A Phenomenological Study:
The Influence of Noncognitive Factors
on Academically Unprepared College Students
The purpose of the study was to discover through the exploration of lived experiences, the influence of noncognitive factors on college students’ academic preparedness. A total of 16 underprepared college students shared their lived experiences and perceptions of noncognitive factors in four areas: (a) affective factors, (b) personal factors, (c) skill factors, and (d) early educational factors. The issue is that little is known about how noncognitive factors combined from many areas can influence college students’ academic preparedness.
Empirical evidence on brain malleability suggests that although cognitive skills may not influence noncognitive skills, noncognitive skills can influence cognitive skills (Cunha & Heckman, 2008; Heckman, 2008). According to Cunha and Heckman (2009), this empirical evidence is a reason that cognitive developmental training for adolescents is largely ineffective. Moreover, with a growing underprepared student population, the ability to understand noncognitive influences on academic preparedness may help leadership create better assessments and support systems.
In this chapter, a discussion entails the usage of qualitative research method with a phenomenological design that studies lived experiences of underprepared college students at Northern New Mexico College (NNMC). Chapter 3 includes a discussion of data collection, design appropriateness, and sample frame. The population, research questions, and method of analysis are more areas discussed. Internal validity, external validity, reliability, data analysis, and appropriateness of the research design are also discussed.
Research Method and Design Appropriateness
Scroggins (2010) noted that the phenomenological qualitative study is appropriate for exploring individuals’ lived experiences. Scroggins also noted the quantitative methods focus on explaining trends within the data. Qualitative methods are appropriate for understanding the explicit and implicit complexities of human experience (Frank & Polkinghorne, 2010).
The study relied on participants’ lived experiences and perceptions to understand the ways that noncognitive factors influence academically underprepared college students’ academic preparedness. Adams (2009) reported that qualitative research is contingent on the understanding that meaning may come from a social construction of individuals interacting with their environment. The method of qualitative inquiry is appropriate, according to Creswell (2007), for an exploratory study to understand a phenomenon through lived experiences.
In this study, the phenomenon explored through data collection has a focus on noncognitive factors such as affective factors, personal factors, skill factors, and early educational factors. Qualitative research focuses on collecting information in the natural setting, data gathering, and using intuition for studying the interaction between individuals and their environment (Adams, 2009). Creswell (2007) noted that quantitative research may explain and predict while qualitative research attempts to understand through exploring a central phenomenon. The qualitative research method is appropriate for seeking an understanding (Joyner, 2009); therefore, this approach was appropriate for this study.
Informal open-ended interviews provide a conversational atmosphere for exploring the influence of noncognitive factors on academically underprepared college students. Qualitative research relying on descriptive insights may become a foundation for developing a deeper understanding (Griffin, 2008; Joyner, 2009). Conklin (2007) reported that because the objective in qualitative research is to understand rather than cause and effect generalization, qualitative research is a superior method for understanding a complex phenomenon. In essence, qualitative research has a focus on discovery, as opposed to verification or replication (Conklin, 2007). This qualitative study did not focus on generalizations or replications but focused on understanding the phenomenon through discovery.
Bannister (2009) noted that the qualitative approach is appropriate when one seeks to obtain a unique, detailed, and new perspective about a phenomenon. Greenfield and Jensen (2010) defined the concept of phenomenology as a study in which finding the meaning from lived experience is resulting from individuals’ subjective perspectives. While research does exist concerning single noncognitive factors like locus of control, motivation, and perseverance, research is incomplete on the influence of several groups of noncognitive factors on academically underprepared students. The ways noncognitive factors influenced students’ academic preparedness using many areas of noncognitive factors such as personal factors, affective factors, and noncognitive skill factors as well as early educational factors provided a comprehensive exploration using phenomenology.
Interpretive phenomenological research is a philosophical stance that participants’ lived experiences make them the experts in co-constructing the research discoveries (McConnell-Henry, Chapman, & Francis, 2011). Creswell (2007) noted that the research begins with a broad assumption central to the inquiry that guides the research design. The broad assumption is noncognitive factors are relevant to the choices that underprepared college students make because these influences on their choices involve the formulation of meaning (Flood, 2010). Theorizing, generalizing, or predicting is not the intent of interpretive phenomenological research, but understanding the shared meaning is essential to the research design (McConnell-Henry et al., 2011).
Ryan-Nicholls and Will (2009) noted that phenomenology and ethnography are both exploratory research designs. However, ethnography has a focus on the individuals’ culture (Frank & Polkinghorne, 2010). In one example, Creswell (2007) reported that the process of ethnography is often a participant observation with an extended observation of a group of participants by becoming immersed into their culture. Creswell also reported this may lead to an interpretation of the culture. An ethnographic study based on field observations of events may often include routine procedures found within the culture (Konecki, 2008), but phenomenology focuses on finding a shared meaning from lived experiences (Pringle, Hendry, & McLafferty, 2011b).
The phenomenological approach in this study focused on exploring the individuals’ experiences, perceptions, and the interpretive phenomenological analysis aspect of both interpretive and descriptive stances incorporated into one approach (Pringle et al., 2011b). Creswell (2007) explained that ethnography is appropriate in describing an unfamiliar cultural group in exploring their beliefs, power structures, and patterns of behavior. Konecki (2008) noted that in ethnography a revisiting in the field may achieve triangulation of theory. The main emphasis in ethnography is the relationship between local knowledge relative to a wider context, which Frank and Polkinghorne (2010) noted is an emphasis on cultural knowledge. Conversely, phenomenology is appropriate for focusing on individuals because of the personal significance of lived experiences (Standing, 2009).
Flood (2010) acknowledged that this may require the bracketing of personal knowledge to prevent preconceptions or bias that may influence the study. Creswell (2007) reported ethnography may have similarities to the case study except that the case study can focus on a site or multiple sites to study a program or even an individual. Uprety (2009) noted that case studies focusing on the individual often start with a life history of the social situation rather than on the individual. Case studies use the complex-interrelated factors within the social situation to understand a process or a person’s life-cycle (Uprety, 2009). Creswell (2007) noted that while qualitative approaches are similar in collecting information, creating files, and making sense of the data, grounded theory generates much more detail in creating theory and generating propositions.
The grounded theory approaches has a focus on discovering social processes, which is fundamentally different from finding a shared meaning (Frank & Polkinghorne, 2010). In this study, no generation of theory or proposition was necessary but merely a deeper understanding of the phenomenon (Griffin, 2008; Joyner, 2009). Pringle et al. (2011a) noted that interpretive phenomenology is appropriate to inform, illustrate, and create themes using participants’ direct quotes. To keep the research from becoming too subjective, Pringle et al. (2011a) stressed using divergent and convergent examples as well as commonalities. Moreover, rather than use a philosophical stance, convenience, or personal preference to make research decisions, the research questions can drive the methodological decisions (Barusch, Gringeri, & George, 2011).
By focusing on the problem and purpose of the study, the central research question is a way to centralize the research focus: In what ways do noncognitive factors influence lived experience relating to preparedness of academically underprepared students at Northern New Mexico College? Five sub-questions helped to discover a variety of viewpoints to answer the central research question:
R1. How do academically underprepared college students perceive their college lived experience?
R2. How do academically underprepared college students perceive their lived experience related to early educational factors before and during k-12?
R3. How do academically underprepared students in college describe lived experience related to personal factors that may help or hinder their educational experiences?
R4. In what ways do academically underprepared college students describe lived experience related to affective factors such as overcoming the challenges they face in obtaining a college degree?
R5. What influences do creativity and practical skills have on participants’ lived experience related to their academic preparedness?
As a pilot study, four academically underprepared students were recruited using flyers placed throughout the college to review the interview questions before the main study and prior permission to use the college premises was obtained. The participants’ interviews only began after they understood their rights provided within the informed consent form. The interview instrument followed an interview protocol, which contains semi-structured open-ended questions allowing students to share freely and honestly.
The population of academically underprepared college students at NNMC was the study population. NNMC located within the north central region of New Mexico has approximately 2000 students per semester. The study did not require a specific subpopulation of academically underprepared students to discover a basic understanding of students’ shared conscious experiences. Hopp (2009) noted that understanding conscious experiences is one major function of a phenomenological study. This study merely was to understand the conscious experiences of academically underprepared students by exploring the ways that noncognitive factors may have an influence on their academic preparedness discovered through their shared lived experiences.
A variety of ethnic groups such as Hispanic, White, Native American, and Black students take below college level courses at NNMC making their collective conscious experiences highly valuable. These participants were at least the age of 19 and they had taken below college level courses to prepare for college level coursework. The study included 16 underprepared students, who self identified by acknowledging taking a noncredit course (i.e., English 108 or Math 100) or a for-credit course (i.e., Math 130), which are all below college level courses. Recruiting participants with first-hand knowledge of below college level coursework was useful toward finding a purposive sample to inform about the phenomenon of academic underpreparedness.
The study’s sample frame did not involve randomization but involved a purposive sample, which according to Creswell (2007), provides participants that can inform about the phenomenon. Scroggins (2010) implied that a purposive sample is for selecting a specialized population for a particular purpose. Griffin (2008) described purposive sampling as making use of a fresh perspective. The first 16 self identified academically underprepared college students who showed willingness to participate and fit the eligibility requirements of at least 19 years of age became the sample frame. Purposive sampling permits selecting participants with required knowledge (Scroggins, 2010), such as lived experience with academic underpreparedness.
The small sampling provided a deeper exploration and ensured that recruitment at this small college may become successful. The process for recruiting participants took place using flyers containing a contact phone number throughout the college. Permission to use the premises was obtained from the director of the Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) program. The flyer gave not only the contact number, but also the name of the study, and explained that student need only answer interview questions for no more than one hour.
Obtaining consent and informing participants about the purpose of the study is an ethical component of research (Khatib, 2010). At the beginning of each interview, participants received an informed consent form in which explained that they can refuse to answer any question or choose not to participate at any time without adverse consequence. The informed consent described in writing the minimal risk, the option not to participate, and the ability of the participants to stop participating at any time without any detriment to their scholarly standing. Participants signed the consent form only after acknowledging an understanding of his or her rights and agreeing to participate willingly. Also, the purpose of the research explained to the participants occurred before their signing the consent form.
In addition, each participant was assigned a pseudonym, which became the only identifier of his or her participation within the study. The documents were placed in a secure, locked safe. Participants were given the researcher’s phone number and e-mail for any concerns about participation or general questions about the study. No foreseeable risks to the participants were evident and confidentiality was maintained.
Participants received $20 each in appreciation for their time and for their travel expenses. Head (2009) noted a long process of attempting to recruit participants and finally she was successful when offering cash payments. The practice in qualitative research of paying research participants for their participation has become common and provides easier access to obtain interviewees (Head). Head reported “other researchers have emphasized the role of money in providing an expression of thanks for the time given by the participants to the study” (p. 337).
Four eligible candidates were selected to participate in the pilot study. The operationalization of academic underpreparedness was based on if a student had taken below college level courses to prepare for college level coursework. Potential participants were screened by asking if they were at least 18 years and if they had taken a below college level course to prepare for college level coursework. Three pilot participants were part of separate discussions and answered the interview questions to help improve the interview guide; the fourth participant was used to test the entire interview process.
Participants’ demographics in the main study may provide some context, which entail gender, age, and ethnicity. Table 3 provides a summary of collected demographic characteristics, extrapolated from participants’ raw data transcriptions and reflective note taking after each interview.
The demographic characteristic of main study participants indicates an almost equal number of females and males with a variety of ages ranging from 19 years to well over 60 years of age and a variety of ethnic groups. The names used to describe each participant were pseudonyms. The researcher acknowledges having preconceptions from personal experiences with the phenomenon of academic underpreparedness and attempted to describe participants’ experiences without personal bias by using verbatim statements for analysis.
Participant'S identified issues with initial questions
Pilot participants discovered an inconsistency with the first question, which was “In general; tell me about the experiences, good or bad, you have had during your education.” This question was changed to” In general, tell me about the experiences, good or bad in college, you have had during your education.” Pilot participants also discovered an inconsistency with question four, which led to the addition of the phrase, “this question does not relate to previous questions” to question four. Question four became, “this question does not relate to previous questions; describe how you will overcome the challenges you face in obtaining a college degree.” Base on the pilot study, the result was that two of the five original questions had inconsistencies. The final version of the interview protocol reflected these changes.
When the participants’ confidentiality is secure, according to Joyner (2009), responses from participants may include the highest honesty during interview sessions. The study abided by the Protection of Human Research Subjects Standards and no students under the age of 18 years were allowed to participate. No one other than the Internal Review Board at University of Phoenix, had access to the identity of the participants. The use of a pseudonym for each participant provided additional confidentiality of participant's identity.
The participants’ interviews were face-to-face interviews. Interviews were audio recorded with no one having access to these recordings, except for a transcriber. The transcriber signed a nondisclosure form (see Appendix D) before verbatim transcriptions of audio recordings took place. After 3-years, electronic files, recordings, and hard copies are to become nonexistent, by shredding of hard copies and deletion of electronic files.
Although no questions entail students’ possible drug use or criminal activity, if this information was part of participants’ experience; the information became part of the data collection and results of the study. However, the data collection did not use any identifiers except a pseudonym to protect participants’ identity. Signing the confidentiality statement and nondisclosure agreement legally ensured protecting the identity of research participants.
Northern New Mexico College was the location of this phenomenological qualitative study. NNMC has an annual population of 2000 students during each spring and fall semester. This rural college is the only college serving the north central New Mexico area. The rural 4-year college was a community college and maintains a community college mission. A signed copy of permission to use the premises was obtained from the Director of Education Opportunity Center.
Sixteen candidates were recruited for the main study by posting a flyer at the college, which included a contact phone number and a request to participate in the primary segment of the study. Participants were asked five primary questions and participant responses were probed as needed. The audio recorded semi-structured one-on-one interviews were used to capture of participants’ descriptions precisely as spoken, which reduced the chance of imprecise transcription.
Most of the interviews lasted between 30-45 minutes. However, others lasted nearly a full hour due to the participants sharing more information. The audio recorded interviews stored in a safe were also in a password protected computer and subsequently transcribed into verbatim digital text. The verbatim transcripts as well as reflective notes written after each interview were both part of the data collection process.
Three potential participants were held in abeyance if needed to replace participants wanting to end their involvement in the study; however, no participants ended their involvement. Participants in the study received transcripts of their interviews for ensuring accurate representation of their transcripts as well as the resulting textual categories. The six participants returning to review their transcripts for accuracy acknowledged the accuracy of their digital transcripts and textual categories.
Transcription,Coding, and Data Analysis
The initial interview transcriptions and resulting coding emanated from the research sub-questions and consisted of five preconfigured categories:
1. College experiences,
2. Early educational factors,
3. Personal factors,
4. Affective factors, and
5. Noncognitive skill factors.
The preconfigured categories were collection points for descriptions taken from participants’ responses to the interview questions. After placing similar participants’ significant statements into the preconfigured categories, a repetitive reading of statements within each preconfigured category occurred and using NVivo 8 software query function to cluster and streamline significant statements further, which provided 24 new categories. The 24 new categories were then useful for two purposes: (a) condensing similar categories using NVivo 8 software query function into four textual categories and (b) also using the 24 categories as invariant constitutes within each textual category. The resulting four textual categories developed after many reflective and NVivo 8 software query iterations in clustering participants’ words and phrases were:
1. Lived experiences before k-12,
2. Lived experiences during k-12,
3. Lived experiences during college, and
4. Noncognitive factors.
In the main study, participants were asked open-ended questions as a starting point to obtain perceptions of their lived experience with the phenomenon of academic underpreparedness. Creswell (2007) recommended the following protocol for open-ended questions: (a) review the study purpose, confidentiality, and consent form with participants, (b) take notes, (c) develop verbal transitions between questions, and (d) have a prepared closing comment. These recommendations became part of the instrumentation for the interview protocol.
Referencing the central research question and sub-questions, the instrumentation had open-ended questions that addressed the four noncognitive areas: early educational factors, personal factors, affective factors, and noncognitive skill factors as well as participants’ perception of college. The instrument creation is the result of several other studies in which the studies were using one noncognitive factor, except Sternberg (2008) who uses two noncognitive skill factors, and the Boylan (2009) study that uses two noncognitive areas. The study expanded these previous studies using four noncognitive areas with probing questions like “tell me more, describe the environment, or how did you feel,” on which may clarify and improve understanding (McConnell-Henry et al., 2011).
The first interview question was a general question about their college experience intended to relax and open up the participant by talking about any experience that came to their mind, which was followed by probing questions. This interview question was: in general; tell me about the experiences, good or bad in college, you have had during your education. Depending on the participants’ line of discussion, a follow up probing question may start such as: tell me a little more about _________, or tell me what you mean when you stated _________. In general, this type of probing was to take place for every interview question within the instrumentation.
The second interview question within the instrumentation had a focus on early educational factors such as participants’ educational experience before and during k-12, with probing questions dependent on their line of discussion. This interview question was: describe any experience you have with someone reading to you as a child, or if no recollection, describe your k-12 experience. Because the intent partially was to find out about the maternal responsivity they experienced such as reading experiences before they entered k-12, the probing may commence with tell me more about your reading experiences before k-12. However, if they did not remember this part of their life, then the second part of the question was a method to find out about participants’ experience during k-12. The probing into this part of the question was to explore participants’ early educational experience before college such as during elementary school, middle school, and high school.
The third interview question within the instrumentation was a general question that had a focus on personal factors, which was: describe any personal issue that may help or hinder your ability to obtain a college degree. Several probing questions were to follow to discover ways that this noncognitive area was to influence participants’ academic preparedness. Depending on the line of discussion taken by the participant, the probing may entail questions such as: tell me more about your relationship with each parents, or what did you mean when you stated __________ about your father.
The fourth interview question had a focus on affective factors on which the question was: this question does not relate to previous questions, describe how you will overcome the challenges you face in obtaining a college degree. The intent of this question was to discover what the influence of affective factors such as motivation, perseverance, or self confidence had on participants’ academic preparedness. Several follow up probing questions were to explore these affective factors depending on participants’ line of discussion.
The fifth and final interview question was: describe an educational situation in which a teacher inspired you to think creatively or use practical skills. The question was an attempt to explore the noncognitive area of noncognitive skill factors to discover the influence on participants’ academic preparedness. Follow up probing questions were to follow allowing participants to expand on their line of discussions.
Pringle et al. (2011a) noted obtaining validity within qualitative studies as leaving an audit path of decisions made to ensure the analysis given has a foundation in participants’ descriptions. Additionally, qualitative terms such as confirmability, dependability, transferability, and credibility are respectively parallel to quantitative terms such as objectivity, reliability, external validity, and internal validity (Barusch et al., 2011; Russell & Aquino-Russell, 2010). The qualitative terms for validity such as dependability, transferability, credibility, and confirmability were an essential facet of the study.
By keeping accurate records of the steps within the qualitative process, an audit trail is one technique for establishing confirmability (Barusch et al., 2011). Barusch et al. noted qualitative strategies for confirmability entail the following: (a) bias clarification, (b) thick descriptions, (c) triangulation, (d) peer review, (e) negative case analysis, (f) member-checking, (g) external audits, and (h) persistent observation. In this current study, verbatim interviews and note taking provided a triangulation of data, and participants coming back to verify their verbatim transcripts and textual categories provided member-checking.
Dependability is a qualitative parallel term for the quantitative term of reliability (Frank & Polkinghorne, 2010). Using this parallel term for reliability, the quality recording of interview conversations with verbatim transcription and detailed notes provided dependability (Creswell, 2007). In this study, detailed notes were part of the data collection procedure after every interview with quality recordings using a professional transcription service provided dependability.
Barusch et al. (2011) reported that transferability is a parallel term for external validity and that transferability can involve thick descriptions to achieve an overview. This study involved thick descriptions of participants’ lived experiences using their direct quotes for communicating discoveries within textual categories, structural themes, and within the creative synthesis. Danko (2010) reported that external validity is beyond the scope of qualitative phenomenological research except by communication of research discoveries through participants lived experiences.
Connecting the conclusion to the research question is a method to establish credibility and to provide trustworthiness and confidence in research discoveries (Frank & Polkinghorne, 2010). In addition, Barusch et al. (2011) recommended seeking clarification or probing questions during the interview to ensure a co-constructed understanding. A co-constructed understanding is the result of merging interpretations, interactions, and clarifications (Frank & Polkinghorne), which provides additional credibility to a study. In this study, the conclusion connected to the research questions and probing questions provided a co-constructed understanding.
Data Analysis Procedure
Data analysis included acknowledging bias at appropriate moments during the analysis. The analysis process included integrating aspects of interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) such as commonalities, divergent perspective, and convergent perspective as explicated by Pringle et al. (2011a), which included aspects of Moustakas’s (1994) and Giorgi’s (1985) phenomenological methods. In essence the analysis included:
1. Acknowledging bias at appropriate moments;
2. Using NVivo 8 software to develop preconfigured categories;
3. Developing textual categories;
4. Developing structural themes with IPA aspects; and
5. A creative synthesis.
In some detail before data analysis occurred, Microsoft Word digital text of transcripts were inserted into the NVivo 8 software and labeled with each participant’s pseudonym. NVivo 8 software was essential for storage of similar participants’ significant statements in manually created preconfigured categories such as college experiences, early educational factors, personal factors, affective factors, and noncognitive skill factors, which aligned with the research sub-questions. Iterative readings of key phrases within every preconfigured category followed by thoughtful reflection and using NVivo 8 software queries were the method of clustering together similar significant statements. Using NVivo 8 software, textual categories were manually created with a hierarchy of lower level groups of similar participant’s statements on which became the invariant constitutes within each category.
Structural themes were to emerge through a similar inductive process of manually relating significant statements to the research questions in a discovery process. Johnson (2008) described the process of relating significant statements to the research questions as an inductive process. Giorgi (1985) referred to significant statements as meaning units that do not actually exist as text but become a summation of participants’ perceptions and intentions to form structural themes. Additionally, aspects of IPA such as commonalities, divergent perspective, and convergent perspective were sought and found within significant statements to become themes as well.
Through iterative readings of textual categories and structural themes, a creative synthesis adapted to the study was an attempt to make visible what was previously invisible (Moustakas, 1994). Giorgi (1985) described the final analysis as transforming implicit meanings to integrate insights as one reliable account of many possibilities but based on participants’ significant statements. In this study, four distinctions of combining cognitive and noncognitive preparedness and underpreparedness became the invisible made visible by transforming implicit meanings based on participants’ significant statements.
In summary, the data analysis included bracketing biases at appropriate moments within the analysis as well as reading transcripts many times to obtain what Giorgi (1985) called a “sense of the whole” (p.10). Then establishing preconfigured categories as storage units for similar participants’ significant statements on which emerged textual categories with invariant constitutes to provide what Moustakas (1994) called narrative descriptions into a comprehensive whole. Using research sub-questions and invariant constitutes structural themes formed from what Giorgi called meaning units to derive insights relevant to the phenomenon. Using textual categories, structural themes, and integrated aspects of interpretive phenomenological analysis, a cohesive analysis of academic underpreparedness was to evolve using four cognitive/noncognitive distinctions of preparedness and underpreparedness into what Moustakas described as a creative synthesis.
The location of the study was at NNMC. Chapter 3 included a description of the qualitative phenomenological design and rationale for exploring the lived experiences of academically underprepared college students to discover ways that noncognitive factors influence their academic preparedness. The topics discussed in this chapter included: (a) the data collection technique, (b) confidentiality, (c) instrumentation, (d) credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability, and (e) the data analysis plan.
A purposive sample included 16 participants experiencing the phenomenon of academic underpreparedness. The results and data analysis emanating from the collected and analyzed data can be found in Chapter 4. Using the NVivo 8 software, the patterns and themes that emerged from the data represented the perceptions of participants’ lived experiences and these perceptions were used to answer the research sub-questions.
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UMI Number: 3536193
Published by ProQuest LLC (2013)