Doctoral Research (Module #4) Project Idea

So, here is my current thinking about my final empirical research project in my doctoral program at Lancaster (I work on a literature review in the Fall and then begin the draft proposal for my doctoral thesis). I have already gotten some internal feedback on this, and am now interested in getting some thoughts from my most educated and helpful colleagues (yes, you, dear reader!). Once again, I will have a very short timeline of 4 weeks for this, so will formalize this in the next day or two, and begin seeking potential people to interview beginning this Wednesday.

Research Problem
While programs in doctoral higher education (HE) increasingly moving online and are being supported via distance delivery, it seems important that faculty members support these learners and attend to the changing pedagogical landscape of increasing technology with decreasing face-to-face class time. Mindful of the work of Meyer and Land (2008), it seems the more we can understand where threshold concepts exist, the more doctoral faculty can help their distance students through the doctoral research process while these learners develop as new researchers.

The purpose of this research is to better understand the experiences of faculty members who work with doctoral students via distance or technology-enhanced learning who have identified threshold concepts, or trouble spots / breakthrough areas, for their students and who have found success with helping these learners through this troublesome knowledge.

Research Question
What can we learn about how faculty support their doctoral students, studying from a distance, through areas of disciplinary challenge or threshold concepts?

Methodology and Method
I am hoping to identify and interview 3 social science doctoral faculty members who work with students using TEL or Network Learning methods. I will reach out to my TEL / NL / Qualitative Research networks to inquire for interest. l will conduct and record Skype or phone interviews, and will then engage in grounded theory (cf. Kathy Charmaz) to develop a theory to explain this phenomenon. I will not expect my interviewees to know the terminology around “threshold concepts,” so I will have to define them as being “areas of discipinary trouble, places where students have breakthroughs and then understand their work and research in a new way.”

These are the open-ended, semi-structured interview questions I am considering beginning the conversations with:

  1. Tell me about your experiences identifying disciplinary areas that your doctoral students often struggle with as they pursue their studies from a distance.
  2. How have you helped your doctoral students through these areas?
  3. What did you learn about your students, your discipline, or your role as a doctoral tutor / mentor as a result of these experiences?

Any thoughts at this point are very appreciated.

19 thoughts on “Doctoral Research (Module #4) Project Idea

  1. Jeffrey,
    this is interesting and important work. It is, however, a little unclear to me whether the particular struggle for distance students is defined as trouble within the subject matter, or if it has to do with being a distance student. In other words, it is difficult for me, from what you describe, to define what sort of trouble you are talking about.

    If it is more difficult to understand or gain knowledge or insight BECAUSE there is a distance, it might not be correct to call it technology ENHANCED learning? But if this is your underlying assumption, it should be made clearer. And if this is your assumption, I would suggest that you alter your focus from what is difficult to what, in the experience of your informants or research participants, actually enhances learning. It seems as if this is actually what you are after, but that there is this underlying assumption that technology mediated learning is not as good as f2f-learning. If I am wrong, I am sorry. If I am right, you should easily be able to fix it 🙂

    Get in touch if I am making myself unclear or if you have questions. Good luck, with this study, with the review, and then – the thesis!


    1. @Vigdis Stokker Jensen

      Thank you for your thought-provoking questions, as always, Vigdis.

      The proposed focus of my study is on the theoretical framework “threshold concepts,” which is something I need to clarify a bit more. While these are things that I have started to explore from the perspective of the learners themselves, I do not know much about what this looks like, or how it is understood from the perspective of faculty members. I am trying to explore it from their frames a bit. The technology component is there as I am interested in how this fits with those studying from a distance; the particulars of their technologies is really not of the focus here (though who knows what the findings will show, of course!).

      I will try to clarify this a bit more for my submission on Wednesday. Really appreciate your asking these questions.


  2. It sounds like interesting research. It reminds me of Tony Burgess’ dissertation about how people became leaders in Company Command. He was looking at deep transformation and had an interesting way of conducting 3 interviews with each respondent. There’s a copy of the dissertation in CPsquare along with an AERA paper. He also talked about it in one of the R&D Fests. One difference between your questions is that he was looking at a deep change in role and I hear you looking for more of a cognitive change.

    The other angle that occurs to me (this is going to sound like more work, I know) is about self-reporting as a weakness in some research designs. What if you interviewed pairs: faculty AND student? You and the faculty interviewee might be fooled into thinking that they know what the “trouble-spots” are and when the faculty adviser made a difference.

    Of course there could be a lot of questions about technologies used, comfort, practices in using them, pairs of technologies, memory practices, etc. Just that might be vast.

    1. @John David Smith

      John, thank you for your thoughts here. It is interesting that you picked up that I am looking for a cognitive change. I suppose I am looking to understand how this cognitive change feels, and how that gets linked with the change in perspective. Interesting . . . I need to consider this a bit more.

      Thank you also for the references; I will have to dig them out.

      I have always been interested in transformative learning and perspective transformation, though in exploring it from the perspective of threshold concepts, I am wondering about those challenging situations that seem to be commonly faced by those in a discipline, with various shades of meaning-making the end-result.

      Great idea about interviewing the pair. Hmm, that smells more like a doctoral thesis idea than I think I can handle for now! Really good idea, but I want to see if the former exists at all first . . .


  3. Hi Jeffrey,
    This sounds very interesting and I would like to read more when available. I like John’s idea about interviewing the faculty member and the student for I think the students perspective would be a great way of presenting the information for the two may have different areas of concern. Just my .02

    1. @Ila Allen

      Thank you for the feedback, Ila. You are highlighting one of the reasons I so love this sort of research, in that each perspective has its own elements, stories, and complexities to add. I hope I can learn a little about this now to make the larger research that begins next year more possible. Stay tuned . . .


  4. Hi Jeffrey, sorry I haven’t got time to write a detailed response but my main thought was whether you should have students in this study, giving their point of view?

    1. @Sarah Stewart

      Sarah, I appreciate your dropping by, even briefly!

      In a more complete study, perhaps. However, given that this has to be targeted since I only have 4 weeks to complete and submit my research, I have to keep this workable. Of course, the last time I tried to keep this small, I became so interested along the way I began to drown in my data.

      I will consider this for my thesis proposal . . .


  5. This sounds interesting.
    Would you like to elaborate on the “threshold concept”? Do you mean the learning threshold? What sort of pedagogy are you assuming with PhD “mentoring” and guidance? I realise that you start with “1.Tell me about your experiences identifying disciplinary areas that your doctoral students often struggle with as they pursue their studies from a distance.” What are the assumptions underlying the struggles? Though I am not doing a PhD, I think such questions may be more resonating with the doctoral students rather than their tutors in the first place. Would the students easily tell the tutor that they are struggling? My experience with my postgraduate studies was: I just enjoyed my study and realised that my professor was there to support. So, the question could be: How would a PhD tutor assesses his/her students – whether he is enjoying or struggling with the study?
    Wish you best of luck with your PhD study.

    1. @Sui Fai John Mak

      John, you are raising a bunch of related questions, many of which I will have to address in the intro and theoretical framework sections of my paper. Thank you for voicing them.

      Threshold concepts are a framework to describe certain elements that seem common within disciplines that students often struggle with, and which they in turn must understand (to some extent) before they can progress in the field. An example described in the literature (though mentioned in a different “field” than my own) is the concept of hegemony. I could not get it at first, though once I finally grasped it I found that my perspective, both ontological as well as epistemological, shifted. There are some things I started to see as if for the first time. It had an effect on me that I could no longer go back to my status quo, as if nothing happened. I could not unlearn it, and while not everybody experiences things in the same way, this was one of those lessons that has shifted me as a teacher, learner, and practitioner.

      These are the sorts of experiences that many faculty members seem to recognize where people get stuck. That is the phenomena I want to study.

      I do want to investigate your final suggestions once I finish this brief, pilot study. If only I had longer than 4 weeks!!


  6. Hi Jeffrey,

    Looks like a well thought out research proposal to me. I am wondering why thresh hold concepts and distance learning? Do you expect the experience to be different from face to face?

    My best wishes.

    1. @Mridula-

      Thank you for the question. I am focusing on those engaged in these studies from a distance because I want to see how this can be understood in a non-face-to-face manner. It seems this will be a trend in doctoral studies, and I want to understand this experience sooner, rather than later.

      Appreciate the positive vibes!


  7. Hey, the project seems to be really interesting. I would say that having a preliminary pedagogical hypothesis about how distance delivery would impact learning process would help (maybe it’s there and it’s just unclear to me). And of course you should have students’ perspective in the research.

    1. @Luca Rossi-

      Thank you for the comment. I have the framework there, I just did not list it as such.

      I do not always tend to discuss the framework with my participants unless they directly ask about it or unless it comes up.

      Do you suggest being explicit about it with the participants?


  8. Sounds interesting! Good thinking so far. My suggestions–all to be taken or left:

    1) Rather than cite Meyer and Land in the Research Prob you might consider saying in a clear way what they/you mean by “threshold concepts” so the reader understands what we are talking about a bit earlier

    2) Might want to clarify a bit more what the problem is that the research results will “shed light on” It isn’t clear to me. Is it that not enough faculty know how/are able to provide a certain kind of support, hence students “suffer?” (Is it proved that this “suffering” exists?) If faculty does this more/more effectively, what will the positive results be? (might more people finish–like maybe me?–their studies?)
    3) Another interesting question might be how the faculty who do this successfully came to know how to do it.
    4) I’d like to see less tentative language rather than saying that it seems important to know this–tell me why it is important.
    5)What is the TEL or networking learning method?
    6) I’m curious about how you will identify those who do this successfully.

    Good luck! Keep on keeping on!


    1. @Kiki-

      These are quite helpful, Kiki; thank you.

      1. I will expand upon the Purpose with this in it, both in the paper as well as in the consent.
      2. I am not sure what I will find for this . . . thus, the rexploratory esearch.
      3. Ahh, toward that doctoral thesis, depending on the results here.
      4. Helpfully expressed; I did not see I did that initially.
      5. I meant for this to be in programs that are primarily from a distance, and on top of those the sort that come from the TEL or NL literature.
      6. I will let them self-identify, and then we can discuss.

      Once again, great questions to help me clarify my work.


  9. Hi Jeff,
    I’m surprised at the number of responses you have on here.Certainly thuought provoking considering I only came on here to find your tweets.
    I think your framework will form from the results of the questionnaire, because at the moment you arn’t aware of what the trouble areas are that these participants are going to divulge to you, with grounded theory research the implications of such research will provide you with the basis for a theory to work towards. If that makes sense.
    But i do think from the responses on here, that in your introduction you may need to clarify ‘Threshold concepts’ and provide a definition for ‘TEL’


    1. @Ebrahim Desai

      Yes, I have wanted to try grounded theory, and after attending a workshop 2 weeks ago with Kathy Charmaz, I am eager to try. Of course, I am not sure what I will find, so there will be learning all around in this one!!

      Agreed with your final point. I will have some examples of it in my own life as well.

      Thank you for stopping by.


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