyed and assessed, and academics and institutional researchers run analyses and report the findings.  The conversations often revolve around issues of sampling, measurement, maturation effects, and of course accountability.  But students are rarely participating in this conversation: they are not asked to reflect on their learning experiences or the decisions they have made during college related to their learning, nor are they asked for ideas about ways to facilitate learning.

I propose to organize a research team of 3-4 students to carry out a study about undergraduates’ experiences and decision-making processes affecting learning in higher education.  The study would explore how students understand, seek (or avoid), and make decisions about learning, which is crucial for moving research and policy debates forward.  Working in a team is important as it will facilitate an exchange of ideas, allow students to help each other with different components of the research endeavor and brainstorm when things do not work as planned (which is almost inevitable in a research project).  Although I would frame the overall research topic, the team would develop specific research questions and methodology.  The team would work through all of the stages of the research project, from project design, to data collection, analysis and interpretation.  At the end, students would prepare a paper for presentation at the Southern Sociological Society meeting in April 2011, and depending on the scope and reception of the project, continue working on it toward journal publication.   The joy of discovery is at the core of a research endeavor, and so is sharing that joy with the scholarly community and contributing to a larger conversation.  Thus, I believe it is crucial to provide students with an opportunity to present research at a professional conference and receive input from experts in the field. I hope that by participating in this scholarly enterprise, students will take a moment to reflect on their own journeys through higher education, while acquiring a passion for research that will last long after graduation.

I propose to use the Mead Honored Faculty funds to create and support the higher education research team.  This would include:
Food/drinks for several research team meetings at the point of data analysis and preparation for conference presentation ($40)

Four students attending the Southern Sociological Society meeting in Jacksonville, FL (I plan to attend as well but will use other funds in order to allow more students to attend)

Four plane tickets                                                                                            $940

Hotel (2 rooms for 2 nights; $150 per night)                                                    $600

Four meeting registrations/SSS memberships (required for all presenters)       $320

Meals for four students (3 days)                                                                       $480

Graduate student assistant to help with data input and analysis (30 hours, $15 per hour, total of $450)

Dinner at the end of the year to debrief and discuss next steps (four students and myself, $150)