Publishing with Students – Research Questions and Journal Targets

This is the fourth post from a series I wrote in 2012 about writing and publishing with undergraduate students. I’ll be publishing this series every other Thursday over the summer. For more recent research and resources, visit the new International Journal for Students as Partners and a special issue of Teaching and Learning Inquiry that I co-edited on students as co-inquirers.

One last post before we start talking about how exactly to write with our undergraduate co-authors…because before we can write we need to know what to write about and who to write it for. In this post, we’ll explore how to work with your student co-authors to develop research questions you all care about that will guide your data collection and writing as well as think about possible journals to target for publication.

Developing Good Research Questions
Research questions can make or break a research project – too broad and we collect far to much data to analyze successfully; too narrow and we have too little data to say anything meaningful. SoTL research questions have the added challenge of being about our own students and, therefore, being very personal. Last year I wrote two articles for a pedagogical journal in my field about SoTL and conducting SoTL research because I think this type of work is a natural fit for business and professional communication. While researching those articles, knowing that my goal was to encourage others to begin a SoTL research project, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to develop good research questions and a good empirical study. In synthesizing articles about how to “do” SoTL, I found that good SoTL research questions have a few similar characteristics. Good RQs are

  • empirical – the questions lend themselves to research that can be planned, conducted, and assessed. SoTL isn’t ad hoc.
  • descriptive – According to Pat Hutchings the most basic SoTL questions are “what works?” and “what is?” So good questions help us identify successful teaching and learning as well ad describe teaching and learning in different contexts.
  • of broad interest – While SoTL researchers conduct research in their own disciplinary classroom, good researchers address questions that can be of interest to others in different disciplines. So good questions might help us learn something that can be applied beyond just our own classes.

As I’ve written earlier, I’ve published one article with student co-authors and am in the process of completing another right now. I approached the research questions differently with these projects. With the first article, I already knew what it was I wanted to know about student learning in the publishing class – I was interested in how the use of Scrum project management strategies affected student learning and activities during the full semester service-learning book project.

When I invited the students to join me, I told them that this was my interest for the article. Before our first meeting, I encouraged the students to freewrite about their experiences in the course, especially about Scrum, and then when we met we used those ideas to begin our discussion and refine some ideas for how to frame our research questions. We found common threads of interest about how students feel about collaboration in the classroom, how students build identities as collaborators and as professionals, and how experiences like our publishing class can impact those things. Ultimately we presented the following research question to the readers of our article: “How might instructors design experiences that not only help students learn about the process of effective collaboration but also help them build identities as engaged collaborators despite the individualistic, competitive environment inherit in a grade-based academic system?”

The second time around, I was less interested in the specific instrument of collaboration, but still interested in how the service-learning experience in the grant writing class might have helped students learn. I knew something special happened in that class, and I wanted to figure out what it might have been (plus I knew I was going to use the data I collected about the Agile strategies used in that class in a different article, so I didn’t want to double-dip inappropriately. When I invited the three students to join the project, I was clear that I was unclear about what our research questions were – we spent the first 3 weeks of our time freewriting and brainstorming about the class to see what might have been different about the experience than other classes. Again, we used those ideas to guide our conversations and ultimately lead us to explore issues of motivation and collaboration in the grant writing class. So our overarching research question became “what intrinsic and extrinsic motivations were at play during the grant writing experience and how did those motivations affect students’ performance and dedication to the project?’

From both of these questions, I then worked with my student collaborators to develop a survey and focus group questions that could be used to collect more data from their peers in the courses. In the grant writing project, I also had IRB approval to use student reflections as data as well (that’s a whole ethical can of worms we can discuss next time). Once we had questions, we developed our data collection instruments, earned IRB approval, and collected data for the project as any other set of researchers would. But before we talk about writing up that data, we need to think about one more thing…

Choosing a Target Journal
As with any article, having a target journal in mind allows the authors to work with a stronger sense of purpose and audience at a high level and, at a lower level, to structure the piece according to the specific guidelines and style sheet of that journal. Part of the faculty member’s role in this co-authoring process is to share expertise about publication venues with the student co-authors so the team can make a collective decision about which journal to target. So what journals might be open to SoTL publications co-authored with students? Look into journals from three categories to get started.

Disciplinary Journals – If your field is like mine, a range of journals exist to build knowledge in different facets of the discipline. You know which journals might be more receptive to this work than others that are perhaps less pedagogically inclined. For example, in my field of professional communication and rhetoric, I can name 6-8 journals that would be standard publication venues for my scholarship. Because my field is very pedagogically grounded, more than half of those journals might be interested in a SoTL study co-authored with undergraduates.

Not sure if you should pursue a disciplinary journal? Just email the editor a brief query. I emailed the editor of a pedagogical disciplinary journal when I started thinking about an article about the grant writing course, explained to her the general idea, and asked if she might be interested is seeing an article like this submitted. She was enthusiastic about the piece, so after comparing this journal and a service-learning journal, my co-authors and I decided to target it based on the editor’s enthusiasm.

SoTL Journals – Scholarship of Teaching and Learning journals are a natural place to start when considering a publication venue with your student co-authors. SoTL journals value the pedagogical scholarship you are most likely doing with your student co-authors and already accept that publications co-authored with students are meaningful scholarly endeavors. You don’t have to make an argument to a journal editor explaining why the research is connected to the journal mission or why undergraduate co-authors are competent researchers. As long as the research is empirical and ethical, scholarly, and relevant to those interested in SoTL (not just your discipline), a SoTL journal will likely consider the piece for publication. Here are some journals to explore:
Teaching and Learning Inquiry
International Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (IJ-SoTL)
Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (JoSoTL)
College Teaching
Journal on Excellence for College Teaching
Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal
Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Ed

Service-Learning Journals – This category is obviously more limited the others, but service-learning experiences build interesting bridges between SoTL and disciplinary work. If you do service-learning and think your disciplinary journal might not be interested (or think that a larger pedagogical community can learn from your work), consider one of these journals:
Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning
The International Journal of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement

Partnerships: A Journal of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement
Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education

Bonus Journal!Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentoring (PURM) is an online journal that, rather than publishing the primary results of undergraduate research, instead publishes articles about the process of undergraduate research and researching with undergraduates. If you developed a new strategy for working with undergraduates or worked with students to overcome a research issue, and you are interested in sharing that experience, PURM is the place for you and your student co-authors to submit a second process-based article so that others can learn from your experience.

Wrapping It Up
Once you have developed your research questions and resultant data collection methods as well as chosen a target journal, the research truly begins with your undergraduate co-authors serving as true collaborators. In the next post, we’ll talk about considerations for collecting, sharing, and analyzing data with students. I’ve recently dealt with some interesting ethical challenges while doing this work and look forward to your input on these issues. Thanks for reading!

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