Chapter 2: Method

It is typical for the literature review to precede the method section in a dissertation report. However, following the advice of my dissertation committee and my own feelings toward the most logical organization for the present study, it seemed appropriate to first describe the method that will be used to analyze the literature and then to enumerate the ideas that will be brought under review.

Textual Research

The purpose of the traditional method section in any scientific research paper is to document the process used to conduct the study with enough detail so that readers are able to evaluate the credibility of the claims and conclusions made, and to repeat the study precisely. The primary method of research used for the present study is textual research. Textual research is a general term used by Clingan (2008) to describe research in which the principal data collection method used is the review and analysis of existing literature. This type of research is commonly applied in the social sciences, the humanities, philosophy, and linguistics. Data collection in textual research may be quantitative, qualitative, or a mixture of the two (Belsey, 2005; Fidel, 2008). Textual research methods include such things as concept network analysis (Carley, 1997),  content analysis (Neuendorf, 2002; Weber, 1990), discourse analysis (G. Brown & Yule, 1983; Silverman, 1993), lexical analysis (Bybee & Hopper, 2001), semantic analysis (Goddard, 1998; Ziff, 1960), syntactic analysis (Green & Morgan, 1996; Moravcsik, 2006), and thematic analysis (Stone, 1997). The analysis for the present study is primarily thematic, where the themes to be identified are principles of learning.

Since scholarship and research typically begin with a review of existing theory and knowledge relevant to the topic of study, it is important to understand the distinction between a literature review and textual research. Clingan (2008) clarified this difference by saying,

What makes textual research result in a thesis—rather than just producing a literature review—is that the scholar/researcher will take the data gathered through reading the literature, analyze it according to whatever methodological lenses her work is based on, consider various opposing theorists and methodologies, and present an original hypothesis and conclusive interpretation. (p. 1)

Consistent with Clingan’s description, the general method and goals of the present study were to

  1. Collect data through the reading of literature.
  2. Analyze the data collected with the purpose of identifying themes (principles of learning) that transcend various theoretical positions on the nature of learning.
  3. Synthesize the various themes into a single list.
  4. Present an original hypothesis and conclusive interpretation in the form of a conceptual framework of learning that organizes the themes into a meaningful hierarchy of relationships.

The following three sections describe more specifically how sources of literature will be selected for review; how principles of learning will be selected from the ideas reviewed (i.e. the methodological lens I will be using); and the steps in the process that will be used to analyze, synthesize, and organize the principles identified into a conceptual framework.

Guidelines for Selecting Literature to Review

In my review of both printed and digital libraries, it has become quite apparent that a man could spend his entire life reading, at his swiftest pace, never visiting the same lines of text twice, never stopping to rest, never stopping to eat, and never stopping to sleep, and still he could not possibly review all that has been written that bears interest on the subject of learning. It is therefore necessary that my review of ideas and theories be focused on a sampling of the most relevant sources of literature. To this end I have reasoned out five criteria to guide my selection of theories to review. Based on these criteria, those ideas that I shall consider worthy of analysis in this study are those that have passed the tests of

  1. Clarity – meaning the theory has been articulated with enough clarity and precision so as to be distinct from other theories.
  2. Stability – meaning the theory has been developed sufficiently so as to be relatively stable in its ideas.
  3. Utility – meaning the theory provides greater insight and understanding of the process of learning than that which is readily apparent to the layman and that it might be of practical use in facilitating learning.
  4. Impact – meaning the theory has attracted attention from people outside of the direct influence of the originator of the theory.
  5. Durability – meaning the theory has endured as the subject of formal study or application for several years.

By these criteria I will make a list of theories and ideas to review in search of principles of learning. Guidelines for how principles will be identified during review of those sources are described next.

Guidelines for Selecting Principles (The “Methodological Lens”)

As stated above, the two criteria for selecting principles of learning from the theories to be reviewed are

  1. Fundamentality – meaning the principle can justifiably be said to have a critical influence on learning, or in other words, it is a basic, vital principle upon which successful learning depends.
  2. Universality – meaning the principle might reasonably be construed to apply broadly to many different types of learning, including: changes in behavior, the acquisition of factual and conceptual knowledge, the mastery of complex motor skills, the development of intellectual capacity, and even changes in attitudes, desires, or beliefs.

As noted in chapter one, although a rational argument will be made to support claims of fundamentality and universality for the principles identified, I recognize that no such argument can ever be complete, and that the resulting ideas from this study will be, at best, tentative. Accepting this limitation, these two attributes together will serve as the criteria by which principles of learning will be identified from the theories reviewed.  I have tried to be very specific in describing what I mean by fundamental and universal. However, it is often easier to understand what something is, when the boundaries of what it is not are clearly defined. Thus, to further illuminate these two concepts, let us consider what they are not.

If a principle is not fundamental, what is it? There are two possibilities. A principle that is not fundamental is either (a) invalid, or (b) helpful, but not critical to learning. Supposed principles of the first type are typically perpetuated by tradition and include ideas such as, “students must attend a formal classroom in order to learn,” or “students must have a teacher in order to learn.” They are easily discredited since counter examples are abundant.

Principles of the second type are defensible principles that generally improve the learning process in some way, but are not critical to it. This does not mean they are not valuable. It only means that successfully learning may occur whether or not the principle is implemented. For example, one of Merrill’s first principles of instruction states that, “Learning is facilitated when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems” (Merrill, 2002a, p. 2). Presumably researchers and educators will generally agree that this is a defensible principle, which is of great value to those tasked with designing meaningful and effective instruction. However, it is not a critical principle of learning since learning may also occur when learners are engaged in solving contrived problems, or even when the learning activities are not problem-based at all. Fundamental principles, then, are principles that are both valid and not only helpful in the learning process, but critical to its success.

Now to the second question, if a principle is not universal, what is it? The concept of universality deals with the scope of applicability of the principle. Principles that are not universal are limited in their range of explanatory power to a specific domain of learning. For example, in the teaching of second language pronunciation we talk about positive and negative transfer, or the influence of one’s native tongue for good or bad on the process of learning a second language. Generally, second language phonemes (sounds) that are either the same as or very different from first language phonemes are easier to acquire than those that are similar to, but critically different from, first language phonemes. This principle of linguistic transfer is an example of a local principle of learning specific to the domain of language learning, and more specifically to the sub-domain of learning pronunciation of a second language.

As part of the present study, many such principles—i.e. many non-universal principles—will be coded in the analysis inasmuch as they are instances of more general, universal principles. Once coded, these local principles will be mapped hypernymically to universal principles they are instances of, or by which they may be subsumed. A hypernym is an umbrella term, or a word whose meaning encompasses the meaning of another more specific word. For example, the local principle of linguistic transfer noted above is an instance of a more general principle of learning that is universal to all types of learning, namely, sequence, which denotes the notion that what has been learned previously may be of advantage, or of disadvantage, in learning something new. More will be said on the principle of sequence in chapter four.

Categorical Development Through Constant Comparison

This section describes more precisely how theories selected for review will be analyzed to obtain a list of principles either explicitly stated or implicitly assumed in each, how the resulting lists of principles from the various theories will be synthesized into a single list, and how the final list will be organized into a conceptual framework of learning.

Analysis. It has already been stated that the method of research for this study is textual research, meaning data will be collected through the review of text-based sources. If this data collection was limited to something like the counting of syntactic or grammatical features in the text, the process would be one of quantitative analysis. However, the goal of this study is not to count features but to identify principles. In most cases this cannot be achieved merely through the objective tallying of typographical occurrences, but must be reasoned out through the subjective analysis of semantics underlying the language used to describe the theories. Where principles are clearly and obviously stated, they can be counted. Where they are not, they must be inferred by interpretive analysis of the text. Hence, the method of analysis used here is similar to what Glaser and Strauss (1967) called constant comparative analysis, which is an important component of grounded theory. The application of constant comparative analysis was described by Glaser and Strauss (as cited in Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 339) as having four stages:

  1. Comparing incidents applicable to each category
  2. Integrating categories and their properties
  3. Delimiting the theory
  4. Writing the theory

Glaser and Strauss are clear that these four stages are not carried out in an entirely linear and lock step fashion, but rather, each of the stages “remain in operation simultaneously throughout the analysis and each provides continuous development to its successive stage until the analysis is terminated” (p. 339). The first stage “combines inductive category coding with a simultaneous comparison of all social incidents observed” (Goetz & LeCompte, 1981, p. 58). The ‘incidents’ to be observed in the present study are not social incidents, but textual incidents. These textual incidents are either principles of learning explicitly stated or underlying assumptions that imply principles of learning. These textual incidents will hereafter be referred to as local principles of learning. The emerging list of categories, or themes, to which local principles are to be coded will hereafter be referred to as universal principles of learning.

As each local principle is encountered it will be coded by assigning it to one of the universal principles that has been identified previously in the analysis or by assigning it to a new universal principle of which it is the first instance. Bruner, Goodnow, & Austin (1972) explained this process of categorization by saying, “To categorize is to render discriminably different things equivalent, to group the objects and events and people around us into classes, and to respond to them in terms of their class membership rather than their uniqueness” (p. 16). Categories are the basis for organization and conceptualization of large amounts of data that would otherwise be difficult to interpret. Dey (1993) provided an excellent discussion on the creation and assignment of categories. As part of his discussion, he described the importance of active reading, using a checklist to direct one’s attention and therefore aid in alerting oneself to themes that emerge from the text. Dey’s checklist is comparable to Clingan’s concept of methodological lens, in that it provides a framework to guide and focus the review and analysis of the data. Dey noted, however, that although checklists can help, they can also inhibit and cautioned that “reading the data means rethinking and redeveloping our ideas” (p. 86). This is similar to the observation of Corbin and Strauss (2008) that, “something occurs when doing analysis that is beyond the ability of a person to articulate or explain” (p. 9). They recommended care be taken to preserve the fluid and dynamic nature of a qualitative analysis:

No researcher should become so obsessed with following a set of coding procedures that the fluid and dynamic nature of qualitative analysis is lost. The analytic process, like any thinking process, should be relaxed, flexible, and driven by insight gained through interaction with data rather than being overly structured and based only on procedures. (p. 12)

Establishing a fixed methodological lens by focusing my study on the identification of principles that are fundamental and universal gives clear direction to my research. Allowing my list of categories (the universal principles) to evolve—simultaneously emerging from and providing guidance to the research process—gives me the kind of flexibility Corbin and Strauss recommend. This flexibility characterizes one of the strengths of qualitative inquiry, namely, that it allows for insight and interaction with the data. Another is that qualitative analysis builds upon natural ways of thinking:

Most of the time conceptualizing, asking questions, and making comparisons occur quite unconsciously. They are the tools that persons use to become acquainted with and understand the worlds they live in. The difference between everyday life and doing analysis is that in analysis researchers take a more self-conscious and systematic approach to knowing. (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 20)

One of the key characteristics of grounded theory that makes it a valid method of research is the careful recording of notes (Williams, n.d., Chapter 3 – “Keeping a Record”) and the goal-oriented analysis that drives the development of themes or concepts. Throughout the analysis of this study, careful notes will be kept listing each local principle of learning as it is encountered in the text, the source reference in which the principle was found, and a mapping to one or more universal principles that the local principle is an instance of.

Synthesis. The second stage of the method of constant comparison is the integration of categories. In contrast with the first stage of the method—which focuses on comparing incidents and making a decision as to whether a given incident is similar to or different from others already encountered—the second stage represents a subtle shift to making explicit the theoretical properties of each category (i.e., each universal principle of learning). In the words of Glaser and Strauss (1967),

This constant comparison of the incidents very soon starts to generate theoretical properties of the category. The analyst starts thinking in terms of the full range of types or continua of the category, its dimensions, the conditions under which it is pronounced or minimized, its major consequences, its relationship to other categories, and its other properties. (p. 106)

The realization of the second stage of the method in the present study is the active examination of properties of the individual local principles of learning in an effort to understand and explicate how they function as a class. It is through this activity that the dimensionality of each respective universal principle of learning might be more fully delineated. For example, it is this analysis that enables us to understand repetition as being much more than just the redundant drill and practice by which it is so often characterized. Beyond its application to learning by rote, repetition plays a significant role in the acquisition of knowledge and skills in the unplanned, informal, experiential learning of our lives. Where there exists a similarity across events, there exists a pattern. Where there exists a pattern, there exists the possibility of anticipating reoccurrence of the event characteristics that make up the pattern. As we recognize these patterns we are able to respond to them in systematic—and automatic—ways, refining and improving our response over time. Thus, by the same principle of repetition that makes possible the rote memorization of discrete facts we might also develop higher order skills such as closing a complex sales transaction, managing personal or business finances, or delivering a public speech.

The various types of repetition mentioned above have emerged as a common theme in the preliminary research that was conducted to determine the feasibility of the present study. They are used here to illustrate how a category might be more fully understood by attending inductively to the properties of the individual incidents that belong to that category. Repetition will be discussed more fully in the Results section.

The synthesis effort of the present study will start with multiple lists of local principles of learning identified for each theory reviewed. These lists of principles will have already been mapped to categories (i.e. universal principles by which they are subsumed). Using the category mappings the local principles will be synthesized into a single list of universal principles. This synthesized list is the primary deliverable for the present study. Each universal principle on the list will be accompanied by a discussion of the dimensionality and range of application of the principle, drawn from the specific properties of the local principles from which it was derived as well as from relevant real-world examples.

Organization. A further contribution of the present study will be the application of original and creative thought to organize the list of principles according to meaningful relationships. This final step encompasses both stages three and four of Glaser and Strauss’s method of constant comparison (delimiting the theory and writing the theory). The expected result is a conceptual framework of learning presented in a very concise and intuitive way so as to facilitate easy understanding and application of the principles. Additionally it is expected that this conceptual framework might be a practically useful tool for the following activities:

  1. Communication – communicating about the learning process as a whole, or about various specific parts of the process
  2. Evaluation – evaluating educational products and instructional methods to determine the degree to which principles of learning have been attended to, and to predict whether or not the product or method will result in successful learning
  3. Diagnosis – identifying, very specifically, why a particular product or method fails to result in effective or efficient learning
  4. Development – developing effective instructional products and methods.
  5. Research – investigating meaningful hypotheses suggested by the framework

In summary, this chapter has described the combined method of textual research and constant comparative analysis that was used to review theories of learning in search for common themes among them that are presumed to be universal and fundamental in nature. Criteria by which theories were selected has been explained, as well as the methodological lens used to identify, analyze, synthesize, and organize the themes. The next chapter will summarize the 35 theories of learning that were reviewed.



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