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Researching Up: Triangulating Qualitative Research To Influence the Public Debate of “On-Time” College Graduation


by Tim McCormack, Emily Schnee & Jason VanOra — 2014

Background: The field of higher education abounds with qualitative research aimed at highlighting the needs, struggles, strengths, and motivations of academically struggling students. However, because of the small-scale nature of these studies, they rarely enter the public debate or impact institutional policy concerning access, remediation, academic standards, and student literacy. Recently, educational researchers have called for qualitative researchers to “power up” their data by conducting meta-analyses that compare, combine, and aggregate findings across individual qualitative studies.

Purpose/Objectives: This study pilots a qualitative meta-analysis of three existing, small-scale qualitative studies in education to illustrate the potential of cross-case analyses to build a more influential knowledge base. The findings of the meta-analysis contest the notion that “time-to-degree” is a valid marker of a student’s success in college. The article also offers a critique of the meta-analysis process and points to possibilities and challenges for other researchers to carry out similar cross-case studies.

Research Design: This qualitative meta-analysis of academically at-risk college students from three campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY) employs a form of cross-case research based in the constructionist approach, which generates data-based evidence in a narrative form and forges connections among different disciplines and data collected using a variety of ethnographic methodologies (interviewing, observation, textual analysis). Following a thematic analysis of each individual study, this meta-analysis follows the general tenets of grounded theory to code for the most frequent, emergent themes, or organizing principles across the studies. The researchers further focused on a single overarching theme (contesting “on time” graduation as a marker of academic success) to pilot in the cross-case analysis.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This meta-analysis study contests time-to-degree as a valid criterion for evaluating students’ academic success in college. The findings emphasize the importance of evaluating the progress of academically at-risk students within a demographic, social-cultural and institutional context. Factors such as work and class status, parenting and family issues, as well as mental and social health challenges can significantly impede students’ capacity to graduate within traditional two-year or four-year time frames. The pilot meta-analysis provides a model for other small-scale qualitative researchers to engage in coordinated cross-case analyses as a means of making their research more robust and generalizable. Ultimately, the authors claim that qualitative researchers within higher education can use meta-analyses to power up small-scale studies to impact institutional policies and academic practice. They conclude that researchers should find ways to “go public” with their data, so that they may have a greater impact on the policies affecting students and institutions.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 4, 2014, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17413, Date Accessed: 8/17/2017 9:19:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Tim McCormack
    John Jay College of Criminal Justice
    E-mail Author
    TIM MCCORMACK is an assistant professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY who teaches basic writing, first-year composition, journalism, and creative non-fiction to undergraduates, as well as graduate courses in the teaching of writing and writing for management. His most recent publication, “Boss of Me: When the Former Adjunct Runs the Writing Shop,” appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of WPA: Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. McCormack is currently working on an ethnographic research project he calls a “literacyscape,” which will detail the pedagogical and curricular dividing line between freshman composition and basic writing classrooms and how that line impacts students’ academic achievement and progress.
  • Emily Schnee
    Kingsborough Community College
    E-mail Author
    EMILY SCHNEE is Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY where she teaches developmental English and composition. Her research interests are urban education, educational equity, and social justice. She is currently conducting a study, with Jason VanOra, on the long-term impact of learning communities on academically underprepared community college students. Schnee’s essay “Upward Mobility and Higher Education: Mining the Contradictions in a Worker Education Program” was selected for inclusion in the forthcoming collection Class and the College Classroom, edited by Robert C. Rosen (Continuum Press). She is the co-author with VanOra of “Student Incivility: An Engagement or Compliance Model?” published in MountainRise: The International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (Winter 2012).
  • Jason VanOra
    Kingsborough Community College
    E-mail Author
    JASON VANORA is a social/personality psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Kingsborough Community College. His interests concern the impact of marginalization on personality, resiliency, and identity. Recent publications include “Student Incivility: An Engagement or Compliance Model?” (co-authored with Emily Schnee) published in MountainRise: The International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and “The Experience of Community College for Developmental Students: Challenges and Motivations” published in Community College Enterprise. His forthcoming book, being published by AMS Press is entitled “Desperate to Achieve: Understanding the Lives, Struggles, and Motivations of Community College Students Assigned to Developmental Classes.”
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