If my dissertation is going to be about "generating theory," I need to have clear answers to these questions:
What is theory?
What does it mean to "generate theory?"
What is the need for "theory" in the use of reflection between the drafts within the activity of writing?
This shift to generating theory means some important things for my research and dissertation--it means it is not going to be about proving that this pedagogical approach is valid and valuable and EVERY composition teacher should adopt it. I think it means that from my research we can better understand what happens when students are asked to reflect in this way. I'm jumping ahead of myself.
What is theory?
Strauss and Corbin in Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory (1998)define theory this way:
"For us, theory denotes a set of well-developed categories (e.g. themes, concepts) that are systematically inter-related through statements of relationships to form a theoretical framework that explains some relevant social, psychological, educational, nursing, or other phenomenon. ...A theory usually is more than a set of findings; it offers an explanation about phenomena" (22).
Theory, then, is an intellectual framework of understanding (contingent and even localized in scope) that offers an explanation about phenomena, such that it may offer explanatory and predictive indications. Theory's most useful property is to offer explanation and prediction to practice. One can shape and forms ones actions/practice based upon this theory.
...to be continued
Friday, June 27, 2008
Ph.D. Student in Technical Communication and Rhetoric, Texas Tech University
Identify the Problem Requiring Research
The problem I propose to address with my dissertation research can be illustrated through the recent history of Freshman Composition at Texas Tech University. A number of years ago, between-the-draft reflections were included as a core component of the curriculum. After each draft and after each peer response, students were asked to reflect upon their piece of writing and what they might do to improve that draft for the next one. The activity was included in the curriculum based upon the belief that such reflections helped students develop a critical self-awareness and thus greater control of their own writing activity. In Fall 2007, however, these between-the-draft reflections were taken out of the curriculum. They were seen to have no significant benefit and to be extra work on already overloaded students (and graders). The decision was based upon a belief that students wrote these reflections without engagement and without effect upon their practice or end product.
This back and forth inclusion and exclusion of such in-task reflection speaks to the problem surrounding this pedagogical activity. We don’t know enough about what happens for students as they reflect or about its possible influence on students’ writing and learning within a Freshman Composition class. We don't have a theory that adequately explains and describes what happens for students as they reflect in this way, so that this pedagogical exercise can be used effectively in the classroom. This dissertation study proposes, then, to address this problem by using grounded theory and comparative analysis of student writing and reflections within Freshman Composition to generate such a theory.
The Research Questions focusing this study are:
How do teacher-prompted rhetorical reflections performed by freshman students at TTU influence and related to students’ learning and writing practice?
Can a comparative analysis of teacher-prompted rhetorical reflections generate a theory to explain and describe what happens when students engage in this activity?
Definition of terms:
“teacher-prompted rhetorical reflection” refers to a pedagogical activity when a teacher asks a student to reflect upon their writing and writing performance between drafts. The term “rhetorical reflection” designates the in-task nature of reflection and is defined more clearly later.
“learning” refers to a change and growth in thinking and practice experienced by the learner.
“comparative analysis” is a method of textual analysis used in grounded theory to generate theory.
Review Some of the Basic Literature Regarding the Problem
Jennifer Moon in her book Reflection in Learning & Professional Development (1999) offers a comprehensive definition of reflection and its place in learning: "reflection itself is a mental process with purpose and/or outcome. It is applied in situations where material is ill-structured or uncertain in that it has no obvious solutions, a mental process that seems to be related to thinking and to learning" (5). What distinguishes different kinds of reflection is not the process or nature of the reflection, but the "framework" or purpose to which it is used: "it is the framework of intention and any guidance toward fulfillment of that intention that is significant in distinguishing one act of reflection from another. The mental process itself may not differ from one situation to another" (15). My own understanding of reflection is rooted in Moon’s comprehensive definition.
I want to provide a broad overview the various frameworks of reflection discussed in multiple disciplines, and then direct my discussion toward how reflection is mainly understood in Composition Studies.
Philosophic View of Reflection
What I am calling the philosophic view of reflection refers to how it is seen as a form of judgment or wisdom that can flexibly apply general principles to specific contexts. This form of judgment resembles what Aristotle would call phronesis. Immanual Kant (1790), Gadmer (1975), Farrell (1993), Phelps(1988), King and Kitchener and their Reflective Judgment Model (1994), and even Rand Spiro’s (1992) notions of “cognitive flexibility” represent thinkers that fit this philosophic view towards reflection.
Reflection for Emancipation
The central thinker for this kind of reflection is Jurgen Habermas who approaches reflection as a tool to develop particular forms of knowledge—specifically, a broader awareness and truer understanding with the goal of freeing one from previous thinking or situations. This form of emancipatory reflection is central to “critical theory” and its goal of revealing oppressive constructs in order to change them. This school of reflection since it is often applied in political, social, or psychological areas rather than in education.
Reflection and Learning
John Dewey is probably the central thinker who discusses the importance of reflection for learning and problem-solving, and his definition of reflection has been the dominant understanding of reflection within education in the 20th century. Dewey defined reflection as “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (9). As Jennifer Moon describes, “Dewey’s more detailed analysis of reflection rests on interpretive interests, in ‘making sense of the world’ in the process of effective education” (15). His emphasis on problem-solving and strategizing connects with a large school of reflection and experiential learning focused around David Kolb’s “experiential learning cycle” which contains “reflective observation” as a key part of the learning cycle. The writing process can be viewed as an experiential cycle with reflection placed within each iteration as an activity to generate understandings and abstract concepts to guide the next draft. Jennifer Moon’s “map of learning” positions reflection as needed for an “upgrade” of learning as a learner progresses up the “stages of learning” (154). Jack Mezirow’s notions of reflection and what he calls “Transformational Learning” are also significant. In his view reflection is a form of validity testing that leads to transforming “meaning schemes” (specific attitudes or beliefs) or “meaning perspectives” (sets of meaning schemes) (101).
Another school of reflection focuses on the “reflective practitioner.” Donald Schon’s (1983, 1987) notions of “reflection-in-action” and “reflection-on-action” have been enormously influential in the areas of professional development, such as medicine, business, and teacher education. George Hillock’s book Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice represents one important example in the field of writing. This kind of reflection focuses predominantly on generating the moment-by-moment capacity for effective practice (similar to practical wisdom or phronesis).
Views of Reflection in Composition
Within Composition Studies, reflection has been used following two main frameworks or purposes. I have labeled these two purposes as “curricular” or “rhetorical,” and they can be understood by describing them according to the three poles of reflection.
Curricular reflection is defined as post-task, retrospective reflection done predominantly to construct and demonstrate learning for an audience (often a teacher for the purpose of evaluation). Yancey (1998) in her book Reflection in the Writing Classroom calls this type of reflection “Reflection-in Presentation.” It is typically performed at the end of a unit, or at midterm, or at the end of a semester. Within Composition Studies, this type of reflection has predominantly occurred in reflective letters accompanying end-of-course portfolios, and most scholarship about reflection has focused on this type of reflection (Yancey, 1997, 1998; Black, Sommers, and Stygall, 1994; Hamp-Lyons and Condon, 1993, 2000; Camp, 1998). Additional scholars on this “reflection for learning” or constructivist view of reflection in Composition include Gleason (1993), Hughes and Kooy (2002), Brown (1998), Qualley (1997), J. Sommers (1989), Perl (1980), and Underwood (1998). Another aspect of “curricular reflection” is its role in the transfer of knowledge and skill. My study will concentrate on reflection inside the activity of writing, not its affect outside of it.
My focus in this dissertation research will be on the second type of reflection considered in Composition Studies--what I am calling “rhetorical reflection.” Rhetorical reflection is defined as in-task reflection done between drafts predominantly for a writer’s own purposes of validity testing or problem-solving within the activity of writing. The dominant theorist and researchers of reflection or metacognition within the writing process are Flower and Hayes and their cognitive process theory of writing (1981). Their work, along with research into the psychology of writing done by Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) and many others, has continued to be a basis for our understanding and study of writing (as attested to by two recent collections by Alamargot and Chaquoy (2001) and Allal, Chanquoy, and Largy (2004)). In their various models, reflection as a form of reviewing and monitoring comprises a significant part of the cognitive operations of composing. Another closely-related concern in Composition to reflection has been attention paid to student self-evaluation or self-assessment, particularly as it applies to revision. These between-the-draft, prompted activities of self-evaluation are extremely similar to my focus on rhetorical reflection (N. Sommers 1992). Chief scholars and researchers on this kind of self-evaluation in Composition include Beach (1976, 1980, 1984), Haswell (1993), Moore (1993), Anson (2000), Harris (2003), and Yancey (1998). Most argue that this kind of self-evaluation is crucial for helping students write and revise better.
What a preliminary investigation into research on rhetorical reflection shows:
(from 29 research or research-related articles; not all studies refer to writing)
"Deep reflection" correlates to better performance
A number of studies conclude that better or more sophisticated reflection leads to better performance (whether that was writing performance or teaching skill). Anson (2000) finds a relationship between writer's proficiency and their blending/shifting of "function in scheme" (i.e. more sophisticated reflective thinking). Likewise, Ellis (2005) sees a "cohesive" conception of writing (revealed in reflections) with a deeper approach to writing. Each also notes that more surface or less sophisticated sorts of reflection reveal less proficiency. Each is noting a correlation between deeper reflection and better performance. The other studies that follow this general conclusion are Higgins (16), Kennison (2006), and Yeo (2006). The larger question is--what significance does this correlation mean?
Reflection is a tool for meaning formation/negotiation, contextual knowledge and action
Implications from three studies--Flower (1994), McAlpine (1999), and Peck (1989)--suggest that reflection has a significant role to play in the formation and negotiation of meaning and action. This conclusion or assumption seems to relate closely to the previous convergence on "deep reflection."
The importance of the affective or emotional in reflection
Studies done by Efkides (2006) and Shapira (2005) highlight the important role affect or feelings and emotion have in impacting reflective judgment. Shapira's research is interesting because she concludes that "affective strategies" have the most important influence on improving writing quality and confidence.
A complicated link between reflection and revision
Studies done by Rijlaaradam (2004) and Peck (1989) highlight the difficulties in connecting what happens in a reflection and what ultimately happens in a revision. These researchers caution against making a clear cause-effect connection.
Multiple studies use some sort of coding scheme to evaluate reflective texts for analysis that could be prototypes for an eventual coding scheme I could use for my analysis of reflections. Anson (2000), McAlpine (1999), and Raphael (1989) probably have the best coding schemes. Beach (1976) and Yancey (1998) are also excellent, but they are evaluating self-evaluation texts (roughly equivalent to reflections). Yancey has a scheme similar to Anson’s, and Beach's is interesting because he presents results on productive self-evaluations that could then be used as the basis for forming a coding scheme. The one critical voice regarding the measuring and analyzing of reflections is Sumsion (1996) who strongly disagrees with the quantitative measurement of reflection (however, she bases this conclusion on a suspect study of her own).
What is the gap in our understanding of reflection in Composition?
We actually have an incredibly rich theoretical understanding of reflection. The large gap I see in our conception of reflection at this time within Composition Studies is fully appreciating the link between reflection and invention (that is reflection’s epistemic and transformative role in learning and writing practice). So much attention is paid to post-task reflection for the purpose of assessment, the self-construction of learning, and transfer that this other form of Deweyian, problem-solving reflection has not received the attention it deserves. It is my contention that reflection strategically applied within the activity of writing heuristically reactivates the concerns of invention (namely, the full concerns of the writer’s “rhetorical stance”) with a beneficial influence on the writer’s performance and learning. The cognitivist have identified reflection or metacognition as a significant mental activity applied within their model of the activity of writing, and research has identified a correlation between “deep reflection” and better performance, but empirical research has not developed a theory to understand the features of this deep reflection in terms of writing, rhetorical stance, and invention.
Outline Goals and Methods of Research for Adding to the Knowledge Regarding the Problem
To fill this gap in our understanding of rhetorical reflection as a pedagogical activity, I propose studying the writing and reflective texts produced by Freshman writers within the First Year Writing Program at Texas Tech. My study will be an archival study examining texts within the TOPIC database from the academic year 2004-2006, which contains thousands of these texts. This data set offers the unique opportunity to study thousands of texts both through textual analysis, but also through datagogic methods of data-mining. Datagogic within Composition Studies refers to the use of databases as a central site where all writing is submitted in a writing course. “Datagogic methods” refers to new methods of researching writing within this new database setting.
According to Glaser and Strauss (1967), this dissertation research would be considered a beginning step in generating theory. They believe the initial establishment of catagories and properties are best established by first minimizing differences among the comparison groups (55). My data set of freshman writers of roughly the same age from the same school represents such a “minimized” group. Only after these categories and properties are established within this relatively homogeneous set of groups should the researcher turn to “maximizing” the differences among comparative groups to further refine and develop the theory. This direction toward maximizing differences among comparison groups points to a possible post-dissertation research agenda.
The first phase of my research will be to do this basic work of generating theory within a minimized group (TTU Freshman Composition, TOPIC). Glaser and Strauss state two criteria for the generation of theory. The theory generated must “fit” the situation and “work” when put to use: “By 'fit' we mean that the categories must be readily (not forcibly) applicable to and indicated by the data under study; by 'work' we mean that they must be meaningfully relevant to and be able to explain the behavior under study” (3). The second phase of my research will engage in confirmation of the fitness and workability of the theory generated by engaging in Content Analysis of a large sample of student writing from TOPIC as well as strategic data mining within the TOPIC database.
The following chart derived from Creswell (2003) will describe my general research design:
Knowledge Claims (epistemological stance)
Strategies of Inquiry
(methodologies) Grounded theory
Comparative Analysis of texts
Additionally, possible Content Analysis and data-mining
Sample/Sampling Theoretical sampling of various groups of Freshman writers and writing from within the TOPIC database. In theoretical sampling, the process of data collection is controlled by the emergence of theory.
A second phase of the study to verify the discovered theory might entail Content Analysis and data mining Data Analysis Close textual analysis of texts will be used following grounded theory's method of comparative analysis.
From this comparative analysis, derive a coding instrument for analyzing these reflections by a team of coders. Identify key search parameters for large-scale data mining.
My research process as I see it right now might follow this path.
1. Use grounded theory to discover categories, properties, and their interrelation and generate a theory
2. Derive a coding instrument from this grounded theory analysis
3. Apply this coding instrument to the content analysis of a sample of texts to check the understandings derived from the grounded theory analysis
4. Use large-scale data-mining analysis to further triangulate some of the understandings coming from the previous research efforts
Outline of Chapters
I. Introduction: The Rationale for Studying Rhetorical Reflection
II. Literature Review on Reflection in Learning
III. The Connection of Reflection to Invention
IV. Methodology and Methods for Research Study
V. Results from Study
VI. Implications for Practice
Explanation of Reading List Materials and Their Relation to the Dissertation Research
The scholarship contained in my reading list will contain four broad categories: reflection, invention, composition/rhetoric and rhetoric, and research methods. Since the focus of my inquiry is on reflection, the bulk of my reading list will contain readings related to reflection. These readings will contain general scholarship on reflection, reflection in education, and reflection within Composition/Rhetoric. Since reflection is so often linked to learning, this section may contain theories of learning that are applicable to reflection. Invention is added as a special category in my reading list because I believe there is a link between reflection and invention, especially as it relates to a writer negotiating their rhetorical stance within the activity of writing. The third category will present foundational text within the field of Composition/Rhetoric as well as in Rhetoric. I don’t propose to present a laundry list of Composition and Rhetoric text, but I will include texts which have been significant in my understanding of writing and rhetoric. The last category will deal with research and research design. Although I will present some foundational texts for researching (such as MacNealy (1999) and Johanek(2000)), I will also include texts focused directly on the methodologies and methods I will use in my study, particularly Grounded Theory.
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