Framing my PhD research

Posted on: December 17, 2008

After long and laborious work, thinking and writing about a myriad of ideas relating to the educational issue I wanted to pursue in my PhD study, I think I finally got it.

My working title is something like this:

Enculturation into discipline specific ways of thinking and acting whilst at university: Implications for professional practice

 I have synthesized  the problematic for the research, as follows:

The educational issue that my research proposes to address is that traditional learning environments do not represent the values or practices of the profession for which educators intend to prepare students. In these types of environments students acquire abstract and decontextualised knowledge coming from teaching approaches that tend to separate “knowing” from “doing” (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). In approaches where the interdependence of situation and cognition are ignored, the students do not perceive the knowledge acquired as being useful in solving real problems outside university, so what they develop is only “inert knowledge” (Collins, Brown & Newman, 1989). This is a type of knowledge that people can recall when prompted but cannot recall in problem solving situations (Bransford, et al, 1990; Cognition & Technology Group of Vanderbilt, 1990; Herrington & Oliver, 2000). Within the accounting domain, for example, researchers and practitioners both identify inert knowledge in graduate accountants, claiming that graduate accountants accumulate a storehouse of technical knowledge they cannot apply to solve real world problems (Freeman, 2008; Sundem, 1994; Catanach, et al., 2000).

The central aim for my research that I have so far identified is:

To propose, exemplify and test alternative approaches to learning and teaching in higher education that provide students bridges rather than gaps between learning at university and professional practice.

The preliminary research plan goes something along these lines:

I envisage adopting an iterative empirical approach, which will be guided by an experimental framework known as ‘design-based research’ (Brown, 1992; Collins, 1992). Design-based research ‘blends empirical educational research with the theory-driven design of learning environments [thereby shaping] an important methodology for understanding how, when and why educational innovations work in practice’ (The Design-Based Research Collective, 2003, p.5). Consistent with the principles of design-based research, both quantitative and qualitative methods will be used in the iterative cycle of design, implementation, analysis and modification. Ethnographic approaches will be used as it provides qualitative methods for looking carefully at how a design plays out in practice and how social and contextual variables interact with cognitive variables (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004). Additionally, the quantitative method of administering survey questionnaires provides a means for evaluating the effects of independent variables on the dependent variables (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004). The adoption of mixed methods is useful for the description of phenomena reflecting the complex issues that should be addressed (Brown 1992). As this research involves human participants, approval for Ethics in Human Research will be sought. The study will proceed in three phases, as follows:

Phase 1: Development of framework

This phase will involve a review of literature on educational innovations facilitated by previous research initiatives. The different educational approaches that have evolved will be contrasted, and I will identify the theoretical frameworks that chime with the conventions of selected disciplines as case studies. The goal is to ‘specify the significant disciplinary ideas and forms of reasoning that constitute the prospective goals or endpoints for student learning’ (Cobb et al, 2003, p. 11).

Phase 2: Design and development of prototypes

The curriculum design principles formulated in the previous phase will underpin the development of prototypes, within which intended learning outcomes, instructional materials, activity structures and assessment are central to the design. Because the focus of this study is on the design of a model of learning, this is reified in the technology-enhanced learning environments. As Kelly (2004) observes, the exploration of research questions about learning are reified, explored, and tested by the design and use of the learning environment.

Phase 3: Implementation, data collection, analysis, and modification

Multiple cycles of implementations and evaluations will be carried out in partnership with academic teachers at different campuses of a regional university. Both students’ and teachers’ perceptions of their “classroom” experiences will be investigated and, following the main tenets of design-based research, evaluation will be carried out using multiple strategies, e.g. observations and recording of classroom episodes, survey questionnaire, individual interviews and focus group interviews.  Within the different cycles of the implementation, the iteration process for analysis – prototypes modifications – evaluations will be documented in my thesis, and will focus on validating assumptions embodied in the prototypes, developing new ones, and finally refining and enhancing the different prototypes.

And finally the intended outcomes of my research:

The conclusion of my PhD will deliver a greater understanding of how students build their knowledge in learning environments where preparation for professional practice is the explicit aim. It is also anticipated that the outcomes of my research will include practical guidelines for designing learning environments that facilitate better prepared students for their chosen professional careers.


Bransford, J.D., Sherwood, R.D., Hasselbring, T.S., Kinzer, C.K. & Williams, S.M. (1990). Anchored Instruction: Why we need it and how technology can help. In D. Nix & R. Spiro (Eds.), Cognition, education and multimedia: Exploring ideas in high technology, pp.115-141, Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Brown, A.L. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. The Journal of the Instructional Sciences, 2(2), pp. 141-178.

Brown, J.S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning, Educational Researcher 18(1), pp.32-42.

Catanach, A.H., Croll, D.B. & Grinaker, R.L. (2000). Teaching Intermediate Financial Accounting Using a Business Activity Model, Issues in Accounting Education, 15(4), pp.583-603.

Cobb, P., diSessa, A., Lehrer, R., Schauble, L. (2003) Design Experiments in Educational Research, Educational Researcher, 32(1), pp. 9-13.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1990). Anchored instruction and its relationship to situated cognition, Educational Researcher, 19 (6), pp.2-10.

Collins, A. (1992). Towards a design science of education, In E Scanlon & T O’Shea (Eds), New directions in educational technology, Springer, Berlin.

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: teaching the crafts of reading, writing and mathematics. In L.B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: essays in honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Collins, A., Joseph, D. & Bielaczyc, K. (2004). Design research: Theoretical and methodological issues. The Journal of the Instructional Sciences, 13(1), pp. 15-42.

Design-Based Research Collective (2003). Design-based research: An emerging paradigm for educational enquiry, Educational Researcher, (32)1, pp. 5–8.

Freeman, M., Hancock, P., Simpson, L., & Sykes, C. (2008). Business as usual: a collaborative and inclusive investigation of existing resources, strengths, gaps and challenges to be addressed for sustainability in teaching and learning in Australian university business faculties. ABDC Scoping Report, March, 1-54. 

Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), 23-48.

Sundem, G.L. (1994) Scholarship in four dimensions, CA Magazine, 127(3), pp.39-44.


2 Responses to "Framing my PhD research"

First up I have to admit that in the dark old days when I started my PhD, we were not required to submit a proposal. It was just a matter of finding an agreeable supervisor and submitting annual progress reports. So I haven’t done this. I am assuming that your proposal meets the guidelines.

The concept which underpins this research proposal is very sound, and possibly because you have already made good progress in this area with the machinamas, it reads with academic authority.

The methodological approach, using mixed methods, should suit this study well. The qualitative data will give you depth and insight into the student experience, and the quantitative data will allow you to span the opinions of greater numbers of coresearchers through questionnaires and surveys. You know this. I am just agreeing. Also, your work area gives you immediate access to your research requirements – people and course designs.

I think that you will need to go through your grammar carefully, and perhaps get someone to edit your work, as clear expression is mandatory. You are so clever, and your ideas are so astute, you don’t want something as simple as written expression to undersell your work.
Good luck! It should be your passion.

Hi Nona

It’s always with some trepidation that I open these things in this fragile newborn moment of existence. But this one is very solid and credible piece of work. You’ve made enormous progress in boiling your research issue down to clear conceptual form. Taking an empirical rather than theoretical approach in your overall design is prudent choice in the circumstances, as it helps avoid any premature theoretical commitments. It will leave a few blanks to fill in, as far as the theoretical implications of your empirical “design based” approach is concerned. But that’s lesser of two evils and could actually be quite interesting part of the whole process

Two main points to raise. Big one is that the whole thing still looks like a bit of a mouthful. It’s a clearly explained and well-defined mouthful but a very large one nonetheless. I’m assuming, however, that it simply looks this way because there’s a few details still to be filled in. You would hopefully have the
specific targets for comparison worked out well in advance and made sure that they are limited in number. Comparing two or three types of approaches in two or three disciplines is conceivably doable. Comparing the full range of learning designs in an open-ended range of disciples is hopefully not what you have in mind. If you are planning any sort of broad-based comparative study, it will need to focus on comparison of existing designs in use. There will be no time for new prototypes. The proposal may possibly need to be a bit more explicit about its limits of scope.

Second issue is just a small one: the title looks like it’s fallen behind by a version or two. At the moment it looks as though it should really be something like: “Comparative evaluation of approaches to preparation for professional practice in higher education”

Neither of these issues should be a major barrier to submitting proposal in current form. So good luck with it and congratulations on a top class piece of work and some great progress in thinking about what you want to do.


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