Journal of Nursing Education

EDUCATIONAL INNOVATIONS 

Partners in Learning the Nursing Research Process

Heather K Spence Laschinger, PhD, RN; Dianne Locke, MScN, RN; Brenda Stutsky, MScN, RN

Abstract

Much has been written about ways of facilitating undergraduate nursing students' learning about the research process. Most agree that the key to successful learning is the engagement of the learner in some form of the research process (Downs, 1980; Goshman, 1983; Price & Thomas, 1979). However, teachinglearning strategies that involve the learner in the process are labor-intensive approaches that are becoming increasingly more difficult to manage in current costconscious educational environments. Increased faculty workload and dwindling resources require nurse educators to find ways to preserve these engaging learning activities yet ensure that undergraduates stay involved in and enthusiastic about learning the nursing research process. A logical source of ideas for effective learning strategies is the learning theory literature. In this article, an effective strategy derived from the literature for involving undergraduate nursing students in their learning about the nursing research process is described. This strategy was necessitated by the need to reduce faculty evaluation time and in anticipation of future reductions in faculty resources for the research course.

Theoretical Perspectives on Collaborative Learning

A useful concept to manage this problem is that of cooperative or collaborative learning. Within this work there are a variety of theoretical explanations of what happens in the collaborative learning process. The social learning theory perspective maintains that students will work hard if rewarded and that rewards come from the approval of others (Bandura, 1977, 1986). Thus, expectations of others in a group become motivation for an individual to learn. Another assumption is that students will imitate academic behaviors of others and benefit by adding to their own repertoire of learning strategies (Slavin, 19861

Vygotsky's (1962) theory of community collaboration is a lesser known conceptualization of the learning process. A key concept in this theory is the "zone of proximal development" defined as the distance between what a student can understand by learning alone and by working with someone else. Vygotsky emphasizes the social nature of learning and development and maintains that groups reach common perspectives and solutions through debate, discussion, argument, negotiation, compromise, and dialectic.

Piaget's theory of learning through conflict resolution is a social interaction version of learning. This perspective suggests that students have better understanding of content after dyadic discussions in which they confront each other with opposing views and work together to reach a common understanding (1980).

Finally, researchers in the cognitive science area have studied the notions of cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Neuman, 1986) and reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). These approaches are based on the concept of noviceexpert differences whereas novices come to imitate expert functioning as a result of modelling and coaching by experts in a dyadic relationship. It is thought that students develop new conceptual models of the skill to be learned and link it with strategies used by experts. It is assumed that novices ultimately develop models similar to those of experts. These models seem to be more appropriate for use with students with different levels of skill to allow for expert coaching of the novice.

Johnson and Johnson (1988, 1991) and Johnson, Maniyama, Johnson, Nelson, and Skon (1981) have conducted extensive research on cooperative learning within the social learning framework and have found cooperative learning methods to have significantly more positive learning outcomes in many areas than individualistic or competitive learning structures. Cooperative learning structures were found to result in decreased anxiety about learning, increased positive interpersonal relationships, and increased trust and open communication among group members. Students found that cooperative learning approaches helped them to cope with immediate stress and to persist with frustrating situations. They valued the exposure to a diversity of…

Much has been written about ways of facilitating undergraduate nursing students' learning about the research process. Most agree that the key to successful learning is the engagement of the learner in some form of the research process (Downs, 1980; Goshman, 1983; Price & Thomas, 1979). However, teachinglearning strategies that involve the learner in the process are labor-intensive approaches that are becoming increasingly more difficult to manage in current costconscious educational environments. Increased faculty workload and dwindling resources require nurse educators to find ways to preserve these engaging learning activities yet ensure that undergraduates stay involved in and enthusiastic about learning the nursing research process. A logical source of ideas for effective learning strategies is the learning theory literature. In this article, an effective strategy derived from the literature for involving undergraduate nursing students in their learning about the nursing research process is described. This strategy was necessitated by the need to reduce faculty evaluation time and in anticipation of future reductions in faculty resources for the research course.

Theoretical Perspectives on Collaborative Learning

A useful concept to manage this problem is that of cooperative or collaborative learning. Within this work there are a variety of theoretical explanations of what happens in the collaborative learning process. The social learning theory perspective maintains that students will work hard if rewarded and that rewards come from the approval of others (Bandura, 1977, 1986). Thus, expectations of others in a group become motivation for an individual to learn. Another assumption is that students will imitate academic behaviors of others and benefit by adding to their own repertoire of learning strategies (Slavin, 19861

Vygotsky's (1962) theory of community collaboration is a lesser known conceptualization of the learning process. A key concept in this theory is the "zone of proximal development" defined as the distance between what a student can understand by learning alone and by working with someone else. Vygotsky emphasizes the social nature of learning and development and maintains that groups reach common perspectives and solutions through debate, discussion, argument, negotiation, compromise, and dialectic.

Piaget's theory of learning through conflict resolution is a social interaction version of learning. This perspective suggests that students have better understanding of content after dyadic discussions in which they confront each other with opposing views and work together to reach a common understanding (1980).

Finally, researchers in the cognitive science area have studied the notions of cognitive apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, & Neuman, 1986) and reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). These approaches are based on the concept of noviceexpert differences whereas novices come to imitate expert functioning as a result of modelling and coaching by experts in a dyadic relationship. It is thought that students develop new conceptual models of the skill to be learned and link it with strategies used by experts. It is assumed that novices ultimately develop models similar to those of experts. These models seem to be more appropriate for use with students with different levels of skill to allow for expert coaching of the novice.

Johnson and Johnson (1988, 1991) and Johnson, Maniyama, Johnson, Nelson, and Skon (1981) have conducted extensive research on cooperative learning within the social learning framework and have found cooperative learning methods to have significantly more positive learning outcomes in many areas than individualistic or competitive learning structures. Cooperative learning structures were found to result in decreased anxiety about learning, increased positive interpersonal relationships, and increased trust and open communication among group members. Students found that cooperative learning approaches helped them to cope with immediate stress and to persist with frustrating situations. They valued the exposure to a diversity of ideas and found that the experience encouraged them to seek more information and to verbalize their own ideas while at the same time increasing their willingness to be influenced by others' ideas. Students felt that they were more involved in their learning, more confident in their own ideas, more likely to express their ideas in class, and had more positive feelings about the subject matter and the instructional experience.

Johnson and Johnson ( 1988) argue that this kind of learning experience prepares students to become effective, cooperative members of society by increasing their social perspective-taking skills and their ability to work with others. While most of this work was done with children, the authors argue that this approach is appropriate for all levels of students.

Description of Collaborative Learning Strategy

In an attempt to provide learning experiences in a research methods course that would engage third-year BSN students in their learning, a collaborative learning approach was implemented. Using an approach to learning about nursing research described elsewhere (Laschinger, Johnson, & Kohr, 1990), faculty decided to have students work in dyads for a series of progressive assignments designed to build their knowledge of the research process. Students completed short weekly assignments based on readings about the stages of the research process. Studente selected a question about their practice and over the course of the semester built a proposed study to investigate the question. In previous years, faculty marked these assignments prior to the due date of the next assignment, creating heavy demands on their time. Despite the one-page limit on each assignment, two teaching assistants worked several hours each week to provide even basic feedback for a class of 90 students. Thus, the dyad approach was implemented as a trial based on theoretical support in the literature for the collaborative learning approach.

Eighty-six students worked in pairs for each of the weekly short-answer assignments and on a research report critique assignment at the end of the course. Students were given the option to work alone or in dyads for the critique assignment. Interestingly, 85% of the students chose the dyad arrangement. Each dyad produced one paper that was graded by a graduate teaching assistant.

Students were assigned to one of the graduate teaching assistants for tutorial sessions throughout the course. The teaching assistants graded the papers produced by each dyad and returned them prior to the next assignment. Each dyad received one mark for each assignment. Other teaching strategies in the course included classroom lectures and discussion, tutorials, and computer-assisted learning packages. In the classroom, students were expected to discuss their research questions with regard to scheduled discussion topics. Formal lectures were not given.

Evaluation of Learning Strategies

At the completion of the course, students were surveyed for their feedback on the learning strategies used in the course. Using a 15-item adjective rating scale, students rated short-answer assignments significantly higher than other learning strategies used in the course. The critique assignment received the second highest rating followed by lectures and computerassisted learning. Since both the shortanswer and critique assignments required more interpersonal involvement in their learning, these findings appear to support theoretical claims for the effectiveness of collaborative learning approaches.

Students evaluated effects of the dyadic approach on a five-point Likert-type scale that consisted of statements from the literature regarding the effects of collaborative learning approaches on various aspects of student learning. The highest scores were those related to perceived increased levels of competence in learning from others. Students felt the collaborative assignments increased their openness to others' ideas about the subject (X= 3.87), increased their tolerance of others' perspectives Of= 3.68), increased their ability to cooperate with others to get the job done (X=3.S9), and improved their communication skills (X= 3.66). They also felt the approach increased the depth of their understanding of the content from sharing their ideas with someone else (X =3.85), increased their self-confidence in defending their beliefs about the content (X= 3.55), and somewhat improved their attitude toward the subject matter (X= 3.09).

Students indicated that working in pairs had helped them to develop learning skills they had not used before (?=3.?) and to experience different learning behaviors as a result of working with another learner (X= 3.66). Students felt that the approach helped them to cope with the stress of completing the assignments (Jf = 3.74), reduced their anxiety about the evaluation of the assignment QC= 3.62), and resulted in a higher quality product than if they had worked alone (X= 3.55). Students were less sure that the approach decreased their sense of competition with their classmates for marks (X= 3. 13) or that their need to impose their ideas on others had decreased (X=3.19). Students strongly agreed that the dyadic approach should be continued in future course offerings (X=4.34) but should not be the only teaching-learning strategy used in the course. They disagreed that the assignments expected too much of them as undergraduate students or required skills beyond their capabilities.

These quantitative results were supported in students' qualitative responses to open-ended questions about the advantages and disadvantages of the collaborative approach. The most frequently mentioned advantages were the opportunity to learn from others and to be exposed to new ideas resulting in a broader perspective. Students also noted that there was less work with this approach. The method provided them with an increased sense of security, lessened anxiety, and made the task seem less overwhelming. The most frequently cited disadvantage was the difficulty in arranging time to get together to do the assignments each week considering their heavy class schedule and clinical experiences. Other disadvantages reported were disagreement on ideas, and different writing styles and standards. Incompatibility problems and uneven workloads were mentioned by a small proportion of students.

The pattern of responses with regard to the critique assignment was similar to that for the weekly assignments although scores were somewhat lower. It is possible that the magnitude of this assignment and the greater potential for disagreement on a variety of issues may have influenced the students' responses to this approach. However, students using the collaborative versus the work-alone method were significantly more positive about the value of the critique assignment.

Faculty Impressions

Graduate teaching assistants worked closely with the students in tutorials and in personal consultations and found the students to be positive about this learning approach. Students commented that they felt that working together reduced their course workload and increased their knowledge of the research process. Students who initially expressed difficulty with working with their partners were able to work out their differences on their own with little involvement of faculty. Students put pressure on their partners to assure that assignments were submitted on time and were well written. Students who chose to work alone on the critique assignment stated that they felt they were at a disadvantage as they did not have the benefit of another persons opinions.

The graduate teaching assistants felt that the teamwork approach promoted open communication between student peers, between teaching assistants, between teaching assistants and the course professor, and between faculty and students, and contributed meaningfully to the overall learning process. Faculty observed that "they learned a lot" from the students as a result of these interactions and were pleased that their role was not simply that of knowledge disseminator. Other benefits gained from the experience included the opportunity for the teaching assistants to practice teaching-learning theories and strategies studied in their graduate curriculum with a large group of students over a period of time, enabling them to increase their skills and comfort level with content and process. The teaching assistants felt that these experiences would be invaluable in their future careers and felt that the experience greatly increased their own understanding of the research process.

Summary and Implications for Nursing Education

The collaborative learning approach appeared to be a very successful method of involving students in learning about nursing research. Students adjusted easily to the method and agreed with theoretical claims about the effectiveness of the collaborative approach to learning. Students' evaluations of the approach were consistent with Johnson and Johnson's (1988) results with younger children regarding the positive effects on learners' emotional responses to learning and their ability to take a broader social perspective as a result of working with others. Students indicated that they discovered new ways of learning as they worked with other students, which is consistent with the modeling effects described in social learning theory. The improved understanding of content and perceived improved product as a result of working with a partner seems supportive of Vygotskyfc (1962) notion of the "zone of proximal development."

In summary, it appears that there is merit in encouraging a collaborative approach to learning as a way of dealing with the impact of cost constraints on faculty resources and increasing workload demands. Future controlled studies to compare collaborative approaches with individualistic and competitive methods would be valuable in assessing relative merits of these different strategies. Just as they advocate research-based practice for their students, so must nurse educators look to the literature to find ways to maintain quality learning experiences in the face of declining resources and increasing demands on faculty time.

References

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10.3928/0148-4834-19930201-11

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