Changing Approaches Chapter Eight

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Chapter Eight


Trends in Graduate Research


Stanley M. Grabowski


Are there discernible trends in adult education graduate research? Knowles (1973) has suggested that a field of study such as adult education may go through developmental stages. If he is correct, graduate research may reflect gross trends in the field. And if dissertations reflect trends, such information should be instructive for all adult education researchers. The purpose of this chapter is therefore to analyze graduate research in adult education since 1935, with a particular emphasis on the late sixties and early seventies. Attention is focused on the quantity and quality of research, what was studied, and the methods used. Finally, we look at the implica­tion of the trends, the needs revealed by the trends, and some projections.

The data base for this analysis was provided by the former


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ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Education at Syracuse University and other sources reported in the literature. Because few investiga­tors have examined the dissertation research in the field of adult education, this analysis is necessarily limited to those sometimes incomplete and inconsistent sources. However, the limitations do not appear to be so great as to detract significantly from the conclusions that may be drawn from the data.

The first dissertations in adult education were completed by Hallenbeck and Stacy in 1935. Since that date many graduate programs in adult education have emerged. Each program has extended the potential for quality and quantity in graduate re­search. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the volume of research, but what about quality?




Analyses of dissertations in adult education have led to the conclusion that the quality of graduate research is improving. Because of the close relationship between graduate research and research conducted by professors and others, graduate research generally reflects the quality of the research conducted by those persons. Consequently, the observation of Brunner and his coauthors ( 1959) that adult education was in a chaotic situation, with a strong emphasis on descriptive studies, described graduate research as well. The chaos seemed to mirror the developmental state of adult education as a field. At the time, there were two dozen or fewer professors of adult education, and the higher education dimension of adult education was only beginning to emerge. Thus, professors and students were working in an environment that placed a premium on activities that were somewhat different from con­temporary goals.

Several factors contribute to the conclusion that the quality of graduate research is improving, even though it is difficult to determine or identify from the literature any criteria that outline what quality is. The first factor is the judgment of those who have analyzed the literature. Statements issued by some of these scholars are reported below. The second factor is the design element. Many of the more recent dissertations reflect an increasing sensitivity to,


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and awareness of, methods of research design that strengthen in­ternal and external validity. Design also includes a third factor, knowledge of statistical analysis. A fourth, and very important, factor is the emerging concern for improved theoretical structures. As Boyd notes in Chapter Seven, much of the early survey research appears to have been conducted with only limited attention to broad theoretical frameworks. The more recent works are somewhat different in this respect.

The change in the broader field of adult education is re­flected in DeCrow's conclusion (1966) that followed Brunner's by seven years. DeCrow noted that the quality and quantity of research had increased dramatically. His view is supported by Copeland and Grabowski, who reported "that the improvement of both the quality and quantity of adult education research continues" (1971, p. 23). This opinion was also expressed by DeCrow and Loague, who in their work at the Adult Education Clearinghouse closely scrutinized the flow of adult educators' dissertations: "We have an unmistakable impression of improved quality over the years, not only in the rigor of research procedures but also in the significance of the problems researched. Particularly, we feel that this improvement has extended down to master's degree research. ERIC/AE coverage of master's theses and papers is sporadic and highly dependent on submission of copies by the students or their professors. From the general sample we do see, however, the impression of improved quality and volume is quite definite and we expect that this research training of large numbers accounts, in part, for the great increase in recent years of well-contrived action research reports emanating from research and development projects out in the field" (1970, p. 15).




Perhaps an easier change to observe and document is the volume of research. Before we pursue this topic, however, I want to point out certain limitations and definitions. First of all, this dis­cussion is limited to dissertations; I omitted master's theses because they are not readily accessible. In addition, I have defined doctoral dissertations broadly to include all dissertations dealing with adult


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education, regardless of the university department from which they originated. And finally, two sources have been used, and these two sources do not always agree for a number of reasons; moreover, both may be incomplete. The first source is the list of graduates with doctoral degrees in adult education maintained at the University of Chicago. The second source, as I pointed out above, is the col­lection of abstracts at the ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Education.

The criteria for inclusion in the University of Chicago list are these: "First, at the time the student did his work on the doctorate, he believed adult education to be his major field of specialization. Second, at the time the student did his work on the doctorate, the institution itself believed him to be securing his degree with a major specialization in adult education" (Houle and Buskey, 1966, p. 132). The University of Chicago records list 1713 adult education doctorates that were awarded between 1935 and 1975 (Houle and Ford, 1976, p. 63). On a year-to-year basis, the forties generally were characterized by fewer than 10 dissertations annually, the fifties by fewer than 30, and 1960 through 1968 by fewer than 70 each year. However, beginning in 1969 more than 100 dissertations were reported each year; 157 were reported just for 1975. The collection of dissertation abstracts developed by the ERIC Clearinghouse, even though not identical to the list main­tained at the University of Chicago, reveals a similar trend.



What do these graduate students study? My analysis of what has been studied is based on the ERIC listing of 2150 dis­sertations rather than the Chicago list, because the ERIC collec­tion provides more information. In the ERIC compilations, each dissertation was placed in a generic category according to its subject classification. This method of determining what the dissertation writers studied is somewhat limited and likely to oversimplify, but it does provide some broad indication of their interests. The editors of the various compilations recognized that many studies were pertinent to several subjects but had to decide into which one category each dissertation best fitted. Whatever arbitrary decisions the editors made in this regard were consistent throughout the

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three volumes (DeCrow and Loague, 1970; Grabowski, 1973; Grabowski and Loague, 1970).

An examination of the three volumes shows that in terms of numbers and broad categories, "program areas of adult educa­tion" and "institutional sponsors" were the most popular. Among more specific categories, several showed high activity: adult basic education; management development and supervisory education; occupational training of unskilled and disadvantaged adults; home, family, and parent education; human relations and laboratory training; cooperative and rural extension; and psychological and personality variables. The editors of the 1968-69 compilation sug­gested that federal legislation seemed to be the factor most re­sponsible for the high rate of productivity in some of the categories. They pointed out that "five new laws seem to have played an important role in the new orientation: the Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA) of 1962, the Vocational Education Act of 1963, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Title I of the Higher Education Act of 1965, and the Adult Education Act of 1966" (Grabowski and Loague, 1970, p. 11).

Continuing education in technical and professional fields, with 58 dissertations, was the specific category with the largest number of dissertations completed between 1963 and 1969. Of these, 18 concerned medicine and health, and the remaining 40 dealt with engineering and architecture, education, law, religion, public administration, social work, technical education, and various other professions. The next largest specific category was agriculture and home economics, on which 48 dissertations were completed between 1963 and 1969. Most of these dissertations related to the Cooperative Extension Service and covered such topics as the adoption of innovative practices, farm management, the analysis of training needs, and the education of home economists. A dramatic decrease occurred in the number of dissertations com­pleted in three other specific categories between 1963 and 1969 as compared with 1935 to 1962: psychological and personality variables dropped from 115 to 15; home, family, and parent education dropped from 112 to 17; and religious organizations dropped from 66 to 14.                                                          

Choosing the Topic. How and why graduate students select


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the particular subjects of their dissertations has been a point of discussion for some time among both students and professors. For example, DeCrow and Loague observed: [The] "known research predilections of famous professors can very faintly be discovered in some cases. Some universities have more clear-cut interest patterns, but they are less definite than expected. It is apparent, even in this period, that the interests of extension' training programs and the more general degree programs are rapidly merging. We think that the personal interests and vocational initiative of the students them­selves largely guide the choice of dissertation topics" (1970, p. 9). These observations were borne out in a survey of the members of the Commission of Professors conducted by Thorson (1973) to determine their attitudes toward research for the doctoral disserta­tion. Thorson found that the professors felt that students, as a group, had freedom to choose their own research topic and that students were encouraged to exercise that freedom (p. 8). However, some professors, in response to Thorson's questions about students' freedom to select their topic and their research methods, wrote in comments, such as, "I want my students to have freedom, but I also want them to work within my area of competence," and "I direct students to other professors if they select a problem outside my field" (p. 9).

However free students are to choose, one can observe some general patterns in their interests and motivations. "The distribution of subjects studied seems to reflect the three basic concerns which draw persons to a long-term, professional interest in adult educa­tion: (1) interest in some particular group of adults being served or in a program area; (2) concern with organizing, developing, supporting, and administering the work of a particular sponsoring agency; (3) interest in building or transmitting the knowledge base which supports the profession" (DeCrow and Loague, 1970, p. 9).

Neglected Topics. Some subjects have received a great deal of attention; others have clearly been neglected. Among the latter are educational materials, devices, and facilities; the occupational training of adults in business and industry; labor education; need­determination processes; counseling; alternative systems of educa­tion throughout the lifespan; instructional techniques; new careers; and paraprofessions (although interest in these subjects has been


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increasing since the last summary listing was published). Some of these topics were included by Knowles in his list of gaps in knowl­edge about the teaching of adults. In answer to a question he put to himself, "What research do I need to help me improve as a teacher?" he outlined the following categories (1972, pp. 272, 302):

1.      Conceptualizing better role performance models for the adult educator.

2.      The developmental processes of the adult educator.

3.      Changes in the perceptual structures, perceptual modes, and perceptual habits of adults.

4.      The learning sets that adults bring into the educational transaction.

5.      Better understanding of the environmental forces that influence learning.

6.      How to help adults diagnose their own needs for learning.

7.      Better methodological theory.

8.      Design theory.

9.      The transfer of learning.

10.  Articulation between childhood, youth, and adult learning.




Another important consideration, in addition to what the dissertation writers studied, is the methods they used. The editors of the last two ERIC compilations, covering the years 1963-67 and 1968-69, prepared "methodological indexes" showing under each subject heading in the volumes the number of studies that had been done using each of five types of research: experimental, descriptive, historical, methodological, and philosophical. The editors relied on the research definitions of Kerlinger (1964) and Mouly (1963) in classifying the dissertations. According to Kerlinger (1964, pp. 700­701 ), "methodological research is controlled investigation of the theoretical and applied aspects of measurement, mathematics and statistics, and ways of obtaining and analyzing data."

Most of the dissertations (70 percent) from 1963 through 1969 were descriptive, bearing out Brunner and others' observation (1959) about research in nonvocational adult education. DeCrow


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and Loague (1970, p. 13), commenting on the 1963-67 Adult Education Dissertation Abstracts compilation, noted: "Given the sprawl of adult education across almost every institution of American life and its constant penetration to new audiences in new programs by new methods, research done by individuals working largely with their own resources is likely to be of this type. Overwhelmingly, these are 'surveys' of the characteristics, participation patterns, at­titudes, or educational needs of various agencies or locations; of the use of various methods; and of administrative practices. Many of these studies use national samples; most of them are rigorous enough in execution that valid generalizations can be made from them."

Although descriptive studies continue to predominate, the overall trend in methodological matters is toward greater sophistica­tion. For instance, Copeland and Grabowski pointed out in 1971 (p. 24) that "more research studies are formulated within a theo­retical framework. The quality of descriptive studies has been en­hanced with the development of more powerful statistical tests (namely, techniques for multivariate analysis) and computer pro­grams." They go on to add, "Two diametrically opposed trends seem to be developing. On the one hand, more rigor is evident in the empirical and experimental research. More attention is now given to the theoretical framework, the sampling design, the in­strumentation, and the analysis of the data. On the other hand, there is increasing interest in and use of methods, such as participant-­observer and futures-casting methods, that provide data other than what are considered 'hard data' " (p. 27).

Knowles (1973) has developed a conception of the developmental needs for research in a field of social practice in which he has set forth six organic needs and matched each one with several research methods he considered relevant to these needs. Looking at Knowles' schema (p. 302) and the kinds of methods used by dissertation writers in adult education, one can say that more attention ought to be given at least to the following: philosophical methods, historical analyses, analytical case studies, action research, and interdisciplinary and comparative studies. These approaches are particularly appropriate in the light of some remarks Ruddock (1972) made about statistical research. Although he wrote about the situation in England, his criticisms apply equally to graduate research in the United States and Canada. Ruddock conceded


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"that measurement has a certain short-run administrative utility," but he argued that "the naive approach that identified research with measurement has been particularly damaging." He maintained that "the great issues are bound up with philosophic, religious, theo­logical, social and political systems," and these "great issues escape measurement, and have in consequence been neglected." He sug­gested that students "be invited to view their proposals in relation to major issues and possibly to wider theoretical and methodological perspectives" (1972, p. 60) .

In an attempt to identify the main sources of research from which he received help as a teacher of adults, Knowles listed eight cat­egories, then made this observation: "Now, as I look at these. . . , a couple of observations strike me. One is the virtual absence of quantitative research in that list. The people who have influenced me are not primarily numbers counters. They are not Chi-square testers. Two-tailed T tests are not central to their vocabulary--even analysis of variance, with or without regression formulas. It impresses me, now that I think about it, that the chief insights about the art of teaching have come from people who have looked at the human being as a gestalt-a unified, evolving, breathing, aspiring, needing, wanting, dynamic organism. To them, an insight--em­pirically tested--is a research finding" (1972, p. 272). And Knowles ( 1972) lends strong support to Ruddock from the standpoint of a teacher of adults.

In summary, the trend in dissertation research seems to indicate that students are giving less attention to topics previously covered extensively and are more concerned with newer areas of interest. Much of the new focus has been prompted by new laws funding various projects. Changes in topics have been accompanied by changes in the methods. Predominantly descriptive research has given way to experimental and methodological types of research with a smattering of historical and philosophical types, all of which indicate the increasing sophistication and maturity of the research element of graduate programs in adult education.


The Future


Graduate research is taking on a new look. As adult educa­tion becomes better established and recognized by other disciplines


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as a distinct field of study, much of the previous defensiveness expressed in a need to prove itself as a profession has given way to self-assurance. Such security should encourage more sophisticated methods and allow for hard critical assessment of its progress.

Adult education, drawing as it does from related disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, and even economics, political science, and history, must always share research endeavors with these fields. This limitation, if it be one, is also the glory and strength of adult education research even on the graduate level. For example, evaluation, continuing professional education, and the future of adult education in degree and credential programs are subjects in which adult education and other disciplines have a mutual interest and about which they ought to pursue research both independently and jointly. However, one would hope that graduate researchers would also address the needs of practitioners--­needs such as those expressed by Knowles (1972)--particularly when one considers that adult education is a helping profession or one of social practice, as Knowles refers to it.

Another kind of research that needs to be done more is the longitudinal study. Ordinarily, a doctoral student will undertake a relatively small study which he can complete within a reasonable period of time in order to obtain a union card. Why not have a continuous study undertaken by one university's adult education department to which doctoral students can contribute one sequential segment? All the present purposes of a doctoral dissertation would still be served, and in addition some significant contributions on a large scale could be made to the field.

Graduate research in adult education is evolving from a primitive effort to an "advanced" endeavor, as the growing numbers of professors and graduate students alike show increasing sophistica­tion in the use of advanced research methods. Surely adult education has matured since the time when it was regarded as an emerging field of university study; now, theory, practice, and training are advancing on an ever-widening and deepening front.


January, 2005

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