Creswell (2007) recommends that phenomenologists construct a formulated meaning from each of the themes identified from the data, which is then integrated into a textural description of the phenomenon or a description of what happened.
Major theme 1: Approach to learning and cognitive skills.
Although the quantitative analysis showed no significant difference between the approaches taken by participants and non-participants in the study buddy activity, there was evidence in the qualitative data that the students in the course already tended to take a deep approach to their learning by utilizing the high-level cognitive skills associated with deeper approaches, such as extension and application, both of which are indicative of critical thinking. For example, one student wrote
I also buy books or download research articles that enrich or contradict the course readings.
Another student wrote
[I] try to explore as much material as I feel is needed to make up my own conclusion/opinion on the issue.
Many students also reported that they try to extend their understanding of course concepts by seeking alternate and other recommended resources. One student wrote
[I] look up alternate sources to the material in books/articles from previous courses and in the AU library;
[I undertake] further exploration of the same key words/topics on the internet to find the latest information if readings seem a bit out of date.
Another key strategy described by students in the course was that of seeking to apply course concepts to their own work context. For example, a student wrote,
I approached each topic with these questions: ‘What here applies to me and to my work?’ ‘How might this help me with my work?’
Another student reported
Being able to relate what I read to work is enlightening.
As noted in the review of the literature, among the features that scholars have identified to describe critical thinking is that the learners must be willing to engage in the process of critical thinking, that they examine justifications, and consider alternate viewpoints. The participants in this study clearly demonstrated a willingness to seek out readings to enrich the course readings, as well as contradictory viewpoints. By doing so, they were considering the rationale for their own opinions in light of the opinions stated in the course readings, an important feature of critical thinking. The desire and ability to form an educated opinion about course concepts is indicative of quality graduate-level studies.
However, missing from these activities was the opportunity for students to defend their views against others who actively advocated a different view. Extending knowledge through seeking alternative or challenging articles, books or other media, and applying concepts to relevant contexts are certainly positive, but these activities could be seen as being relatively passive, risk-free instances of critical thinking in comparison with actively challenging another person’s ideas. As discussed in the next section, participants in the study buddy activity reported that the activity pushed them to do more than simply seek out static resources and actually consider alternative viewpoints.
Major theme 2: The value of the activity.
Participants in the study buddy activity reported that the activity was valuable to them because of the social connection it provided in an otherwise lonely learning environment, the benefit of an alternate viewpoint, and the motivation to complete the work on time (Table 16).
Participants described the activity as enriching and providing emotional support, comfort, encouragement, and even intimacy with someone with whom they could share frustrations about the course. Furthermore, they emphasized the importance of trust and respect in the success of the activity. One participant wrote,
I think that working with a good editor, whose opinion one trusts and values, improves learning overall.
I think that the study buddy option was of value because I like and respect the opinions of my Buddy.
The trust and respect present in the study buddy relationship was reported to have a positive effect on the learning experiences of one participant, who wrote:
I think it is very important to trust and respect the feedback you receive from peers. I think that when there is a mutually trusting relationship, we can give and receive feedback more honestly and openly. If my buddy suggested something I did not like, I would ask myself why he thought that – or I would just ask him directly. This allowed for good learning because neither of us were concerned about hurt feelings.
The relationship between the social benefits of the activity and improved learning was further supported by reports from participants that the activity provided what Slavin (2011) calls peer motivation to study. Participants felt that they would be letting their study buddy partner down if they did not get their work completed in enough time to allow for peer review and revision. As one participant noted,
I was motivated to complete work in a timely manner so that my “buddy” could review my work without being rushed.
[We] knew there was someone out there who depended on us to have work completed on time.
The peer motivation was not only focused on getting the work done on time, however; one participant reported:
[my study buddy] also helped me stay in the course because I had committed to being a peer reviewer
suggesting that, for this student, the activity was a factor in her decision to persist in the course because of her promise to her partner.
With respect to promoting deep approaches to learning and critical thinking skills, participants in the activity indicated that, beyond the deep strategies they already employed, they also valued the opportunity for collegial exchange and debate with their partner’s alternate viewpoint. This type of interaction went beyond the search for alternate viewpoints in the literature, providing a situation where the alternate viewpoint was coming from someone they knew, trusted, and respected, as well as an opportunity to incorporate their partner’s ideas into their own. For example, one participant reported,
[I] got to see another’s work that caused me to consider an alternative point view and to contribute my perspective of their work.
It was not only the feedback that they received from their partner that was valuable to participants (e.g., “My study buddy gave a different perspective in how she perceived my writings.”), but also the ability to read their partner’s work (e.g., “I have been able to get a better understanding of the course content and how it is applied by reading others’ work.”).
Participants reported that being exposed to an alternate viewpoint from a trusted peer and then having to provide collegial and constructive feedback helped them to improve their reasoning with respect to course concepts. One participant noted,
At the same time I found that at the beginning just by trying to help improve assignments of my study buddy and talking about them helped me to improve my thinking and logic.
A second participant wrote,
[My partner was] even better at seeing where I needed to expand an argument and where I could cut back on unnecessary detail.
Another student appreciated having a partner to whom he could direct his explanations as indicated in the following:
My study buddy became my audience as I was writing—I was writing to explain the material to her. In turn, she was able to point out gaps in my reasoning, to question what I meant and to help me sharpen my ideas and arguments.
Interestingly, there were very few references to the idea that the study buddy activity resembled the peer review process that is so highly valued among academics, and those who did mention it seemed to downplay the significance of it. For example, one participant wrote,
I used the study buddy only to peer review papers,
suggesting that the peer review process was more cursory and focused on grammar and punctuation rather than a critique of ideas and justifications.
To summarize, participants described the value of the activity as being a combination of the social and emotional support that they received from a trusted peer which led to a collegial relationship and the opportunity to consider an alternate viewpoint leading to greater depth of thought and improved reasoning.
Major theme 3: The structure of the activity.
Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005) argue that the design of the learning environment is a very significant factor in whether or not learners will take a deep approach to their learning and utilize critical thinking skills. In other words, the learning activities must be structured to encourage learners to take a deep approach. In view of this recommendation, participants were asked whether they thought the study buddy activity should be mandatory and structured or voluntary and student driven. Their responses were evenly divided between the two options (Table 17).
Many participants thought that the activity should be mandatory and structured because of the benefits that they experienced from having participated in the activity and the likelihood that many students would opt out of the activity if it were voluntary. One participant indicated,
I think that the benefits are very positive, and if this activity were left to the students to initiate on their own, many would choose the less ‘involved’ route;
another participant wrote
If left to their own devices, few would likely choose it because of the additional time required.
Another participant related that he had participated in a similar activity in a previous course, saying
I think a Study Buddy option or some other means to create small study groups is an important student support mechanism for distance learning. I have benefited greatly in other AU MDDE courses when I have participated in such groups. But they don’t seem to spring up spontaneously, they typically seem to require some official sanction from the instructor to kick start them.
Another reason why the activity should be mandatory came from a participant who wrote,
Formalizing it in the course gives an impetus to try it out. Some may choose to continue it themselves in the future, I certainly would like to.
The desire to use the strategy in future courses provides support for the idea that the activity is a valuable learning tool for distance students.
Interestingly, there were two instances where students used the same rationale to come to the opposite conclusion, i.e., that the activity should be voluntary. One participant wrote,
Peer review is important, especially for instructional design. No one person has all the experience so multiple points of view are valuable. People will organize based on their own needs.
A further instance of conflicting rationales is evident in the following quotes: In support of making the activity mandatory, a participant stated,
It doesn’t always work out so… it should have more structure to start us off;
whereas in support of keeping the activity voluntary, another student wrote
It doesn’t always work out so it should be left to us without a grade.
Other students who felt the activity should be voluntary thought so because of the risk of ending up with an incompatible partner, for example,
Unless you have a good learning partner experience, it is better to organize your own partner.
There isn’t sufficient time to select a study buddy from a pool of unknowns if there is no one you know from prior study. In that case, I would sooner work alone.
In recognition of the trade-off between the learning value of the activity and the perils of working with peers, one participant wrote
Even though we learn from each other, it is important to recognize that we have different writing styles, levels of experience, and personalities. I believe the Study Buddy to be a valuable learning experience and will continue on with the relationship that has been developed. But I also recognize there are individuals in my class where the SB process would have been very time consuming and frustrating.
It is clear from the data that participants thought the ability to negotiate with their partner was important to the success of the activity. Participants indicated that the activity works best when study buddy partners are allowed the flexibility to negotiate with each other. For example, one participant wrote
We worked together to negotiate timelines that worked for each of us, and we kept to those timelines to within a few hours.
We started with a preliminary schedule for the course and getting out work sent to each other. Then, as things changed, we kept each other appraised of delays and other personal obstacles.
Yet another participant noted,
We developed a timeline and agreed to an exchange date for our assignments. We agreed to allow each other to put a hand up and say that we needed more time, without question. It was a very collaborative relationship.
This process of negotiation aligns well with the importance of shared regulation in learning where group members co-create the structures by which they will engage in and evaluate the metacognitive processes required for successful group cooperation (Järvelä et al., 2013).
Given the even split between those who advocated for the activity to be mandatory and those who thought it should be voluntary, the similarity of the rationale for their opposing views, and the recognition from both sides that the opposing view had merit, there was no clear indication of whether the activity should be voluntary or mandatory. Further research into the ideal structure for the activity is warranted.
Major theme 4: Negative experiences and the views of non-participants.
A key to understanding the full complexities of a phenomenon is to consider the views of those who have views contrary to the prevailing view, an idea supported by the literature on critical thinking (Brookfield, 1987). Study buddy participants who had a negative view of the activity were very clear that the greatest frustrations occurred when there were inequities in either partner’s motivation or in the quality and depth of the feedback received. Others noted that the workload associated with the activity was, at times, problematic (Table 18).
A participant with a less motivated partner wrote,
Most of the time I felt that I [was] wasting my time trying to help someone who did not want to be helped…I found him clearly stubborn and he did not want take any suggestions from me.
In at least one instance, this incongruent motivation caused the more motivated partner to quit the activity and write
When I realized that he was there [to] simply pass the course – I gave up.
Another source of frustration occurred when the participant received extremely superficial feedback such as
It looks perfect.
A participant wrote
The study buddy returned comments to assignments that were superficial in nature. [I] didn’t see their attempt to ensure I was directly answering the assignment requirements.
A third participant wrote
I helped more than I received,
expressing frustration that seemed to be shared by others with partners who didn’t seem to put much effort into the activity.
Those who commented on the extra workload reported that it was sometimes a problem, but at least one participant indicated that the extra workload was worth it in the end. One participant wrote
Valuable time was spent by both in a very demanding course.
I suppose the only negative aspect would be the additional time required to coordinate efforts. This I believe is outweighed by the positives.
Those who chose to not participate in the study buddy activity did so for the same reasons expressed by those who participated and had a negative experience. The non-participants were concerned that they would either end up with a partner with whom they would find it difficult to work or that they would not have enough time to be a good partner for someone else. One non-participant wrote,
[I] did not want to risk ending up with someone I did not mesh well with.
and another wrote,
I do not enjoy group work. I would rather complete my work on my own.
Still another non-participant wrote,
Also, my main reason for not participating was that I didn’t feel I could do my partner justice with my busy schedule.