Cultivating a Scholarship of Engagement: Assessment-Driven Research Opportunities

Presenting and Publishing Outcome Data

PA faculty often find themselves in a quandary about how to generate scholarship. The traditional bench research is rarely a solution due to a lack of traditional research-PhD background of many faculty members. The good news is that with some creativity and mentoring faculty can find opportunities for scholarship embedded within their everyday lives. The classroom provides a fertile laboratory for data collection and analysis. Pedagogical innovations can be documented and prove suitable for publication. The scholar-practitioner model is arguably the most successful route for PA faculty to achieve tenure and higher rank.

In addition to classroom-related data, faculty can explore outcomes data as another avenue of scholarship. Some examples include developing predictive models for student success. Another possibility is to measure the impact of modifications within the program curriculum. Measuring outcome data following these modifications can be fertile ground for presenting successful innovations.

Although these are helpful recommendations, it can still be overwhelming to think about publishing an article. The answer is to divide the task into baby steps. For example, the institution may have a scholarship day or conference that provides a venue for presenting scholarly work. Begin with a poster presentation as a logical first step. Next, locate an appropriate journal for an abstract and brief report to get published. Journals provide an avenue for a program-specific study to be presented. The next logical step might be applying the pedagogical innovation to multiple programs, which also provides an opportunity to recruit co-authors and “spread the wealth.” In the section below, the authors describe suggestions for incorporating scholarship as part of the overall program culture.

Embedding Scholarship Agendas Within the Program Fabric

This author began his academic career in 1991 without any previous experience in education. Although advanced degrees were completed shortly thereafter, 14 years passed before publication of my first research article. The task of conducting and publishing educational research seemed overwhelming at the start, and it may appear that way to new PA faculty.

PA faculty face a unique challenge in transitioning from the clinician model to the role of an academic. In many institutions, the expectation is to not only meet the workload requirements, but also generate scholarship. How can new PA faculty find time to start a research agenda when they are teaching and advising students, serving on specific program committees, and learning a brand-new language and culture?

Conducting a literature review, obtaining Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, and examining and interpreting the data is a difficult task, especially when completed on one’s own. But with the right support, PA faculty can prepare for the research process with confidence. As with any overwhelming task, the research process can be demystified by examining the various steps involved:

Formulate a Research Question

The classroom is a fertile laboratory with daily opportunities to study the phenomenon of learning within a PA program. The first step of the research process is to begin conceptualizing a simple question to study, then formulate it into a research question. Write down possible questions, consider them thoroughly, and finally settle on one main question. For instance, ask how the instructional model impacts students’ learning and knowledge base over time.

If establishing a clear research question is a struggle, consider turning to the institution for help. Most colleges and universities have some version of a center for faculty development. Make an appointment to use their assistance in a brainstorming session.

Seek Out a Mentor

In many PA programs, new PA faculty lack a research mentor, someone who has experience conducting and publishing research, to assist with the process of generating a research question that can be converted into a scholarly project. If possible, ask the program director or a fellow faculty members in the PA program to be involved. Most experienced educators are happy to help new PA faculty early in their careers. Offer the opportunity for the mentor to be one of the co-presenters or contributing authors.

Conduct a Literature Review

Once the research question has been formulated, ask the university/college librarian to conduct a literature search. It is possible that the same question has been asked within PA education, or it may be a new question; it is important to obtain information about the existing literature before moving forward with the research idea and question.

Conceptualize the Research Design

Take time to clearly conceptualize the research design, plotting a mental course for its path:

Consider the target audience–Who will read the research results? Simultaneously set goals, ensuring they are attainable while keeping the end goal in mind.

Decide whether to follow a specific group over time to document the impact of an educational intervention, or, if applying a new teaching methodology, compare the results between groups. PA programs are rich with outcome data.

Reflect on the relationships between variables and how one variable might predict another.

Look ahead to the time next year the study will begin.

Remember to submit an application to the IRB at your institution. Contact a member of the IRB and ask that they review the application before submission. Without IRB approval, the results of research involving human subjects cannot be published.

Think of these smaller projects in terms of a continuum. The evolution of a research project can begin with presenting a poster at a regional or national meeting, leading to submission of the research article for publication in an appropriate journal. The project may even be expanded to involve more than one program, creating opportunities for larger numbers of participants and comparison groups.

Obtain Assistance with the Statistical Analysis and Interpretation of Data

The validity of the statistical analysis will be reviewed through the peer process after the research results have been submitted. Since it is common for PA educators to have little to no advanced training in statistics, it is wise to enlist one of the statistics professors at the university to help review and analyze the data, a win-win situation for both the PA faculty member and statistics professors seeking scholarship opportunities. Consider offering co-authorship on any posters or articles generated from the research project. (Personally, I have included a statistician as a contributing author on every article published during my career.)

In many ways the Self-Study Report required by ARC-PA is much like a research project. The interventions involved with the continuous quality assurance process are, in essence, simple applications of research. The measurement of outcome data as the result of modifications provides opportunities for scholarly inquiry. Embedding the scholarly inquiry process within the program’s fabric contributes to the program’s achievement of excellence. In the section below is a step-by-step primer for faculty who are developing scholarship projects. Although this is not an exhaustive list, it provides an excellent framework for a beginning.

A Step-by-Step Approach to Developing Scholarship Projects

Brainstorming

List a question or questions that intrigue you such as:

  • Questions that need to be answered
  • A phenomenon seen in the classroom
  • The impact of the new pedagogical method
  • Attitudes of students toward specific teaching methods

Questions to answer before moving too far in the process:

  • Has this question already been asked in PA education?
  • Has this question already been definitively answered in PA education?
  • If not, has this question been asked in other areas of medical education? (medical students, PT, OT, nursing, pharmacy, etc.?)
  • Who do I know with expertise in this area who might serve as a resource?
  • Does the university provide seed grants for faculty to fund small research projects?
  • Perform a literature search on appropriate databases.

Secure assistance from a librarian to provide a comprehensive search regarding the research question.

Audience and Target Journal(s)

Who else would be interested in the answer to the question? (Local administrators, other PA educators in your program or general area, PA educators across the U.S., medical educators in general, public health or public policymakers, practicing PA’s?)

Can the question be changed or expanded in a way that would make the answer interesting to more people?

To which journals does the potential audience subscribe?

What associations, organizations, or programs might care about the question?

Collaboration

Would it be advantageous to collaborate with a local colleague or faculty from a different PA program?

Methodology/Experimental Design

Is it possible (and practical) to approach the question with a true experimental design (i.e., control group vs. intervention group, subjects ideally assigned randomly)?

If an experimental design is not possible or practical, what type (or types) of observational design would work?

Identify the Population

How will that population be sampled?

Is there a pre-existing database that would help answer the question?

Would a quantitative or qualitative approach work best for the question?

Important elements to consider if survey research will be involved:

  • How to best reach an unbiased sample of the population (mail vs. e-mail/internet vs. telephone vs. face-to-face interviews)
  • Where to obtain a database of prospective subjects for the sample
  • How to Determine the Sample Size
  • Whether a power analysis is required
  • How to obtain a random sample
  • How to protect subject privacy
  • Whether a pre-existing, validated survey instrument exists that could be re-used as-is or in modified form

Whether help with the experimental design will be needed (Note: If help from a statistician is required, make sure to involve them in the process early! The analysis will be limited by the details of the experimental design, including the way questions are worded in a survey.)

Don’t forget that all research studies must be submitted for local IRB approval prior to starting the study! In some cases, educationally related projects can be expedited and determined to be exempt.

Data Analysis

Does the data require descriptive analysis only?

Does the data require inferential statistics?

Will determining statistical significance be required?

Consider using a statistician to provide expert consultation.

Manuscript Preparation & Submission

Will a mentor be needed for this process?

What journal or journals will be targeted for submission?

Personal To-do List and Timeline

Summary and Conclusions

This section presents basic strategies to enhance faculty scholarship. Faculty must begin early in their careers to foster this process. For programs that are in tenure-track and promotion eligible tracks, scholarship is essential for faculty advancement. Guiding faculty toward their own unique niches is the key to success. In the section below are additional strategies to achieve tenure and rank promotion.

Massey & Martin LLC provides consultation for faculty in the area of faculty development including a focus on scholarship and publications.

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