The Study Dude – How Nerds Built Theory, Part III

Study Tips from a Semi-Anonymous Friend

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to win a Nobel for proving that the theory of everything is missing something.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s Study Dude looks at the confirm, apply, and refine phases of the theory building model as discussed in Theory Building in Applied Disciplines by Richard A. Swanson and Thomas J. Chermack. These guys truly take the “pompous” out of academic writing and hit Babe Ruth-style homeruns in driving their message home.

Confirm Step
The thrill of graduate studies involves dreaming up methods and methodologies for testing your ideas. I liken the execution of methods to a visual of Einstein, hair askew, in the kitchen with a chemistry set, trying his hand at baking a turkey.

Only, you aren’t baking a turkey. Instead, you are coming up with a way to make a recipe to test your big ideas: to test your theory. This recipe can use numbers, words, or a combination of both: these are called quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods, respectively.

If you have a love for words and a fear of math, you might come up with some ideas about a question that can be solved through communication. In other words, you can interview an individual or a group of people to gauge their opinions. Software such as NVivo is perfect for coding interview and focus groups findings.

If you have a love for math, you might come up with some ideas about a question that can be solved through numbers. In other words, you might design a survey that asks people to rate how likely they are to read study tips: (1) highly likely, (2) somewhat likely, (3) neither likely or unlikely, (4) somewhat unlikely, or (5) highly unlikely. You gather up their answers and give them numerical values, such as a scale from one to five. This way, you can take lots of data and take a look at trends: surely, 100% of people are highly likely to read study tips. Software such as SPSS or STATA are excellent for coding survey and statistical data.

Swanson and Chermack (2013) give you a more complete picture of what it takes to confirm your theory:
– You confirm or disprove your theory by using tests. In order to tell whether your theory works or sucks, you need to test it out with lots of tests?not just one.
– Go peer at books on research methodologies. They’ll have all kinds of tests that you can check out and implement. You can run tests that include focus groups to interviews to surveys to you name it.
– This confirm phase must involve trying the theory in practice. So, if you have a theory about nursing patient care, have nurses take the steps you laid out and apply them in practice.
– The confirm phase involves (1) planning (your test), (2) designing (your test), (3) implementing (your test), and (4) evaluating (your test).
– Sometimes the methods you choose to test your theory have conflicting philosophies. don’t just pick your pet methodologies. Pick ones that make sense if you have to choose between, say, competing philosophies. What exactly do I mean by competing philosophies? I’m not quite sure yet, but we’ll trust Swanson and Chermack for now.
– If you use experiments, make sure you have a control group and a treatment group, kind of like a placebo versus an active ingredient in the world of medicines. Experiments tend to deal with people and animals.
– If you are doing observations instead, try to find patterns of behaviour. Consistent patterns shape the big ideas that make up your theory.
– You can use methods such as surveys, observations, statistical analysis, interviews, and studies of documents or objects (such as artefacts). If you stare down, say, objects of World War II that are featured in museums, you might come up with several themes: artillery, uniforms, and flags. But, if you are going to make your study a theory, you want to cover every possible key theme. You don’t want to let an important theme slip. If cryptography machinery (machinery used for passing secret codes) makes up a big part of the objects of Word War II Germany, you must somehow ensure you include this theme in your theory.
– Your methods must answer your research question.
– If you have a theory that says, in part, that a greater diversity in uniforms means there is also a greater diversity in artillery, you have to have at least two pieces of support to position your claim as true.
– Connect your findings to the larger theory.

Apply Step
Have you ever read a book and thought, “Those authors just solved my life’s problems,” and then found yourself clueless when trying to actually apply the ideas?

Yes, I cringe at the idea of reading an instructional book that forgets the instructions. For instance, before bed, I read two pages of a cookbook, and I come across things like use 1 cup light oil. What’s light oil? Coconut? Vegetable? Or I come across something like 1 bunch cilantro. How big is a bunch? These are cookbooks written with ambiguities for expert cooks. What I need is a cookbook for dummies that is written by someone precise.

While some books, like cookbooks, are practical, others offer what seems like good advice, but without usefulness. For instance, Swanson and Chermack take a best-selling book, namely Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and tear it to pieces, criticizing it for having “no new guide, no new skill, and no aid for applying this information” (p. 114). You read a hundreds of pages of a book hoping to make use of the ideas, but no steps for applying the ideas can be found. Nothing. Just a bunch of abstract ideas puffed up momentarily that disappear when you try to make good use of them?kind of like what you are about to read.

Swanson and Chermack show you how to take your theory and make some useful instructions out of it:
– Theory must tell you how to do something: like steps in a cookbook.
– Put your theory to action by applying it.
– To apply a theory, you first need steps or directions or actions to take. Without these procedures, your theory lacks applicability.
– These steps or directions or actions can come in the shape and form of a workshop or policies or codes of conduct or you name it.

Refine Step
What if you go about building your grand theory, and then suddenly realize that your big idea is dead wrong? Do you scoop that?ahem?minor triviality under the table, grin, and collect your Nobel prize? Or do you start rethinking your ideas so that the problem is corrected? In other words, do you fess up and hit the books? Or is your carpet getting a little bulgy?

Other people might want to duplicate your study, but use different philosophical orientations. For instance, you might want to make a theory on resilience that heavily number-crunches and looks at surveys and experiments?a positivist approach. For this quantitative theory on resilience, you might come up with, say, six big ideas that cover the scope of what leads to resilience. Yet, someone else might want to a critical study by looking at resilience in marginalized populations. This critical study researcher might find something that doesn’t jive with your six big ideas. Then what? Then, embrace the suck, and brew another pot of Starbucks.

Swanson and Chermack have advice to get you started on refining your theory:
– The refine phase helps you figure out whether you need to ditch your theory or go back and tweak it.
– To consider that your theory might be faulty, you need an open mind.
– Other theorists may try testing your theory using different methods. They might find something wrong with your theory. Embrace the suck.
– The apply phase (above) will help let you know whether your theory works or not.
– If your big ideas are missing something or have a relationship you specified that doesn’t hold, then go back to the drawing board at the conceptual phase. There it is: you made an error. So fix it, dear Henry. Be like the Study Dude and learn where you went wrong.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

References
Swanson, Richard A. & Chermack, Thomas J. Theory Building In Applied Disciplines. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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