Cooperative Learning Through Collaborative Faculty-Student Research Teams

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  • Cooperative Learning Through CollaborativeFaculty-Student Research Teams*

    Lenore M. McWey Tammy L. Henderson Fred P. Piercy**

    Abstract: A structured research team experience can add a great deal to a graduate students academic and profes-sional training, and it also can support a positive research culture within a department. In this study, we discusshow one department developed and implemented collaborative learning research teams to enhance students researchexperiences. We discuss the advantages of cooperative learning and share student and faculty reflections that furthersupport the use of collaborative learning research teams.

    Key Words: cooperative learning, graduate education, professional development, research teams, teaching methods.

    Future family scholars should be well versed in the-ory, research, and best practices and have the skillsnecessary to conduct the research independently(Monroe, 1995). Yet, there are a number of chal-lenges associated with the education of familyscholars at all academic levels (i.e., Cianciolo &Henderson, 2003; Cianciolo, Henderson, Kretzer,& Mendes, 2001; Piercy et al., 2005; Sprenkle,2002). Such challenges include integrating knowl-edge across multiple fields (Piercy et al.), ensuringthat one is using the best pedagogical approachesto teach todays college students (Henderson &McWey, in press), and identifying the necessaryskills and knowledge for students in todays infor-mation and technologically based economy (e.g.,Buono, 1996; U.S. Department of Labor, 2000).

    On the one hand, graduate students themselvesexpress ambivalence when it comes to research. Forexample, in one study, for every positive adjectivestudents used to describe research, such as reward-ing or helpful, students also used words likeboring, confusing, difficult, and frustrat-ing (Piercy et al., 2005). On the other hand, onegoal of most family science departments is toincrease the number of graduate students who are

    prepared to teach, conduct research, and provideleadership and professional services.

    Traditional approaches to teaching both under-graduate and graduate students include studentsattending classes, listening to lectures, and readingtextbooks and articles. Although these methods maybe good at imparting knowledge, students may notsee the immediate relevance of the content they arelearning (Cianciolo & Henderson, 2003). Thus, manyhave advocated for more innovative teaching strategiesat the undergraduate and graduate levels (Cianciolo &Henderson; Cianciolo et al., 2001; Fontes & Piercy,2000; McWey et al., 2002; Sprenkle & Piercy,1984). Specifically, scholars assert that meaningfulresearch training in undergraduate and graduateprograms involves more than requiring studentsto take research methods and statistics classes andto complete a dissertation or thesis, but involvespedagogical approaches that connect course contentto research practices (Anderson, 2003; Crane,Wampler, Sprenkle, Sandberg, & Hovestadt, 2002;Henderson & Martin, 2002; Piercy et al., 2005;Sprenkle, 2002).

    Cooperative learning (CL) has been identified asan effective pedagogical strategy that promotes

    *The research team experience described in this study occurred in the Department of Human Development at Virginia Tech.

    **Lenore M. McWey is an Assistant Professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Doctoral Program, Department of Family and Child Sciences at Florida State

    University, 210 Sandels Building, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1491 ( Tammy L. Henderson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human

    Development, Virginia Tech, 401B Wallace Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0416 ( Fred P. Piercy is a Professor and Department Head of the Depart-

    ment of Human Development, Virginia Tech, 366 Wallace Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0416 (

    Family Relations, 55 (April 2006), 252262. Blackwell Publishing.Copyright 2006 by the National Council on Family Relations.

  • a variety of positive cognitive, affective, and socialoutcomes (Cabrera et al., 2002; Nolinske & Millis,1999; Slavin, 1995a). Specifically, CL strategieshave been shown to improve the retention rates ofstudents (Kluge, 1990; Totten, Sills, & Digby,1991); provide students with increased opportunitiesfor discussion, shared learning, and self-management(Slavin & Cooper, 1999); and enhance students aca-demic performance (Cianciolo et al., 2001; Nolinske& Millis, 1999; Walker, 1996). Despite the positiveaspects of CL, many assert that more needs to bedone in developing and evaluating CL pedagogicalpractices (i.e., Cabrera et al.; Slavin, 1995a, 1995b).

    The purpose of this study is to present a casestudy (Jarrett, 1992; Yin, 1984), reflecting the vari-ous CL processes and how one family studies depart-ment formalized CL research teams as an effort toenhance graduate student education. We do so bysummarizing the pedagogical rationale for CLresearch teams, describing how a department insti-tuted the CL research team process, presenting twospecific research teams to exemplify the CL pro-cesses, providing data solicited from student andfaculty CL participants, and discussing possible out-comes achieved by CL teams.

    CL Research Teams

    Some consider CL strategies superior to traditionalclassroom approaches because such strategies havebeen shown to enhance students academic, social,and cognitive outcomes (Cianciolo et al., 2001;Nolinske & Millis, 1999; Walker, 1996). Using ameta-analysis of 122 CL and academic achievementstudies, researchers found that CL methods pro-moted higher student achievement than competitiveor individualistic methods across all age groups andsubjects (Johnson, Maruyama, Johnson, Nelson, &Skon, 1981). In another meta-analysis, Slavin (1983)found that 63% of the studies reviewed showed sig-nificantly positive academic outcomes for students inCL environments.

    CL research teams engage students and faculty inan active and student-directed learning process(Henderson & McWey, in press). CL strategies aredifferent from traditional classroom approaches inthat they require students to apply their knowledge.Students roles are elevated to one of generating,making sense of, and interpreting meaningful real-world data. With CL research experiences, students

    are active and accountable participants in their owneducation (Johnson & Johnson, 1994; Olsen &Kagan, 1992; Steiner, Stromwell, Brzuzy, & Gerdes,1999). In essence, faculty and students coconstructknowledge (Deering, 1989; Hertz-Lazarowitz &Shachar, 1990). Students are accountable for theoutcomes of their learning (Johnson & Johnson;Olsen & Kagan), and teachers develop highly struc-tured tasks, facilitate students mastery of tasksand learning, give less direct supervision, and pro-vide information to students in order to helpthem achieve the desired outcomes (Deering; Hertz-Lazarowitz & Shachar).

    This pedagogical strategy also complementsan interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learn-ing. Through interdisciplinary research teams, stu-dents can experience first hand the connectionsand strengths of specific specializations such asmarriage and family therapy, family law, policysciences, and other disciplines. Such an interdisci-plinary approach is more likely to have familiarcontent and appeal to a broader range of students(Dinmore, 1997) with different personal or aca-demic experiences.

    Despite the positive aspects of CL, this approachalso may present challenges to students and instruc-tors. Negative past experiences with teamwork andthe free-rider phenomenon, where nonperformersdepend on their colleagues hard work, may serve asdisincentives to CL (Steiner et al., 1999). Studentsalso may resist CL processes because of a lack ofexperience with CL environments and the socializa-tion of competitiveness and individualism in previ-ous classroom experiences (Shachar & Shmuelevitz,1997; Sharan & Sharan, 1992; Steiner et al.). Poorimplementation and planning of CL may under-mine the positive academic and social outcomes(Steiner et al.). Therefore, it becomes importantthat the instructors adequately invest time in prepar-ing and structuring assignments, tasks, and imple-mentation of student objectives. Some instructorswhose personal and professional training haslargely focused on traditional teaching practicesmay require additional training to implement CLeffectively.

    Through this study, we will present a case studydemonstrating how one department developed andimplemented CL research teams. We will share spe-cific examples of CL research teams, and studentand faculty perceptions of the process also will berevealed.

    Cooperative Learning McWey et al. 253

  • Development and Implementationof CL Research Teams: A

    Case Study

    Case studies bring understanding to real-life experi-ences and can provide insight into occurrences ata single setting (Jarrett, 1992). Using data from onegraduate program, we present a case study of theapplication and use of CL research teams. We wereinterested in understanding (a) how CL researchteams could be implemented across a department,(b) how specific CL teams operated on a day-to-daybasis, (c) student and faculty perceptions of the useof research teams in graduate student education, and(d) what CL research team outcomes could beachieved. For case studies, it is important to includethe context and multiple sources of data (Yin,1984). Thus, to provide an understanding of the useof CL research teams, we detail the departmentaldevelopment of the infrastructure for the CLresearch teams, examine two such CL teams, shareperceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of thisapproach, and discuss CL research team outcomes.

    The Infrastructure

    In order to understand how CL teams could beimplemented in one department, we had to presentthe context (Yin, 1984) in which CL teams wereformed. Although most graduate programs offerresearch experiences, what we believe to be uniqueabout this research team experience is that it wasbuilt into the departmental requirement. Thisrequirement sets a unique context for graduate edu-cation (Appendix). To that end, our academicdepartment instituted a research practicum, formal-izing the research experiences received by doctoralstudents. This practicum served as a means for doc-toral students to obtain systematic hands-on researchexperiences before drafting their dissertations, apply-ing for postdoctoral fellowships, or competing inthe job market. Some of the overarching goals forthe research practicum were to help graduate stu-dents establish independent research agendas; toenhance their evaluative, research, and written andoral communication skills; and to create their profes-sional identity. The faculty anticipated that theycould benefit as well because, through the practicum,they could gain graduate student help with theirresearch projects and enhance their teaching practices.

    Generally, the formalized process mandated that doc-toral students participate on research teams for foursemesters. Masters students also could participate butwere not required to do so. Further, at the professorsdiscretion, undergraduate students could participateon research teams, but again, it was not required.

    In order to recruit students for specific researchteams, faculty members compiled summaries oftheir research projects. Limiting information toone page, faculty listed the current research teammembers, the title of the project, a brief abstract ofthe purpose of the study, the methods that would beemployed, the expectations, the anticipated out-comes, and the primary contact person for the pro-ject. Thus, in these instances, the main researchdecisions were made before students were recruited.There was the opportunity, however, for facultymembers who wanted to begin a new project to listgeneral areas of interest and recruit students to par-ticipate in the development of a study. All doctoralstudents were given a packet of possible researchteams and were instructed to meet with the contactperson for the study of interest to discuss more spe-cific details of the project. Then, if the student andfaculty member agreed to work together on a project,the student would register for research team hours(the course number varies depending on the level ofthe studentundergraduate, masters, or doctoral).

    It was also important to develop grading criteria.Students were graded on an A to F scale based on pre-determined criteria. Faculty members were encour-aged to provide feedback to students about their workthroughout the research team process. Final gradeswere assigned based on students participation in teammeetings, accomplishment of tasks, and quality ofwork. For the most part, the assignment of grades wasstraightforward. In instances where students could notcomplete tasks on time, however, an incompletecould be assigned. When the student completed hisor her tasks, the grade could then be changed.

    Developing the CL Teams

    In order to implement CL effectively, there has tobe a sufficient planning by the instructors (Steineret al., 1999). Discussing the development of theteams also adds another contextual layer to the cur-rent case study (Yin, 1984). For the research teamsin which we were involved, we elected to use cooper-ative groups, in which we worked as partners withstudents, provided some faculty direction, and gave

    Family Relations Volume 55, Number 2 April 2006254

  • team members the opportunity to choose project tasksfor which they would be responsible (Stodolsky,1984). We wanted the process to be a shared learn-ing experience, where we would meet collectivelybut be individually responsible for our own tasksand self-management (Johnson & Johnson, 1994;Olsen & Kagan, 1992; Steiner et al.). Further, wewanted the CL research teams to be active learningendeavors. Under CL, faculty serve as monitors ofstudents learning (Deering, 1989; Hertz-Lazarowitz& Shachar, 1990); therefore, faculty set aside timefor students to make comments, pose questions, andreview the coding of data during team or individualmeetings.

    CL research teams were shaped by shared goalsand rewards. In our CL research teams, studentsanalyzed the data, reviewed the literature, anddrafted the sections of publishable papers. Our CLresearch teams capitalized on diversity, heteroge-neous learning styles, and individual strengths ofeach member, enhancing students capacity andunderstanding of teamwork and creating a collegialrelationship between students and faculty members.Students were engaged in negotiating professionaland personal successes within academe while work-ing with individuals from diverse backgrounds(Nolinske & Millis, 1999). Like any CL group,there was an emphasis on shared responsibilityrather than on individual competition, reducing thedictatorship of some group dynamics and improvingthe division of labor among research team members(Goodwin, 1999; Nolinske & Millis). Faculty mem-bers monitored students progress and worked withthem to establish professional expectations or tolessen the incidence of any unhealthy com...


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