Mark Chimel, Shippensburg University
Heather Hurst, Frostburg State University
Academic advisors frequently receive and analyze the important statistics of retention and graduation rates, but do not always have the time, space, or familiarity with a pathway for investigating their own practice to understand how they, in their advising practice, contribute to the story of how and why those numbers have come to be. Practitioner inquiry can produce deep knowledge of on-the-ground daily work as advisors that can help better serve students.
Although practitioner inquiry is commonly used in classroom settings, it is not simply teacher research. In fact, anyone with a practice—doctors, researchers, academic advisors—can use it to systematically answer their wonderings about that practice. For instance, advisors might conduct a large-scale quantitative study investigating advisors’ response rates to students’ emails and the relationship between responsiveness and student success, but more nuanced data collection within a practitioner inquiry design might help us better understand institutional constraints that lead to slower response rates from advisors. Practitioner inquiry can be regarded as research in that it both draws on extant literature and produces and contributes new knowledge to the field (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009).
Conducting practitioner research in professional academic advising has been advocated for in previous NACADA publications (Aiken-Wisniewski, Smith, & Troxel, 2010; Shaffer, Zalewski, & Leveille, 2010). Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) themselves have argued that practitioner research should extend across educational contexts. In a time period in which evidence-based practices are emphasized, practitioner research allows educators to be more than just recipients of other people’s knowledge but instead to be “shapers of meaning and interpreters of experience” (Featherstone, 2001, p. xii). Advisors will find that practitioner research methods may not only be more accessible than they might think but also more applicable in academic advising.
Although practitioner inquiry can adopt different designs, its roots are qualitative. Some common themes include the practitioner as researcher, using one’s professional context as inquiry site, community and collaboration, and the practitioner’s valuable and significant insider knowledge (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). All characteristics are present in advising, and advisors should place value on their own knowledge of their practice and their students. Further, Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) advocate for critical reflection and action, publicity, public knowledge, and critique. Public knowledge and publicity are notably the most difficult aspects for academic advisors to engage in due to the time requirements needed for writing and obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Still, public dissemination is an important and worthy endeavor and the only way for practitioner research to benefit the advising profession.
Practitioner inquiry studies in educational contexts, at both the K-12 and post-secondary levels, have been shared publicly in various forms from dissertations to articles in journals. If publication is the ultimate goal, advisors should work with their institution’s IRB so that all necessary steps are taken to ensure student confidentiality and safety before starting their research. This process will vary by institution and depending on what information is being used as a data source. If obtaining IRB approval in a first attempt at practitioner inquiry research methods seems too daunting or confusing, advisors can seek out help from those that have worked with their institution’s IRB in the past. They might also consider using practitioner inquiry simply to advise their own practice rather than for dissemination, which would not need IRB review.
An important early step in the process, and a key consideration while completing the IRB process, is deciding what data sources will be used. Previous studies in education present several examples that could be utilized by advisors. Some form of reflection is common in practitioner research, although the different methods for reflection are varied. Reflective texts (Dinkins, 2005; Parr, 2007), teacher research journals (Harper, 2009; Maimon, 2009), and student reflections (DiLucchio & Leaman, 2012; McPhail, 2009; Rutherford, 2009) have all been used. Dinkins (2005) even collected notes from casual conversations as sources for reflection. Artifacts including email (Maxwell, 2015), syllabi (Dowd & Bensimon, 2014), and student work (DiLucchio & Leaman, 2012; McPhail, 2009; Rutherford, 2009) were all relevant sources of inquiry in the literature. Researchers have also used student interviews (DiLucchio & Leaman, 2012; Dinkins, 2005; McPhail, 2009), as well as other forms of eliciting student feedback such as surveys (DiLucchio & Leaman, 2012; Dowd & Bensimon, 2014), questionnaires (DiLucchio & Leaman, 2012), and student response journals (Harper, 2009). When selecting data sources, advisors may use what is most readily available to them when first engaging in inquiry, or qualitative research in general, and then begin to seek out or create other data sources as they gain greater experience.
Mixed methods design or bricolage of different designs can also be employed in practitioner research. Examples of opportunities for bricolage with practitioner inquiry and other designs could be discourse analysis (Dowd & Bensimon, 2014; Maxwell, 2015; Parr, 2007), case study (Rutherford, 2009), or narratives. In an interesting use of discourse analysis and practitioner research at the university level, Dowd and Bensimon (2014) presented methods for analyzing the discourse in course syllabi in equity-minded terms. Quantitative data has also been used in practitioner inquiry studies; for example, Dowd and Bensimon (2014) used the Equity Scorecard. Again, quantitative data may be more readily available to advisors, making their use in practitioner research logical and useful. The marriage of practitioner research with other methods, both quantitative and qualitative, can further create meaning from the objects of inquiry, and the findings when practitioner inquiry is combined with other designs may be more widely accepted in the established research community.
With a rich variety of what can be considered data in practitioner research, advisors might worry whether the data gathered will be sufficient for answering a research question (DiLucchio & Leaman, 2012). However, it is clear that through creative frameworks and levels of analysis, practitioner researchers have been able to create meaning and knowledge from many different sources of data and in many different settings.
Analyzing and making sense of the data is the next step to creating knowledge and bringing professional reflection to the level of research. Advisors engaging in practitioner inquiry should ensure that they have created some time and space from the data before analysis can occur. For instance, an advisor would not begin analyzing an e-mail they sent that day. Semester breaks may provide a good time for this reflection and analysis.
Common qualitative methods can be used during data analysis to find themes. The process of pulling themes from the data will involve at least one level of coding, and many potential coding methods are available to researchers (Saldaña, 2009). The themes can then be organized in several different ways with many studies choosing to focus on both common themes and outliers (Maxwell, 2015; Rutherford, 2009). Another organization method would be to display themes chronologically to observe how both an advisor’s practice and advisees have changed over time (McPhail, 2009; Rutherford, 2009). Analysis can also be conducted by comparing different data sets to create meaning and knowledge through each other.
After the steps of coding, analyzing, and theming data, the ultimate presentation and discussion of findings can take on several forms. If publication is not the goal, then the advisor would be able to look at the themes at this stage and simply reflect on what story these themes tell about themselves and their advisees. By this stage, the advisor has created knowledge inherent to their practice that can be utilized in the future knowledge inherent to the advisor’s practice was created and can be utilized. The information learned can even be shared with other advisors at their institution.
If publication or further dissemination is the goal, there are also multiple ways to present and write about findings. Case studies (Rutherford, 2009), longitudinal analyses (Maxwell, 2015), and the examination of student outcomes at multiple key stages (Dowd & Bensimon, 2014) have all been employed effectively in previous literature. The coding methods and organization of data can help determine how the author will write the story of what they have learned.
A final important step of practitioner research is understanding how findings will impact future practice. This step is vital whether the study is ultimately published or not and represents a foundational element of the value of practitioner research. For instance, in her study of her email communications, Maxwell (2015) ends her writing by focusing on how she can move forward in her communications and use email transformatively. By making sense of inquiry in this way, the practitioner creates knowledge not only for their practice but also for other practitioners in the field. The implications for practice that can be gained will serve as an important section of any published literature on the study and as new points for inquiry and reflection in the cycle.
In choosing to conduct a study into their practice, advisors should consider the biggest problems of practice they are facing. Although contributing to public knowledge is important to benefit the field of advising, engaging in practitioner research even for an advisor’s own personal reflection and knowledge is still a worthwhile pursuit that can improve practice.
Program and Project Coordinator
Professional, Continuing, and Distance Education office
Assistant Professor of Education
Department of Educational Professions
Frostburg State University
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Cite this article using APA style as: Chimel, M., & Hurst, H. (2020, March). Developing an inquiry stance in advising: How practitioners research can elicit knowledge for advisors. Academic Advising Today, 43(1). [insert url here]