Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Without 1, Where Would We Begin? Small Sample Research in Educational Settings

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Without 1, Where Would We Begin? Small Sample Research in Educational Settings

Article excerpt


I study preservice teachers and the ways they attempt to make sense of method course instruction (theory) and real classroom applications (practice). Given the complexity of completing this task my chosen sample size has always been quite small. Coming out of graduate school, I actually thought that what I learned about qualitative research made sense. I still do. However, after five years in academe it appears to me that some researchers still hold onto quantitative ideologies when critiquing qualitative research manuscripts. I have had two manuscripts turned down for publication not because my findings were in question, but because I used an N of one. The reviewers' comments all pointed out that because I used an N of one my findings were suspect. In other words, (quantitatively speaking) they were not valid, reliable, and generalizable.

What exactly is a valid and reliable study? Is it one that is capable of producing generalizations applicable to certain populations based on sampling methods? What would this study look like? How are the key terms--validity and reliability--addressed? And what are the limits of the generalizations produced? Or, are these questions more appropriately applied to the uniqueness of different methodologies that are relative to the study itself?

In the following essay I address the previous questions and provide literary evidence for the non-universality of the terms validity, reliability, and generalizability. Instead of concrete rules applied in a rigorous and rote method; better, would be a choice of theoretical implications that dictate how these three terms should be applied relative to the unique research question at hand.

The issues surrounding research methodology are complex and diverse. The term research itself denotes an applied procedure capable of producing knowledge: White coats; lab equipment, and disheveled scientists deeply involved in manipulating variables, recording and observing outcomes. For the researcher in educational environments, the previous illustration may seem slightly out of context. But is it? The seen itself may be, but the theoretical methodology being applied is quite appropriate. As Borg and Gall state, "educational research has been built largely on the research traditions and methods that were initially developed in the physical and biological sciences" (1989, 379). And it is these methods that still influence arguments concerning the appropriate research methodology for use in educational settings. In Maxwell's critique of experimental methods in causation studies, he reports that these methods are still considered the "gold standard" (2004, 3). Borg critiques the use of this research paradigm in social science because, "human beings, the usual subjects in educational research, are much more complex organisms than the subjects studied in other sciences. . ." (1987, 154). Because of this inconsistency, the possibility of using different research approaches to understand the complexity of issues encountered in social science was called for and answered in the form of a more interpretive approach to research--qualitative methodology (Krathwohl, 1993). "Researchers need all the help they can get, and qualitative methods have an important and useful place among the research methods" (Krathwohl 1993, 314).

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research has a multitude of inquisitive methods with understanding as the keystone of construction. As Peshkin put it,

   To qualitative researchers, what is to be learned does not
   invariably necessitate a particular study design involving theory,
   hypotheses, or generalization, though it may. It necessitates a
   judgment that leads them to decide what research designs they should
   frame to produce one or more of many imagined and yet unimagined
   outcomes ... (1993, 23).

This idea emphasizes that there is much we do not know, and without the ability to "imagine" other possibilities, educational researchers are condemned to a life of walking through tunnels rather than exploring caves. …

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