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Education Grad Students Practice Research Methods on Undergrads

Assoc. Prof. Judith Davidson’s Students Study Transition to College

  “Members of the Chelmsford High School drama club take a break during filming of a video about first-year students’ transition to college.” Photo by Christina Whittlesey
Members of the Chelmsford High School drama club take a break during filming of a video about first-year students’ transition to college.

By Katharine Webster

There’s no substitute for direct experience when it comes to research, says Assoc. Prof. Judith Davidson, who teaches the Qualitative Research course to doctoral students in the College of Education.

So for two years in a row, she’s teamed up with College Writing II instructor Jeffrey Vanderveen, pairing her graduate students with first-year students in his class. The graduate students’ assignment: Gain insight into student success and retention by exploring how the first-year students navigate the transition to college – and where they stumble.

“In qualitative research, you work with a smaller number of individuals in their natural context,” Davidson says. “You go deep and look at the messy areas: How are people understanding what they do from the inside? Once you understand that, you can develop better solutions because you’re working with them, not against them.”

Ph.D. candidate Christina Whittlesey, the arts coordinator for the Chelmsford public schools, says the hands-on experience was invaluable. 

“This class was the first time I’d been able to participate in a research project from beginning to end,” says Whittlesey, who is pursuing a doctorate in education research and evaluation.

The graduate students started by getting certified to work with human subjects. Then, working in teams, they developed interview procedures and scripts and met four times with the undergraduate class.

Each time, the graduate students talked one-on-one with the undergraduates, interviewing them about the transition to college. Vanderveen assigned his students to write papers and take photos about their experiences on campus and issues in higher education, which the graduate students analyzed. Emerging Scholar Patrice Olivar, a senior psychology and exercise physiology major, helped facilitate and served as Davidson's research assistant.

Davidson says the partnership provided “natural mess-ups” that are an inevitable part of research on real people.

“Sometimes your student doesn’t show up for class or doesn’t do the homework,” she says. “Then you have to partner up with someone else, and that becomes part of the research process.”

Vanderveen says the experience also benefited his first-year students – a mix of older and younger, working and commuter students – as much as the graduate students.

“I think my students enjoyed sharing their stories. It legitimized their experiences because the audience was real,” Vanderveen says. “We also try to expose our first-year students to research that’s going on at UMass Lowell, and this was perfect for that.”

The doctoral students coded and analyzed the data they collected and then prepared group presentations for Vanderveen and Assoc. Prof. of English Ann Dean, director of the First-year Writing Program, who facilitated the partnership. 

“We learned three important things that can contribute to better success and retention,” Davidson says. “The biggest practical issue we can help students with is better time management. We also saw how important it was for new students to make positive personal connections early on, and learned about the pivotal role faculty can play in helping them make connections and feel accepted within the university community.”

"Through Their Eyes: Understanding the Undergraduate Perspective in the Transition to College," is a performance ethnography by Christina Whittlesey, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in education research and evaluation.
Whittlesey took the research a step further: She created a “performance ethnography” video by combining the writings of actual first-year students into a script with four characters who talk about their victories and setbacks in the adjustment to college. Next, she enlisted students in the Chelmsford High School drama club as actors, including two who played graduate students. She also used photos and drawings created by the undergrads in Vanderveen’s class.

She presented the video, “Through Their Eyes: Understanding the Undergraduate Perspective in the Transition to College,” at the spring meeting of the New England Educational Research Organization, where it got an enthusiastic response, Davidson says.

Whittlesey, who plans to do her doctoral thesis on the experiences of gender-nonconforming and transgender youths, says she will create a performance ethnography based on their experiences, then evaluate it with a focus group of teachers. Davidson is her thesis advisor.

“Because I’m in an arts department, it’s a safer place for these students to come express themselves, and I become their ally,” Whittlesey says. “Educators are struggling to meet the needs of their transgender and gender-nonconforming students, and I’m hoping this will help them understand these vulnerable students better.”