Fall 2003

"Well, You Just Never Know"

By Carol Scheerer, Assistant Professor,
Department of Occupational Therapy

It is summer before school begins, and my telephone rings. ?Carol, I can?t believe I am calling you, but I really want to do research. I want to serve as a clinical tutor for one of your students.? I can?t believe my ears! At the time, she was a good student, but not stellar; she appeared to do the research because she had to. Now, she no longer has to do research she wants to do research! I am pleasantly surprised by this alumna?s change in attitude.

This alumna used to sit as the other seniors are doing now, in the fall of the academic year, anxiously and expectantly, in the sequence of research courses that I teach. It is the sequence of courses in the Department of Occupational Therapy the students have heard so much about, the ones for which some have felt they had to work so hard for so few credit hours. My role is to facilitate student learning of the research process and serve as a coordinator in supporting students in planning and carrying out a collaborative research project. In doing so, my goals align with the goals of the Department of Occupational Therapy, which are to help students not only value the research process and understand the role it plays in the viability of our profession, but to help them become life-long learners and engagers in the research process. My responsibilities are humbling. How can I influence even one student as a future researcher? To be sure, there may be the rare student who has been looking forward to the class. That person is already a success. He/she already understands the power of knowledge, the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction in contributing to the advancement of systematic inquiry. But who else can be supported to carry on that enthusiasm? The answer to that is, ?Well, you just never know!? You just never know who will come to enjoy, embrace, and even love the research process.

Students enter the fall of their senior year with differing beliefs, feelings, and attitudes about the research process. Typically, they have a vague belief that research is important. Their feelings range from curiosity to fear; their attitudes range from tolerance to trepidation. How do I make the daunting subject of research accessible to all, how do I increase the odds of reaching more students? My approach is multi-faceted. I work to relieve students? anxiety, offer support during engagement, require presentation to authentic audiences, and build in time to reflect upon the research process.

To relieve anxiety, as students enter the first research class, they take a simple five-item research anxiety assessment (Royeen, 1997). The first statement seems to understand their plight, and is rather innocuous; ?I feel overwhelmed with research books;? they indicate the degree to which they agree or disagree. The second statement further helps to put them at ease, ?I think research is really stupid.? I interpret their smiles, even laughter, as they think, ?Maybe this won?t be so bad. Dr. Scheerer may even have a sense of humor!? The students continue by responding to an attitude scale indicating the adjectives that describe their research experience to date. Then, on to the syllabus and the serious task of reviewing the expectations, roles, and responsibilities associated with completing their senior research project.

The fall semester rolls on. In the methods class they learn about quantitative designs, qualitative designs, random sampling, purposive sampling, randomized clinical trials, quasi-experimental studies, phenomenological inquiry, endogousness investigation, t-tests, a priori coding, and theme generation; certainly terms daunting to a novice. Various hand-held stress balls are distributed. Opportunities are provided for clarification of ?muddiest points? (Angelo, 1993). Care is taken to present concepts in easily understood terms, e.g., ex?lax® tablets and oreo® cookies are provided as manipulatives to represent the ?X? and ?O? research variables. Guest speakers share their personal highs and lows of engaging in the research process.   

In the lab class students are expected to carry out their research plan. Much support is offered while they engage in the research process. Throughout the fall, frequent meetings in the Department of Occupational therapy with my colleagues who serve as their faculty tutors are common. Faculty tutors put in many extra hours advising students on their individual projects. Clinical tutors donate many hours as well. The availability of the math lab and willingness of colleagues in the Math Department helps to ease the stress of data analysis. The students work hard, they work long, they work late; they are elated, they are deflated as the ups and downs of carrying out a research project are realized. By December their plan is complete, approval to proceed is received, and the winter holidays provide a welcome break. Upon return, students begin to collect their data. Then, on to analyze, discuss, and conclude their research findings.

At the end of the academic year, students are ready to present their research findings to several authentic audiences. They present at a symposium of their peers, the community of occupational therapists, and the faculty. They participate in Xavier University ?s Celebration of Student Research Day, the National Undergraduate Research Conference, the State Occupational Therapy Conference, and/or the National Occupational Therapy Conference. They are nervous and anxious, yet proud of what they have accomplished. It may have been documenting the influence of power mobility for a 17-month old child with a disability, surveying occupational therapy educators on their incorporation of spirituality in the curriculum, identifying the needs of the city?s population who are homeless, or reporting the adaptive strategies used by female survivors of domestic violence, but the project has been completed. The praise they receive helps buoy their spirits, ?Maybe this wasn?t so bad after all,? some think; ?Maybe it was worth it.?       

Have students? beliefs, feelings, and attitudes really changed? In looking at the most recent data collected from their reflection upon engagement in the research process, all students continued to feel the process was challenging, difficult, even frustrating; yet, most believed it was also beneficial, valuable, worthwhile, and meaningful. Their attitudes seemed more positive. As one student recently commented on a course evaluation, ?I learned a huge amount from this class and I even enjoyed the process!?

Will this experience translate to their life outside Xavier? Will they continue to engage in the research process? Well, you just never know. That is the lesson I have learned. Several times over the past years it has been the student who was more reserved, even recalcitrant, who wants to continue to engage in the research process. You just never know. When it does happen, though, I believe our Jesuit foundation surfaces again as the love of learning drives students to further heights, to greater understanding, to new insights. Such a foundation prepares them for their role in occupational therapy as a caring, compassionate health care provider determining, in part, through research, that which best serves others.  

My telephone rings again...

Angelo, T. A. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.  

Royeen, C. B. (1997). A research primer: In occupational and physical therapy. Bethesda , MD : American Occupational Therapy Association.

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Contributors to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.


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