According to Creswell (2013), a phenomenological study, “describes the common meaning of several individuals of their lived experience of a concept or a phenomenon.” There are two types of phenomenological studies. The first type is a heuristic phenomenological approach which brings to the fore the personal experience of the researcher (Moustakas, 1990b:9, as cited in Patton; 2002b). The second type is a transcendental phenomenological approach that involves the researcher bracketing themselves through acknowledging their experiences with the phenomenon under investigation (Creswell, 2013). I will use the transcendental phenomenological approach for my pilot study.
There are seven main features in a transcendental phenomenological study. These features include: a) deciding on a phenomenon to be explored, b) identification of a group of individuals who have experienced the phenomenon, c) a discussion of the theoretical framework guiding the phenomenological study, d) a discussion by the researcher regarding their personal experiences with the phenomenon (known as bracketing), e) a data collection procedure commonly involving interviewing individuals who have experienced the phenomenon, f) data analysis procedures that move from narrower significant statements to broader units and, g) a description of the essence of the individuals ‘shared experience.
In the next several paragraphs, I apply these seven steps to my dissertation topic. The phenomenon to be explored in my dissertation project is to investigate teachers’ shared experience using virtual labs in their classrooms. In my initial interview, I would like to ask six main questions to capture teachers’ experiences with virtual labs. These questions include:
1) Tell me about your educational and professional background.
- Probe: How did you become an educator?
2) What is your teaching philosophy?
3) How do virtual labs fit within this philosophy?
4) How did you learn about virtual labs?
- When did you start using them?
- Why did you decide to use virtual labs in your classroom?
5) What do you see as barriers and benefits to using virtual labs with your students?
6) What adaptations (if any) did you make to ensure that all students in your class benefit from virtual labs?
While conducting the pilot study, teachers’ experiences with virtual labs will be the main focus or what Creswell (2013) calls “the phenomenon to be explored.” I intend to use a sample size of two teachers who have experience using virtual labs with their students to explore this phenomenon. This number is well below what Creswell (2013) suggests in his book. Creswell (2013) advises that a phenomenological study should be conducted with a heterogeneous group of at a minimum 3 to a maximum of 15 individuals. Given time constraints, I will only be able to interview two teachers. I am concerned that this sample size will not be sufficient for me to determine the essence of the lived and shared experiences of teachers who have used virtual labs in their classroom. In addition, the teachers I have chosen are both new to the profession. They each have two years of teaching experience and therefore they have only two years of using virtual labs with their students. I am afraid that the two teachers I have chosen may present a homogeneous rather than a heterogeneous group. Therefore, the teachers I have chosen may not provide a comprehensive picture of teachers’ experiences using virtual labs. In other words, a larger sample size (more than two individuals) consisting of teachers with varied amount of experiences would have given me a richer understanding of teachers ‘experiences using virtual labs. Despite these limitations, I feel that conducting this pilot study will give me the experience and skills I need to conduct a rigorous qualitative exploration using a phenomenological approach as part of my dissertation..
An example of a well-conducted study using a phenomenological approach can be found in the article entitled “A Phenomenological Study –Cognitive Representations of Aids” by Anderson and Spencer (2002). In this study, the authors wanted to “describe AIDS patients’ cognitive representation of their illness.” The authors used a purposive sample of 41 men and 17 women. To be eligible for the study, participants had to: have an AIDS diagnosis, be 18 years or older, be able to communicate in English, and have a mini-mental status exam score of greater than 22. This study shows the rigor that must be met to conduct a phenomenological study. In my study, I have also set clear inclusion criteria. To be eligible for my study, teachers must have at least two years teaching experience, be currently using virtual labs in their classroom, be a high school science teacher, be able to communicate in English. The sample size used by Anderson and Spencer (2002) is more aligned with the guidance given by Creswell (2013). As previously mentioned, I plan to interview just two teachers for my pilot study. If I use a phenomenological approach in my dissertation, I will need to increase the number of teachers that I interview in order to get a clearer picture of the range of teacher experiences’ using virtual labs.
Since I am a researcher and also an educator who uses virtual labs in my classroom, it will be necessary for me to acknowledge and bracket these experiences during my study. Creswell (2013) states in conducting a phenomenological study it is necessary for the researcher to acknowledge their experiences, especially when the researcher has experienced the phenomenon under investigation. Anderson and Spencer (2002) acknowledged in their article that they provided health care to persons living with HIV and AIDS. In addition, they explicitly stated that none of the participants in the study were and/or had been their patients. I found myself in a similar position with these researchers in my attempts to conduct this pilot study. First and foremost I am an educator. I have a lived experience with virtual labs. Second, I am a researcher. I will be interviewing people that I work with on a daily basis. Therefore, it is essential for me to acknowledge these experiences so that I will be able to approach the lived virtual labs experience with a sense of newness (Patton, 2002b). This will help me to set aside the feelings and perceptions I have experienced with this phenomenon to be able to reach a better understanding of other teacher experiences’ using virtual labs in the high school setting.
During the data collection phase, I plan to interview high school teachers who have used virtual labs in their classroom. These interviews will be my only source of data collection. Creswell (2013) suggests using varied sources of data in a phenomenological study including poems, observations, and documents in addition to interviews. Anderson and Spencer (2002), in their phenomenological study with AIDS patients, used several methods of data collection including interviews, paper-and-pencil questionnaires, drawings, journals, music, and other forms of documentation. These varied methods of data collection helped them to triangulate and validate their findings. Furthermore, it helped them to describe the essence of the lived experience for persons living with HIV/AIDS in a much richer way. I have learned from Anderson, Spencer, and Creswell that I must include varied methods of data collections to capture the essence of teachers’ lived experience with virtual labs in their science courses. In my actual dissertation, I plan to use a combination of data collection methods including in-depth interviews, paper-and-pencil questionnaires, and observations to increase my understanding of teachers’ experiences using virtual labs.
To analyze the data from my pilot study, I will transcribe the interviews verbatim. On the transcripts of these interviews, I will highlight significant statements, quotes, and sentences. I will then use these statements, sentences, and quotes to build my understanding of how the teachers experienced virtual labs. Finally, I will write a composite description of the similarities and differences in how the teachers experienced the use of virtual labs in their science classrooms.
In summary, there are many lessons learned from this analysis. First, the best sample size for a phenomenological study is between 5 to 25 participants. My pilot study only includes a sample size of two teachers. Thus, I will need to increase the sample size of teachers that I interview for my dissertation. Second, I am relying on a single method of data collection for my pilot study. However, I will need to use a variety of data collection methods during my dissertation to gain a richer understanding of teachers’ experiences with virtual labs. Third, since I will be using the transcendental phenomenological approach, it is imperative that I acknowledge my experiences with virtual labs (bracketing) so that I can be able to look at the participants’ experiences with a fresh set of eyes or what Patton (2002b.9) calls looking with “a sense of newness.” Fourth, to elicit a deeper and richer understanding of teachers’ experiences with virtual labs the set of questions I have developed needs to be streamlined. My questions are a little too broad and may need some refining for my actual dissertation study. I got some ideas for how to refine these questions during the interviews I conducted as part of my pilot study.
For my next analysis, I will use a case study approach to guide my qualitative inquiry. This analysis will help me determine if a case study approach is better suited to explore teachers’ shared and lived experiences with virtual labs.
Anderson, E., & Spencer, M. (2002). A phenomenological study: cognitive representation of AIDS. Qualitative Health Research, 12(10), 1338-1352.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches (3rd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Patton, M. Q. (2002b). Variety in qualitative inquiry: Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE