Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Doing theory based research

In order to produce an outstanding research study one can formulate a research problem that will test a theory already developed. Some related definitions of terms are then necessary.

What is a theory?

A theory is an explanation of observable events in terms of constructs and laws that specify the relationships between these constructs. In other words to establish a theory you need first observable events. Second you observe these events. Third you explain what you observe using constructs and laws that establish the relationships between these constructs. A theory is first made of concepts of observable events and second of concepts of relationships about the concepts of those observable events.

What is a construct?

A construct is a concept generalized from common elements between observable events and that is used to explain those events. In other words first you observe events. Second you research common elements between the observable elements. third you use the common elements to explain the observed events. Simply said a construct is an explanation of obervable events based on common elements between those events.

What is a law?

A law is a generalization about a causal, sequential or other type of relationships between two or more constructs. First you establish constructs. Second you establish relationships between those constructs. Third you generalize those relationships.

Now that the definition of theory is complete. Let's define two terms that derive from construct: variable and hypothesis,

What is a variable?

A variable is a construct thought of as a characteristic that can vary in quality and quantity.

What is an hypothesis?

First definition: a hypothesis is a speculation about the relationship between two or more variables.

Second definition: a hypothesis is a testable prediction about observable phenomena that is based on a theory's constructs  ant their relationships.

Example of Theory Based Research 

Roger Goddard, Scott Sweetland and Wayne Hoy used theory as a guide in their research of factors influencing student's achievement in urban elementary schools. The primary factor bore upon academic emphasis which is emphasis on academic excellence by schools. The research problem was based on social cognitive theory to predict how the school level of  academic excellence would influence students'achievement.

Social cognitive theory attempts to explain how certain factors influence individual and group perceptions which in turn shape individual and group behavior. An important construct of this theory is agency, which is the tendency of individuals to pursue a course of action in order to achieve some definite goals. An example of agency is the effort made by a school leader in order to achieve academic excellence. According to social theory certain kind of experiences can change an educational leader's perception and consequently affecting his or sense of agency. Other constructs of the social cognitive theory are vicarious learning and self regulation. Let's try to explain these concepts in practice. An educational staff hears about the success of an educational program. This staff can learn vicariously about this program and self regulates in order to apply this program to achieve academic excellence. These perceptual and behavioral changes produce improvement in student's academic performance.

Based on this reasoning from social cognitive theory the researchers hypothesized that teacher's perceptions about school norms and academic excellence will influence their work behavior and consequently student's learning. The researchers stated: "We hypothesize that the academic emphasis of a school is positively associated with differences between schools of the levels of achievement in both reading and mathematics". The hypothesis was tested with a sample of 45 elementary schools. Teachers completed a measure of academic emphasis and the school district provided data on student achievement in mathematic and reading.

As stated in their hypothesis, "Goddard, Sweetland and Hoy found that academic emphasis was a significant predictor of between school differences in student achievement in both mathematics and reading". The findings also supported social cognitive theory:

" The results provide initial support for Bandura's (1986, 1987) suggestion that the concepts and assumptions of social cognitive theory can be extended to organizations and are useful in examining school outcomes. We hasten to add that further testing of social cognitive theory of social cognitive theory in the schools is needed, but the current results are encouraging because our hypothesis was driven by this theory. We hope that the identification of the identification of the theoretical underpinnings of academic emphasis illuminates pathways to future research on school improvement and that school leaders can apply thee ideas to make their schools better places for stuents to learn". (Goddard et al., p.690).

A hypothesis originated from theory guided the design of a research study of which findings improved educator's understanding of factors that improved student learning and reinforced the theory.

This study shows how academic emphasis influence student achievement in urban elementary schools. It supports the social cognitive theory that perceptual and behavioral changes can produce academic achievement. But other changes in perceptions and behavior in the entire school culture have to be done. Effective collaboration between all staff and students in the entire school community is mportant. Opportunities for all staff for professional advancement and their involvement in the well being of the school, mutual understanding and respect between all members of the school, the absence of discrimination, racism and exclusion are also factors worth to be considered. 

It is important to note that the researchers stated that their findings supported social cognitive theory but not proved it. Even if a number of studies produce evidence supporting a theory and no disconforming evidence is present, a theory is never proved. The researchers generally agree with the argument of the philosopher of science Karl Kopper that that the possibility of disconforming evidence in the future always exists. On the other hand, one study that provides disconforming evidence calls for revision or rejection of the theory.

The cognitive dissonance dissonance experimentation stated above was a quantitative research study testing a previously developed theory. In other words a theory was developed and then a study was designed to test it. This procedure doesn't happen in qualitative research study. Many qualitative studies are designed to discover theory. This approach is called grounded theory because the first step consists in collecting data and then the researcher searches for theoretical constructs, themes and patterns "grounded" in the theory.

Yves Simon, Educator

Reference: Educational Research, Joyce P.Gall.

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