The purpose of this paper is to introduce a research methodology in higher education which enables us to elicit personal theories of several aspects of higher education, for example research, teaching, learning, professional development, etc. It is an alternative to the traditional methods of studying people's perceptions and perspectives, for example by questionnaire, interview, structured group discussion, etc.
It is important for anyone involved in effecting change in people, be they students or staff who want to learn and develop their knowledge and skills, to investigate the current state of the learner and to help him or her to articulate personal theories, to compare them with those of others, to negotiate their meaning, and to revise them continually. How can this be best achieved?
Traditional methods, such as the questionnaire and structured interview, have the advantage of allowing data collection from a statistically significant number of subjects, required in large scale quantitative studies; but they have the disadvantage of the researcher influencing the subjects' responses by means of questions or non-verbal suggestions. The language and criteria, determined by the 'expert' researcher, might be alien to the subjects' own personal construct systems and, therefore, be misunderstood by the subjects. Consequently, their responses are likely to be inaccurate or personally invalid. Interview data, whether collected in the form of written notes or transcribed from audio or video recordings, are always the product of an interactive communication. As Pope and Denicolo (1986) argue, the ensuing verbatim transcript is the result of several influencing factors: the interviewer's own personal intuitive theories; the questions in his/her mind which originally defined his/her research; his/her skills in perceptive listening and questioning techniques; and ideas and questions which develop during the interactions with the interviewee. Given these caveats and in order to circumvent them, this paper argues for the use of a more sensitive instrument, the repertory grid technique, by which people can construe their personal theories of a particular topic, without the researcher's influence, but by comparing people or things they know well from their previous experience and by expressing the similarities and differences in abstract terms.
The repertory grid technique has been widely used in psychology and management training. But very little research has been undertaken in higher education except in teacher education. Pope and Keen (1981) have applied personal construct theory to education in general; Diamond (1983, 1985) has used the repertory grid technique in secondary teacher training; Kevill et al. (1982) for course evaluation; Kevill and Shaw (1980) for evaluating staff-student interactions and teaching effectiveness.
This paper aims to show how this methodology can be used in higher education. It is structured in four parts. First, it outlines the theoretical framework of Kelly's Personal Construct Theory. Second, it explains the repertory grid technique based on Kelly's theory. Third, it presents some examples of recent case studies in higher education which have applied this methodology; and finally, some conclusions are drawn with suggestions for further research.
On the basis of his epistemology, Kelly (1955, 1963) has developed his theory in terms of a fundamental postulate elaborated by eleven corollaries. The fundamental postulate refers to the basic assumption underlying his theory; the corollaries some of which are relevant to this paper are propositions which amplify his psychology of personal constructs.
Kelly's Fundamental Postulate reads: "A person's processes are psychologically channellised by the ways in which he anticipates events" (Kelly, 1963, 46). Kelly believes that science and theory building is not the prerogative of scientists, theorists or researchers, but that every human being is a 'personal scientist' and capable of creating theory at various levels. Personal scientists are engaged in a process of observation, interpretation, prediction and control. They erect for themselves a representational model of the world which guides their behaviour and action. This model is constantly tested, modified or replaced in order to allow better predictions and control in the future. People's behaviour in the present is determined by the way they anticipate events in the future through the use of personal constructs in order to forecast events (theory building) or to evaluate previous forecasts and their validity or efficiency (theory testing). This process of knowledge creation and constant review of one's knowledge is applicable to the researcher, to the learner in the formal education system, as well as to people in everyday life. The only difference is the level of theorisation and abstraction.
Kelly's fundamental postulate and his corollaries give a picture of the person/learner as a 'personal scientist', with a hierarchical construction system (organisation Corollary) which is personally unique (Individuality Corollary) and which can be explored by him/herself as well as by others (Sociality Corollary). Apart from their individuality, a group of people may be similar in terms of their construction of experience (Commonality Corollary). The development of intelligence or conceptual change depends on the permeability, ie. the degree of openness for change, of a person's constructs (Modulation Corollary) and on the balance between hierarchical integration and consistency of differing constructs on the one hand and their differentiation and inconsistency (Fragmentation Corollary) on the other. Finally, a person is not predetermined in his/her thinking, but can choose alternatives (Choice Corollary). His/her construing is both cognitive and emotional; the personal construct system is a holistic entity. If any part within the system is changed, this change will have implications for other parts of the total system. Although Kelly's view of a person is a holistic one, including cognitive functions and psychological feelings (for example fear, anxiety), as well as early experiences and social conditions, he writes almost exclusively about people as personal scientists and cognitive construers of knowledge about the world. For Kelly, learning is the active, creative, rational, emotional, intentional and pragmatic construction of reality. But he knows that all theories, including his own, are human hypotheses which may fit all requirements at a particular time, but may eventually be found wanting in some unforeseeable respect and, therefore, be replaced by a 'better theory'.
A repertory grid is a two way classification of data in which events are interlaced with abstractions in such a way as to express part of a person's system of cross references between his personal observations or experience of the world (elements), and his personal classifications or abstractions of that experience (constructs). (Original emphasis)In Kelly's method of eliciting personal constructs the subject nominates a certain number of people in his/her life (elements) and is required to compare them in triads and to say in which way two of the three elements - any two - differ from the third. The words or phrases resulting from this comparison form the construct pair. Thus, both the elements and the constructs are nominated by the subjects themselves.
Meanwhile, many forms of repertory grid technique have been developed, some of which represent a significant departure from Kelly's individuality corollary (ie. persons differ in their construction of events) in that they give the constructs to, rather than elicit them from, the subjects. This means, that the assumption behind the use of provided constructs is that people resemble each other in their construction of events. Another development of Kelly's original grid is to provide the elements, and only one construct, with the intention to compare individual grids and to arrive at a group (or mode) grid.
One example of a repertory grid to elicit personal constructs of teaching effectiveness is appended to this paper with instructions for completing, rating and interpreting the grid.
One example of a repertory grid to elicit personal constructs of teaching effectiveness is appended to this paper with instructions for completing, rating and interpreting the grid. Two elements ('self' and 'ideal self' as a teacher) and one construct (Effectiveness) are provided to make comparisons possible.
The second study was conducted by the author (Zuber-Skerritt, 1987a) with six staff and six postgraduate students (MPhil and PhD) in a British University, all engaged in some aspect of educational research. On the one hand, the study demonstrated the use and potential power of the repertory grid for better understanding one's own and others' constructs of research and for more fully appreciating different points of view. On the other hand, it pointed to its potential danger and abuse. For a repertory grid can be used as a basis for sharing and negotiating meaning with others, in order to solve a particular problem or to make decisions, or it can be a very private matter and should be treated confidentially. But each participant must decide whether the use should be private or public.
The third study in this series (Zuber-Skerritt, 1988) conducted with five academic staff and seven postgraduate students at a German university demonstrates how the repertory grid may be used to elicit, discuss and negotiate staff and students' individual constructs of research, with the result of a greater group consensus and a clearer picture of their shared criteria of research effectiveness. Many of these criteria cannot be transferred to any other group of researchers, because they vary for each group. But this case study provides an example of the kinds of answer we may expect to the question: What constitutes effective research? And it illustrates the use of a method and procedures by which the answers can be found. The significance of the three studies relates to the exploration of both the topic of research effectiveness and the use of the repertory grid technology. Similar studies may be conducted on the same topic in other disciplines using the repertory grid technique with or without the computer analyses.
However, the repertory grid technique could not be used as a research method without having the participants discuss, negotiate and confirm the results presented by the researcher. It is mainly an instrument to focus a group discussion on some constructs we may share and agree upon, in this case on constructs of effective research, teaching or professional development. So the limitations are that these persona! theories are not necessarily generalisable and valid to other university staff and students, although they are of direct, practical importance to the staff and students involved in the particular study. Other researchers and teachers cannot rely on the content of the personal theorising by participants in a case study as 'objective knowledge', but they may use the methodology in order to elicit their own theories in their particular context.
It is hoped that this paper might stimulate further research and development in higher education by similar applications of Kelly's theory and the repertory grid technique to other areas of higher education, wherever people's personal perceptions and perspectives differ or need to be more explicit, or agreed upon, for example, with respect to effective team work, committee work, administration, etc. This technique could also be applied to student learning, individually and/or in groups, for example in the area of effective study methods, such as essay writing, reading and note taking for academic purposes, discussion skills in tutorials, etc.
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|Emergent Pole||Elements||Implicit Pole|
|With their attributes as teachers in mind, what do the pair have in common?||E1||E2||E3||E4||E5||E6||With their attributes as teachers in mind, what makes the other teacher different?|
Either the high scoring items are not closely linked with your judgements of effectiveness;
Or, the left-hand and right-hand descriptions might need to be switched round.
So if your effectiveness ratings - the ones you put on the scrap paper mask just now - were
reverse them to become
and use the reversed ratings to re-score all the other sets of ratings.
Your lowest scoring items, including any that were re-scored using reversed ratings, are most closely associated with your effectiveness judgements.
Your highest scoring items are least associated with your effectiveness judgements.
Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt and Pat Diamond
|Please cite as: Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1988). Eliciting personal constructs of research, teaching and/or professional development. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 126-135. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech88/zuber-skerritt.html|