• Larry White

MINDING THEIR MINDS: An Evolving Research Methodology

Setting the Research Context

Canadians face a steep learning curve in the age of truth and reconciliation. Indeed, in recent years, there has been little meaningful dialogue in the academic community that neglects the critical role that education and education research play with regard to acknowledging and internalizing the injustices endured by Indigenous peoples at the hands of successive Canadian governments and non-indigenous citizens (Bartlett et al., 2012; Tilley, 2019; Todd Ormiston, 2010; Toulouse, 2016). Considerable attention has been accorded to initiatives such as indigenizing and decolonizing curricula (Hogue, 2016; Tilley, 2019; Todd Ormiston, 2010), but that is only the beginning.

Research is vital to reconciliation. It provides insights and practical examples of why and how educating Canadians about the diverse concepts, principles, and practices of reconciliation contributes to healing and transformative social change (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p. 242).

Two-eyed seeing, or Etuaptmumk in its original Mi’kmaq, is a broadening of personal perspectives in which one learns to “see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both these eyes together, for the benefit of all” (Bartlett et al., 2012, p. 335).

Implicit in two-eyed seeing are the core researcher responsibilities of reciprocity, accountability, and co-learning (Hogue, 2016; Peltier, 2018; Todd Ormiston, 2010). These can only be effectively achieved when the researcher mindfully establishes ongoing, dynamic, and respectful relationships with those participating in the research, including communities, participants, and other partners (Harder et al., 2018; Kilian et al., 2019; Peltier, 2018). Through these relationships, researchers are able to inform themselves regarding how best to proceed in a manner that is both culturally relevant and safe, and that provides support for the development and growth of all researchers toward a multi-perspective approach (Harder et al., 2018; Hogue, 2016; Kilian et al., 2019; Peltier, 2018).

In locating myself within this discussion, I must acknowledge the potential that viewing research methodologies through the lens of two-eyed seeing borders on aspects of cultural appropriation for academic purposes (Hogue, 2016; Kurtz, 2013; May-Derbyshire, 2019). I am not an Indigenous person and make no claim to understanding concepts such as two-eyed seeing in the depth and with the levels of internalization and deep personal meaning as would an Indigenous person. However, given the current discourse about this topic within a contemporary Canadian context, indeed in an age of truth and reconciliation, I believe that researchers have been given a form of implied consent to respectfully explore (Hogue, 2016; Kurtz, 2013) means by which to integrate insights from Indigenous and Western ways of knowing.

Research Problem Statement

In its Constitution, the World Health Organization inextricably includes mental health and wellness as integrated components and determinants of overall health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organization, 2013, p. 7). For its part, Canada’s working definition of mental health is “the capacities of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well-being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections, and personal dignity” (Government of Canada, 2016, p. 2).

For those working in the field of education, especially those in post-secondary education, connections seem obvious between health, mental health, and the role of education in society (Canadian Association of College & University Student Services & Canadian Mental Health Association, 2013). Indeed, in an emergent knowledge society (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2005), colleges and universities have a pivotal role as the generators, sharers, and implementers of research and knowledge in order to support, enhance, and transform the life and health of global citizens and the communities in which they live (Okanagan Charter: An International Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges, 2015).

There are barriers to success in achieving this aspiration. Some are systemic and deep-rooted organizational and operational challenges, while others arise in the form of external pressures on the organization. Because of the diversity of personal characteristics, beliefs, values, needs, and expectations, challenges posed by people or groups of people can be among the most demanding. Arguably, the most critical of these is student academic success (International Conference on Health Promoting Universities & Colleges, 2015).

Individual academic success is challenged by a variety of matters, such as the transition learners make into post-secondary education. This often includes unfamiliar experiences and expectations in unknown environments; conflicting demands, deadlines, and priorities; pressures to perform well (Cunningham & Duffy, 2019; Linden & Stuart, 2019; Rosvall, 2019), and use of learning technologies (Taylor et al., 2018). One study (Poole et al., 2017) also explores the academic stressors created by time away from studies, such as the recently-implemented fall break week at Canadian colleges and universities. On their own or when combined with other stressors, such as living away from home, peer pressure, changing personal relationships, and financial matters, they can be daunting, intimidating, and even paralyzing as they erode one’s resilience (Cunningham & Duffy, 2019; Linden & Stuart, 2019; Rosvall, 2019). They can have implications beyond academic performance, potentially leading to unemployment, underemployment, and other financial challenges (da Silva et al., 2017).

It is necessary, therefore, to problematize the factors and circumstances that, increasingly, inhibit academic success by adversely affecting the mental health, resilience, and confidence of post-secondary learners. It is incumbent on educators, academics, and learning professionals, to experiment and explore to find new ways of helping learners mitigate these challenges in order to focus on the goal of academic success (White, 2019).

Research Purpose Statement

Regardless of jurisdiction, institution, program, status, or any other factor, every learner interacts with curriculum and the pedagogy that was used to create it (White, 2019). Much the same as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been adopted as the defacto standard in instructional design (Courey et al., 2012; White, 2019), it has been adapted over the years to support learner academic success in a variety of situations, such as in supporting the specific learning needs of Indigenous learners (Green, 2010), first generation learners (House et al., 2019), newcomers and refugees (Stewart & Martin, 2018).

It is the purpose of this grounded theory study, therefore, to consider ways to improve academic success by probing and exploring at the intersection of instructional design with learner mental health to determine the efficacy of mindfully supporting learner mental health at the stages of curriculum development and instructional design, without sacrificing academic quality or rigour.

Selected Research Method and Justification

Faced with the challenge of exploring the relationships between three fundamental variables characteristic of post-secondary education – student mental health, curriculum, and academic success – grounded theory provides the best opportunity to explore these relationships and then to extrapolate relevant theories arising from the data. Grounded theory also lends itself well to the incorporation of Indigenous research practices.

Kovach (2005) argues that the fundamental aspects of any Indigenous research methodology are that they arise from holistic Indigenous knowledge systems, that results are shared using Indigenous methods, and that they focus on receptivity and collectivity in the relationships between the researcher and participants and between the researcher and the community.

Indigenous knowledge has been described as having a deep-rooted and intimate association with nature (Bartlett et al., 2012; Harder et al., 2018; Skrivanos, 2017) and that the act of actually conducting research is only as effective at its conclusion as the relationships with its stakeholders are solid (Harder et al., 2018; Kilian et al., 2019; Peltier, 2018; Skrivanos, 2017; Todd Ormiston, 2010).

Charmaz (2006) focuses attention on flexibility as one of the most important characteristics of grounded theory arguing that its flexibility allows the effective use of grounded theory with almost any epistemology. The very nature of grounded theory permits researchers to reshape and revise the trajectory of the study as new data is observed or shared. For example, flexibility provides avenues to open new lines of inquiry (Madden, 2019), such as into the effects that the Residential School program or the Sixties Scoop still have on defining the relationship between study participants and study topic.

An Indigenous perspective on research relies significantly on researchers acquiring first-hand experiences, internalizing the process of meaning-making, and conveying learnings arising from these experiences through appropriate means such as ritual and storytelling, supported by mindfully selected technologies (Kilian et al., 2019; Peltier, 2018; Skrivanos, 2017).

Reflexivity is another important characteristic of grounded theory research that involves understanding and making transparent any and all relevant relationships the researchers have with others involved with the study (Aspers & Corte, 2019; Engward & Davis, 2015; Gentles et al., 2014; Tracy, 2010).

A grounded theory approach encourages researchers to remain close to their studied worlds and to develop an integrated set of theoretical concepts from their empirical materials that not only synthesize and interpret them but also show processual relationships (Charmaz, 2006, p. 507).

An outcome of maintaining close cognitive or spatial proximity during any research, and with Indigenous research through the development and strengthening of relationships, is that researchers find themselves on a journey of learning and growth (Bartlett et al., 2012; Madden, 2019), whose outcomes may include redefined perspectives related to the research topic or reshaped worldviews.

Research Questions or Hypotheses

Whereas quantitative research tends to ask a specific question and sets out to test a specific hypothesis, qualitative research questions, in contrast, can be described as necessarily vague and generative (Agee, 2009). In defining a means to formulate qualitative questions, Agee (2009, p. 432) uses a journey metaphor: “it is helpful to think of research questions as navigational tools that can help a researcher map possible directions but also to inquire about the unexpected.” By ensuring that questions are more “discovery-oriented” (Agee, 2009, p. 434), researchers can avoid developing a “tunnel vision” approach (Maxwell, 2005, 67; cited in Agee, 2009) that limits rigour and reflexivity.

When involved in research seeking to uncover and weave together stories of individuals’ experiences and relationships with the study topic, it is critical that consideration be given to ethics in question development (Agee, 2009). Questions should be crafted to capitalize on the richness of qualitative methodologies and, at the same time, honour the perspectives of study participants and acknowledge the close relationship between researcher and participant (Agee, 2009; Korstjens & Moser, 2017), 2017). Pilarska speaks to the benefits of a researcher who is “culturally sensitive” (2019, 157) as being one who demonstrates cognitive flexibility, self-awareness and other skills that foster the kindling of trust with research participants. Developing the skills associated with cultural sensitivity may also be the precursor to adopting an emic approach in conducting research, the ability to understand and relate participants’ stories and ways of knowing and being that respects the individual and cultural contexts within which they are shared (Korstjens & Moser, 2017; Pilarska, 2019). This creates an environment of co-learning similar to that espoused by the guiding principle of Etuaptmumk, or two-eyed seeing (Bartlett et al., 2012; Chapman & Schott, 2020; Czuy & Hogarth, 2019).

Given that this study seeks to understand personal experiences of people related to the study topic and the meanings associated with their experiences, an idiographic approach to planning the study is appropriate. While this study seeks to determine the efficacy of using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles as a tool to mitigate or soften the effects of stressors that inhibit academic success, it is rooted in the perceptions of post-secondary learners about their own mental health and about factors that affect their mental wellness.

In attempting to honour these relationships and to provide for the open and generative nature of qualitative study, I arrived at this initial question:

Preliminary Research Question: How do undergraduate level post-secondary students perceive the effects of factors associated with their academic journey on their own mental health?

Of course, “it is valuable to ‘listen’ out for answers that contain alternative interpretations, descriptions and explanations” (Reddy, 2019, p. 272). This maximizes the generative power of a research question and honours relationships with study participants. This can provide over-arching guidance and direction to the study. Therefore, subsidiary questions that may be explored and that might help inform the preliminary question include:

Subsidiary Question 1: What is the relationship between student mental health and academic success?

Subsidiary Question 2: In what situations have UDL principles been used or adapted to help overcome challenges to student academic success and to what extent were these adaptations effective?

Subsidiary Question 3: Are there any promising or best practices in UDL adaptations that may be transferable to supporting student mental health and, by association, to improving student academic success?

Intended Data Collection Tool and Analysis

Two methods of qualitative data collection I plan to use in the study are focus groups, during which I intend to collect new data for reflexive thematic analysis, and secondary analysis of existing research to strengthen the credibility of my work (Rivaz et al., 2019) and to provide insights into the subsidiary research questions.

Focus groups offer a means by which in-depth data can be gathered from a group, enabling researchers to extract rich details regarding common understandings, unique perspectives, and individual experiences related to the research question (Baillie, 2019). Their flexible nature allows participants to draw from and build on each others’ insights making it possible to uncover unexpected ideas warranting further exploration (Baillie, 2019; Rothwell et al., 2016). Rothwell et al (2016) equate focus groups with public opinion suggesting that perspectives arising are reflective of current social-environmental factors as well as pre-existing knowledge and attitudes. It is important to remember that focus groups are not necessarily reflective of a population, so it may be problematic to generalize. The efficacy of data arising from a focus group may also be subject to the researcher’s skill at group moderation (Rothwell et al, 2016) and to the level of engagement and knowledge of the participants (Rothwell et al, 2016).

Once data collection begins (Moser & Korstjens, 2018), the data will be analyzed using reflexive thematic analysis to discover patterns of meaning that speak to the research question (Braun & Clarke, 2019). More specifically, a latent approach to thematic analysis will help identify the underlying assumptions and beliefs connected with the patterns of meaning (Braun & Clarke, 2019).

Secondary analysis is “the use of existing data sets to answer new questions” (Clarke & Cossette, 2000, p. 109). This method allows researchers to capitalize on existing data resources without additional costs to funders, often the public purse (Clarke & Cossette, 2000; Johnston, 2013; Sherif, 2018). The use of secondary analysis is on the rise, particularly among doctoral students embarking on their research journey (Clarke & Cosette, 2009; Johnston, 2014) by helping to broaden and deepen their knowledge about the research question (Sherif, 2018). It can also add to the body of knowledge without intrusion into vulnerable populations (Sherif, 2018). However, the use of this method can be an issue given a limited availability of research employing this method as a model (Clarke & Cosette, 2009) and given that the researcher cannot attest to the rigour of the process used for initial data collection (Johnston, 2014). The use of existing data may also represent the biases of those doing the collection (Johnston, 2014; Sherif, 2018). This underscores the criticality of thoroughness in the research planning stages (Johnston, 2014).

Secondary analysis will be employed during two simultaneous and overlapping literature reviews, querying (a) the relationship between academic success and student mental health, and (b) the use and adaptation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles in supporting the academic success of identified learner sub-groups. Specifically, this analysis hopes to reveal best or promising practices in the use of UDL for this purpose.

One of the fundamental and overarching principles of ethics, researchers or anyone involved in data collection must remain non-judgmental while capturing the depth and full meaning of participants’ stories (American Psychological Association, 2017; Bartlett et al., 2012; Vanclay et al., 2013). Respect extends to acknowledging the relationship that exists and evolves between researcher and participants (Agee, 2009; American Psychological Association, 2017; Chong & Yeo, 2015; Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1979; Korstjens & Moser, 2017) and to demonstrating cultural sensitivity (Pilarska, 2019). Respect is especially critical in situations in which participants require special protection, such as those with diminished autonomy and those who are vulnerable or marginalized (American Psychological Association, 2017; Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1979; Vanclay et al., 2013). It also includes researchers restricting their inquiry to the research question(s) at hand and not intruding unnecessarily on the private lives of participants (Vanclay et al., 2013).

This is also the case for Indigenous participants when respect must be broadened to include acceptance of the validity of Indigenous ways of knowing and being (Bartlett et al., 2012; Pilarska, 2019), adherence to community protocols (Bannister, 2018; Brant Castellano, 2004, 2008), and on researchers acquiring first-hand experiences, internalizing the process of meaning-making, and conveying learnings arising from these experiences through appropriate means such as ritual and storytelling, supported by mindfully selected technologies (Bannister, 2018; Kilian et al., 2019; Peltier, 2018). Researchers must also respect “both rights of self‑determination and responsibilities of care to past, present and future ancestors and to other sentient beings through stewardship of lands, airways, and waterways(Bannister, 2018, p. 218).

The second fundamental and overarching principle of ethics, informed consent, as its name implies, indicates that participants must be provided sufficient relevant information about the study, including funding sources, and the implications of their participations so that they can make an informed, voluntary decision about their contribution (American Psychological Association, 2017; Chong & Yeo, 2015; Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1979; Vanclay et al., 2013).

Researchers must disclose all details regarding the risks of participation including the disposition of the data collected (Vanclay et al., 2013). Typically captured as signed documents, informed consent forms, including specific and separate permissions received for audio or video recording, should be retained by researchers for up to several years in the event an audit or other questions arise (American Psychological Association, 2017; Vanclay et al., 2013).

Sampling Method to be Used

The approach to sampling is dependent on and informed by the research methodology and question(s) to be answered (Charmaz, 2006; Tracy, 2013). In seeking insights into the research questions, this study will follow a grounded theory research methodology employing focus groups and reflexive thematic analysis to collect and analyse the data, respectively. Secondary analysis of existing research will help to strengthen my understanding of key concepts in the study and provide insights into the subsidiary research questions.

Therefore, it is imperative that I employ integrity and ethical rigour during each step in the research process, including when identifying focus group participants and informing them responsibly about the study. It is equally essential that I am authentic and that I demonstrate a genuine interest in the well-being of participants.

The population to be studied is post-secondary learners in Canada. Post-secondary learners are typically spread across a variety of programs both in publicly funded and private colleges and universities. This study will focus on post-secondary learners currently registered in an equivalent-to-undergraduate program, regardless of full- or part-time status, at a Canadian publicly funded college or university.

Due to the foundation for the primary research question and the direct nature of the subsidiary questions, focus groups will also be conducted with participants who may be able to provide additional data related to curriculum development and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. Therefore, at least one focus group will be held with faculty, one with instructional designers and curriculum specialists, and one with health care professionals who are specialists in supporting the mental health needs of post-secondary learners.

In all, at least as initially planned at the research design phase, I anticipate conducting seven focus groups as follows:

1. One face-to-face focus group at Queens University comprised of post-secondary learners currently registered in an equivalent-to-undergraduate program, regardless of full- or part-time status.

2. One face-to-face focus group at Queens University comprised of faculty teaching in an equivalent-to-undergraduate program.

3. One face-to-face focus group at Queens University comprised of instructional designers and curriculum specialists.

4. One face-to-face focus group at the British Columbia Institute of Technology comprised of post-secondary learners currently registered in an equivalent-to-undergraduate program, regardless of full- or part-time status.

5. One face-to-face focus group at the British Columbia Institute of Technology comprised of faculty teaching in an equivalent-to-undergraduate program.

6. One face-to-face focus group at the British Columbia Institute of Technology comprised of instructional designers and curriculum specialists.

7. One face-to-face or video conference focus group with health care professionals who are specialists in supporting the mental health needs of post-secondary learners.

Queens University is a mid-size university located in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, having a 2019 fall registered learner population of 25,260 including 18,367 undergraduate first degree learners. Approximately 95% of Queens’ learner population comes from outside Kingston and about 10% of the learner population represent more than 100 nationalities. Queens University also has an active, well-developed Centre for Teaching and Learning providing educational development, instructional design, and other curriculum support services to faculty and administrators at the university (Queens University, 2020).

With 50,087 learners in 2017/18 of which 19,535 learners have declared themselves to be in equivalent-to-undergraduate programs, the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) is in Burnaby, British Columbia, and is one of the largest colleges in Canada. There are 5,700 international learners studying at BCIT representing 120 nationalities. The large remainder of learners represents primarily those who are part-time and have not declared their programs. BCIT also has a well-developed Learning and Teaching Centre (British Columbia Institute of Technology, 2018, 2020).

I have professional colleagues at both Queens University and BCIT and, with their assistance, subsequent to receiving approvals from each institution’s respective research and ethics board, I would seek and identify focus group participants for each of the focus groups noted above. My colleagues may also be able to assist me to identify participants for the health care providers focus group.

This study will adhere to all relevant policy statements regarding the ethical conduct of research that involves human participants. Specifically, this study will adhere to policy statements contained in the following:

1. Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2010) This policy statement governs the ethical conduct of research involving human participants. It is developed, interpreted and implemented by the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE). PRE was created in 2001 by the Government of Canada as a collaboration between three federal research agencies: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). All human-centred research in Canada must conform to this policy statement.

2. International Ethical Guidelines for Health-related Research Involving Humans (2016) In collaboration, the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) transformed the principles arising in the Declaration of Helsinki of the World Medical Association into applied practice. Unicaf University ascribes to these ethical guidelines.


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