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«Enhancing the Acquisition of Research Skills in Online Doctoral Programs: The Ewing Model© Helen Ewing Associate Professor and Director, Doctor of ...»

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MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2012

Enhancing the Acquisition of Research Skills in Online Doctoral

Programs: The Ewing Model©

Helen Ewing

Associate Professor and Director, Doctor of Health Sciences Program

Arizona School of Health Sciences

A.T. Still University

Mesa, AZ 85206 USA


Kathleen Mathieson

Assistant Professor, Doctor of Health Sciences Program

Arizona School of Health Sciences

A.T. Still University Mesa, AZ 85206 USA kmathieson@atsu.edu Jeffrey L. Alexander Associate Professor, Doctor of Health Sciences Program Arizona School of Health Sciences A.T. Still University Mesa, AZ 85206 USA jalexander@atsu.edu Joan Leafman Associate Professor, Doctor of Health Sciences Program Arizona School of Health Sciences A.T. Still University Mesa, AZ 85206 USA jleafman@atsu.edu Abstract Failure to complete a dissertation or other required research project is a major factor contributing to doctoral program attrition. The challenges of planning and carrying out a research project are daunting for many traditional students and may be increased for students in part-time, predominantly online doctoral programs. This paper describes the Ewing Model© developed and implemented in the Doctor of Health Sciences program at A.T. Still University. The Model is characterized by a highly structured, sequential curriculum; intense facilitation and dialogue; collaborative learning within a cohort model; and performance-based assessment of core research competencies. The Ewing Model benefits students and the University by ensuring that students gain important research competencies and by contributing to high program completion and low attrition rates. Challenges of implementing the Model include addressing students' inexperience with research and scholarly writing, adhering to research ethics, assisting students with defining a manageable project, and navigating a three-person internal/external committee. Preliminary results of the Model have been positive, with a current graduation rate of 73% and positive student feedback regarding the structure and design of the Model.

Keywords: doctoral dissertation, research training, distance education, online learning, degree completion rates MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2012 Introduction Low graduation rates are a major challenge facing academic doctoral programs. Between 25% to 80% of students beginning a doctoral course of study do not complete the degree (Baird, 1990; Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Council of Graduate Schools [CGS], 2008; Golde, 2000; Kittell-Limerick, 2005; Lovitts, 2001; Wensvoort, 2011; Yeager, 2008). The Council of Graduate Schools collected data on 19,000 doctoral degree students from 1992 to 1998 from 29 universities in the United States and Canada (CGS, 2008). The results of this large study showed that, though there were some variations in completion rates by area of study, on average only 46% and 57% of students completed their doctorate in seven and 10 years, respectively. Completion rates can also be influenced by intensity of study; in a cohort of over 19,000 students entering doctoral study in England, 71% of full-time students earned a Ph.D. after seven years, compared to only 34% of part-time students (Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2005). This trend represents a long-standing issue. As early as the 1960s, doctoral degree attrition rates have been estimated at 50% although recordkeeping and quantitative data supporting this claim are limited (Yeager, 2008).

Low doctoral graduation rates reflect poorly on universities and can impact reputation, accreditation, financial aid programs, external funding, research, grant and publication opportunities, and institutional resource allocation (Kerlin, 1995; Lovitts, 2001). The student can also experience extensive fiscal and personal loss because of lack of degree completion, for example, expenditures for tuition and textbooks, student loan debt, a potential negative impact on career advancement, reduced professional status, and psychological outcomes, such as feeling a sense of failure (Lovitts, 2001; Sternberg, 1981). Finally, society is deprived of doctoral-prepared professionals who could contribute at advanced levels of leadership in healthcare, academic, and research settings (Ad Hoc Panel on Graduate Attrition Advisory Committee, Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel, National Research Council, 1996).

One of the primary factors contributing to low doctoral completion rates is the students' failure to complete the dissertation (Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Sternberg, 1981). In fact, the commonality of this occurrence has led to the phrase "all but dissertation" (ABD). Situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers contribute to the ABD phenomenon (Cross, 1981; Yeager, 2008). Situational barriers include time constraints; many doctoral students have competing responsibilities in their career and personal lives.

Financial limitations and scarce opportunities for sponsorship and scholarship are added burdens.

Institutional barriers include lack of structured support, lack of mentorship, and poorly qualified faculty guiding students through the dissertation or research project phase of the degree. Lastly, dispositional barriers include lack of student self-discipline to pursue the research phase of the degree in an unstructured environment with limited supervision.

In addition to situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers, the challenging content in research methodology and statistics courses and the students' resulting apprehension can further complicate the doctoral research process (van Eeden-Moorefield & Walsh, 2010). For example, Coleman and Conrad (2007) found that graduate students were less satisfied with courses containing research methodology content compared to courses without such content, even when both courses were taught by the same instructor.

Acquiring research skills and completing required doctoral research projects in an online environment can be especially challenging for students. This difficulty may explain why online doctoral-level research methodology courses remain limited (Lim, Dannels, & Watkins, 2008). Some experts note that online teaching strategies may not facilitate the doctoral research experience because they are not conducive to a community of researchers (Wikeley & Muschamp, 2004). Other researchers have discussed the challenge of maintaining high-quality research preparation in online doctoral programs (Butcher & Sieminski, 2006; Winston & Fields, 2003). As Lim et al. note, "Many scholars have been skeptical about the possibility of developing research skills among doctoral students in a virtual space" due to the absence of a traditional, face-to-face, mentor-mentee relationship (2008, p. 234). Furthermore, recent research has shown that student anxiety from research-related coursework is more pronounced in an online learning environment (DeVaney, 2010). Due to increasing online enrollment (Allen & Seaman, 2010), online doctoral programs will need to effectively foster research skills among students and successfully mentor students through required research projects, from formulation of the research question to dissemination of outcomes.

While online educational programs cannot control challenges, such as dispositional barriers, they can control the structure and delivery of the research curriculum. The general principles of good pedagogy are MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2012 key factors to consider when planning the structure and delivery of research coursework. These principles include engaging students in constructivist learning, offering learning activities that foster synthesis and critical analysis, promoting levels of interactivity among learners and instructors, employing consistent feedback, and ensuring meaningful engagement with the material (Brennan, 2003a, 2003b;

Dixon & Dixon, 2010). Additional principles for facilitating the research process in online doctoral programs include using high levels of structure, incorporating assessment into the process of research progression, fostering the development of a community of researchers, adopting skilled facilitation, and increasing dialogue to reduce transactional distance (Butcher & Sieminski, 2006; Giddings, Campbell, & Maclaren, 2006; Lim et al., 2008; Wikeley & Muschamp, 2004). The purpose of this paper is to describe the Ewing Model©, an innovative framework that incorporates the above principles to facilitate the completion of doctoral research projects and to enhance the likelihood of doctoral degree completion.

The Ewing Model was designed to aid student learning and to build confidence and skills through the application of research principles in a doctoral program in the health sciences. The Model was structured with a series of five courses that teach the fundamentals of research in a sequential order while students apply the theory concurrently to student-directed research projects. This unique framework has contributed to low attrition rates through its highly facilitated learning environment, finite and stringent timelines for completion of all components of the research process, and integration of research course work with theory application in research projects.

The Doctor of Health Sciences Program at A.T. Still University Recognizing that advanced degree options are limited for healthcare professionals who manage a host of life and employment responsibilities, A.T. Still University's Arizona School of Health Sciences created a doctoral program that was academically rigorous and professionally accommodating. To this end, the Doctor of Health Sciences (DHSc) is a blended, 95% online degree program for healthcare professionals.

A professional doctorate has an "explicitly professional orientation; generally requiring part-time independent study supported by blocks of taught components" (Butcher & Sieminski, 2006, p. 59). Often these degrees are offered as distance education programs. While increasingly popular in nature, advanced professional degrees in the health sciences remain rare. The DHSc program at A.T. Still University seeks to fill this void.

A vital component of A.T. Still University's DHSc program is the completion of an applied research project (ARP), resulting in a manuscript acceptable for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. The ARP is a rigorous project that fulfills 25 credits (36%) of the program's 70-credit curriculum. It requires students to incorporate theory into practice to enhance learning and skill development in applied research. The ARP is intended to positively impact students' professional careers by providing evidence of peer-reviewed work and by enhancing knowledge and critical thinking of research methodology. Successful completion of the ARP, a requirement for graduation from the DHSc program, necessitated the design of a model that would facilitate project completion, thereby keeping program attrition rates low. The Ewing Model was developed specifically for this purpose, and entails both a process and a product. The process of the Model is characterized by four interrelated elements, as described in Figure 1. The product resulting from implementation of the Model is a successfully completed student research project.

Components of the Ewing Model Highly Structured, Sequential Curriculum A well-noted factor contributing to the ABD phenomenon in residential doctoral programs is the lack of a highly structured curriculum. Students are often left to navigate their research projects independently and must seek guidance from their advisors on an as-needed basis. As Butcher and Sieminski (2006) note, a "highly systemised structure is often missing from the isolation of traditional full-time or part-time PhD study" (p. 61). The resulting isolation can be a source of significant stress, contributing to feelings of powerlessness and despair (Bowen & Rudenstine, 1992; Sternberg, 1981). Therefore, the doctoral process is often viewed by students as a form of "hazing" in which there are no clear rules, and where completion is based on endurance and the ability to effectively jump through "hoops" (Kerlin, 1995, pp. 3

–  –  –

Figure 1. The Ewing Model for facilitating student research projects To address this lack of structure, the Ewing Model uses a highly structured, sequential curriculum that guides students through a stepwise series of research courses as they complete the ARP (Figure 2).

The ARP prerequisite course, Research Methods, Design, and Analysis, is designed to help students understand and apply the fundamentals of research methodology and to learn to critique the literature. In the first ARP core course, Literature Review, students identify an issue or problem relevant to their professional practice or workplace and conduct a thorough review of the applicable literature. The second ARP core course, Proposal Development, focuses on the development of a detailed research proposal and submission of a complete institutional review board application. Data Collection, the third ARP core course, focuses on data collection while Data Analysis, the fourth ARP core course, requires examination and interpretation of study data. Lastly, Dissemination, the final ARP core course, involves manuscript preparation and submission to a peer-reviewed journal. The primary goals of the ARP are to assist the student in learning the skills required to critically review research literature, to understand research theory, to apply the principles of research methodology, and to participate in the development and implementation of evidence-based outcomes in their area of practice.

Figure 2. The Ewing Model's highly structured, sequential curriculum MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol.

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