Navigating the Problem Space of Academic Work


Despite an increasing focus on the quality of teaching in postsecondary institutions, little research exists that examines how faculty actually plan their courses in real-world settings. In this study the idea of the “problem space” from cognitive science is used to examine how faculty construct mental representations for the task of planning undergraduate courses. Using data from free lists and retrospective interviews, I report the factors that most shape the planning space and subsequent strategies and curricular artifacts used by a group of 58 faculty. Results indicate the primacy of fixed affordances, such as workload constraints, course content, and class size, and that these constraints contribute to the routine maintenance of preexisting lecture notes and PowerPoint slides. I recommend that educational leaders consider these cultural practices when designing instructional reforms and enact policies that require faculty to engage in brief, postclass reflection that results in minor updates to these artifacts.

The cases analyzed in this study are of the course-planningpractices of 58 faculty in math, biology, chemistry, geology,and physics departments at three large, public research universities.The three study institutions were selected on thebasis of the interests of the larger study from which this analysisis drawn—that of educational practice in undergraduatescience and math departments. The three institutions sharedsimilar undergraduate populations (approximately 25,000),numbers of science and math departments, and numbers ofpedagogical reforms underway. The sampling frame for thisstudy included 170 individuals listed in the spring 2012 timetableas the instructor of record for undergraduate courses inthe departments being studied. Individuals were contacted upto two times via e-mail for participation in the study, and 58faculty ultimately self-selected into the study.

The data collected for this study include semistructuredinterviews and classroom observations, both of which arewell suited to answer the four research questions motivatingthe study. Interview data were analyzed for the entire studysample of 58 faculty, whereas observation data were usedonly for the two participants in the in-depth analysis. Alldata were collected by three analysts who underwent extensivetraining in the research protocols.Semistructured interviews. The interview protocolsincluded a free-list exercise and a series of questions aboutinstructional decision making. First, the free-list exerciseinvolved asking respondents to report the first thing, usingsingle words or short phrases, that came to mind when theythought of the contextual factors that most influenced theirown course planning. The free-list technique is commonlyused in cognitive anthropology research, especially toidentify “emic,” or insider, cultural domains in ethnographicfieldwork (Bernard, 2011; Quinlan, 2005). Themethod assumes that when people report terms, they do soin order of familiarity and cognitive salience (Romney &D’Andrade, 1964). Second, respondents were asked questions about howthey planned for a specific class using a variation of thecritical decision-making technique (Crandall et al., 2006;Klein, 2008), which is a retrospective think-aloud techniquethat elicits details about how decisions were made in specificsituations. Respondents were asked to report the stepsthey went through while planning for a class taught thatweek. Follow-up probes included questions about anycontextual factor that influenced the decision, curricularartifacts that resulted from the planning process, and if andhow these artifacts would be used in their teaching (see alsoFeldon, 2010). Interviews lasted 30 to 45 minutes and wererecorded and transcribed.Classroom observations. The Teaching Dimensions ObservationProtocol (TDOP) is a classroom observation instrumentdeveloped to produce fine-grained descriptions ofinstructional practice (see Hora & Ferrare, 2013). The versionof the TDOP used in this study captured five differentdimensions of teaching practice: teaching methods, pedagogicalstrategies, student-teacher interactions, cognitiveengagement, and use of instructional technology. Withineach dimension there exist several detailed codes thatobservers capture at 2-minute intervals in real time. Prior togathering data in the field, the three researchers establisheda common understanding of each code through rigoroustraining that included in-depth discussions about the meaningof each code category and individual codes, practicecoding of videoed class segments, and finally, the testing ofinterrater reliability.

Metadata Access
Creator Hora, Matthew
Publisher ICPSR - Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research
Contributor National Science Foundation
Publication Year 2019
Rights Download
OpenAccess true
Contact ICPSR - Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research
Resource Type Dataset; other, text
Discipline Design