Dr. Lane Fischer, Department of Counseling Psychology & Special Education
Introduction and Overview
In winter semseter, 2009, I received a Mentoring Environment Grant (MEG) to study the effectiveness of a secondary school eating disorder prevention curriculum. Four students, Jill Smedley, Rachel McCarty (Doyle) Jenna Johnson (Murray) and Janine Stickney worked as a team to execute the overall project which resulted in four masters theses, two integrated presentations at a national conference, one integrated local presentation, and one integrated research award of $1,000 from a national professional organization. An integrated publication in a peer reviewed journal will be the last product to emerge from the MEG. Overall, the MEG was a smashing success, one of my most satisfying research mentoring experiences, and certainly a highlight of the students’ graduate school experience. Youwillbeinterestedtointerviewthem and hear their evaluation.
History/Timbre of the Team
In the fall semester of 2008, I was teaching our thesis support course for first-year Ed.S. students in School Psychology. I encouraged them to move expeditiously toward confirming and executing their Ed.S. theses so that they would be unencumbered during their third-year full time internship. I had an idea for a project and invited interested students to work as a team to complete their theses as part of the overall project. Four students signed on and we began to work rapidly with the goal to collect all data by the end of their first year.
The great value of the team approach to thesis completion is that students can support each other through every phase ofthe process. They each have different strengths and weaknesses. Working together on a larger project took advantage ofthe strengths on the team. As examples, one student on the team is very attentive to details. She became the monitor of picayune details in the myriad processes. Another student is very persuasive and socially fluent. She became the spokesperson and troubleshooter with the school district. Another student is very driven and task-oriented. She became the goal-setter and deadline/progress monitor. Another student is very attentive to interpersonal issues. She became the cheerleader and plumper-upper whenever any of the team became discouraged. They each had a wide variety of strengths which came into play to support the entire endeavor. They met with me weekly in a formal team meeting and more frequently as occasion demanded.
I gave the team a nickname, The Fantastic Four, to enhance their team identity. In the end, the nickname backfired as other students in their cohort who were laboring in isolation saw the rapid progress that The Four were making. Internal jealousies in the larger cohort emerged and I was sorry for it. Although I value the team identity and nicknames, I will never use a superlative nickname again. I may use self derogatory nicknames like Slacker Team or Petticoat Junction which can’t be misinterpreted as asserting pre-eminence in a cohort.
Structure/Process of the Project
I obtained a recently-published secondary school eating disorder curriculum. We proposed to have the curriculum administered in two separate junior high schools’ 9th grade health classes in one school district. We proposed a qualitative and quantitative study of the curriculum in each junior high school. This resulted in four separate, but related, theses. Each student was responsible for one thesis but they worked as a team on the overall project. The students completed their prospectus defenses on the same day in winter semester, 2009. They defended sequentially and then as an integrated team to the same thesis committee. They negotiated with the local school district, the junior high schools, the health teachers and the PE teachers that provided the experimental and control groups for the quantitative studies. For simplicity sake, I submitted integrated IRB proposals to the school district and BYU under my name, although the students collaborated with me and learned how to complete this important research function.
When all approvals were completed, the students simultaneously began their studies in mid- winter. They went by twos into each school to train and observe the teachers who were to deliver the new curriculum. They supported each other to gather pre-post quantitative measures. They supported each other in conducting the interviews for the qualitative studies. Data collection was completed by mid-spring. They each conducted separate analyses. Three of the four students have defended their final theses. One ofthe four has had health concerns that have delayed her final defense.
Early on in the process, the students decided to submit an integrated proposal to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) to compete for one oftwo annual research awards. Both Ph.D. and Ed.S. students are open to submit proposals. They won. Their project was the first Ed.S. project to ever receive a research award from NASP. They presented their proposal at the 2009 conference and were given $1,000 to execute the study. Furthermore, they were assured travel funds to present their final results ifthe project was completed within two years. They are presenting their findings in February 2011 at the annual NASP conference in San Francisco.
I am convinced that having the four students work closely together on every aspect ofthe project allowed them to achieve things that they would not have achieved singly. They read and edited each others’ theses. Their technical writing improved because of feedback from one another. They took courage and strength from one another to try things that they would not have done in isolation.
Results of the MEG
The project has resulted in several products. These include four Ed.S. theses, two national presentations, one local presentation, and a probable integrated peer-reviewed publication under their names as co-authors.
There were disparate quantitative outcomes in junior high school students’ responses to the curriculum. In one school there was significant differential change over time according to group membership. (Meaning, the experimental group changed faster than the control group in its average eating disorder risk.) In the other school, there was no significant differential change over time. Fortunately, the students had observed each class period and evaluated treatment fidelity. In the school with no change, treatment fidelity was very poor. The very popular and experienced teacher disregarded much of the curriculum, violated timelines, entertained his students, and failed to administer much of the homework. In the school where change was observed, the teacher had much higher treatment fidelity. Conducting the study in two schools with two different teachers taught my four students much about the vagaries of educational research. Replications of the test of the curriculum will have to use trained teachers from outside the system rather than rely on the health teachers in place. Teacher behavior was largely uncontrolled and accounted for disparate findings. .
The qualitative interviews revealed something quite unexpected. Junior high school females reported that they enjoyed the curriculum but didn’t think it made much of an impact on their own eating disorder risk. However, there was a salient report that these ninth-grade females had become highly sensitized to identifying eating disorder risk in other young people around them. It may be due the nature of the curriculum or it may be due to the nature of ninth-grade females. Adolescents ofthis age have limited introspective abilities. They are much more attuned to the behavior oftheir peers as a reference point for eventual introspection. They may not be able to “see” their own eating disorder risk, but they certainly began to see it in others. They were alert to how to intervene on behalf of their peers which may be a beneficial outcome of the curriculum.
I believe that the four students have learned a valuable lesson in working on a research (or other professional) team. Each ofthem touted their MEG experience in their internship interviews and felt as though it was a selling point. They were all placed in competitive internships. They broadened their exposure to the national professional organization in a way that I doubt would have ever occurred. They completed their theses and will graduate on time. They report that, even though the project was labor intensive and complicated, they had fun because they were doing it together.
I was generously awarded $20,000 to support this project. A little research revealed that if I converted the funds into scholarships for each student, they wouldn’t have to pay taxes on them. The proviso was that I could not require any work or product from them in return for the scholarship. I trusted that the students would complete all phases of the project anyway and that the total number of hours would far surpass what I would pay them as research assistants, so I created four $5,000 scholarships. I transferred a portion of the scholarship to each student’s BYU account each semester on their individual preferred schedule. They covered their tuition fees with the funds and never incurred a tax liability. At the same time, I avoided having to monitor and approve their work hours. All material costs for the project were covered by the NASP research award.