Though large-scale field work can be costly and time-consuming, gathering original data is invaluable for arts field trip researchers to understand research subjects in-context, and to add new discoveries or bring more clarity to previous studies in the field. Much like writing blog posts, I learned to manage and participate in field work by going at it head first and learning as I went along. Though these experiences are specific to the kind of research and methods that we use in EDRE, I hope that these anecdotal insights will help new researchers plan ahead before venturing into field work for the first time, or perhaps offer new ideas to experienced field researchers.
Design and Preparation
Partnerships with arts institutions that are directing field trips and already have relationships with schools and stakeholders are invaluable. We were fortunate enough to have wonderful colleagues at the Woodruff Arts Center that worked regularly with schools in Atlanta, and who joined us through nearly every step of the data collection process. With their help, we were able to schedule time to survey students from 15 elementary schools during the very short time that our researchers could fly out to Georgia.
Accommodating and understanding the school schedules are also important – finding out when elementary schools have the most time to set aside for a 30min survey is not as easy as it sounds in a short school day! We also offer compensation for teachers and principals that we interview, since we have to set time aside after school hours. Researchers who are interested in interviewing teachers and school administration would likely want to plan ahead for this and have funds set aside.
Another piece of advice I can give is to have a plan, but don’t get locked into thinking your methods cannot change later on if something is not working. We removed and added scales and questions on our survey several times throughout the three years we were collecting data in Atlanta, when they were not working as we hoped or when they turned out to be too advanced for the students to understand. We also ended up needing to read the survey out loud to students, since many in our underserved schools were not able to read the survey well enough themselves to answer questions.
Data Collection Methods
Before you’re out in the field, ask yourself how you will transport and store the data. We decided to use paper and pencil surveys so that we would have more control over how the survey was being read to students, and so that we would not be hindered by school technology that may have not worked. Our schools have not all had the ability to do electronic surveys for hundreds of students in a short time, and in fact we’ve needed to make sure we bring plenty of extra pencils, as many students did not have a functional pencil with an eraser either.
Transporting and storing surveys can take some creative thinking. For our research in Atlanta, we shipped the surveys back and forth and took some of them back with us in our suitcases. For our research in the Northwest Arkansas area closer to home, we have used a big suitcase to take our heavy surveys back and forth between schools and keep them organized before bringing them back to the office. Luckily, we have had cabinet space set aside to store our surveys, but it did take some re-arranging in the office! Likely there is not a single method that will work for every researcher in all scenarios but thinking ahead about how to get materials from place to place is going to save you a lot of grief once you’re on the road.
If you have a large sample size and a limited number of researchers to help in the field, it is also important to consider how you will conduct surveys. Here again we tried to accommodate the schools to the best of our ability. We’ve surveyed students all together in the cafeteria using a microphone to read through the survey, we’ve gone to each individual classroom back-to-back, and we’ve combined classrooms in a grade together with either one, two, or several researchers there at a time. Whatever is easiest for the teachers and can get the students through the survey, we’ve managed to do it!
You will also likely want to consider how you are going to field clarifying questions from students during the survey without changing their answers or creating inconsistent survey experiences. This can be challenging the first few times a new survey is given out. You won’t always know what concepts or vocabulary the students do or don’t understand, and you will sometimes have to make a decision in the moment about how to answer them. There would generally be 5 or 6 people from our department and our partner organization that would be out collecting data with us on a given day in Atlanta, so discussing together how to field questions was important to make the survey experience as consistent as possible, even with different people reading it out loud.
Embracing Flexibility (Or, How to Collect Data in a Hurricane)
When you are planning to fly out several researchers for data collection months in advance, accidents and surprises can, and will happen. One of the most crucial pieces of advice I can offer to project managers or researchers who are planning to collect a large amount of data in a short time in K12 schools is be flexible.
As a project manager I have needed to manage delayed and canceled flights, power outages at schools, teachers forgetting we were coming, something happening at recess that distracted students for the rest of the day, surveys printing strangely, hotels not split-paying the bills correctly or charging us twice, being on hold forever after needing to contact the rental car company before flying out, a researcher becoming ill and no longer able to help with data collection, and even figuring out how to reschedule schools halfway during the week in a hurricane, among others.
Collecting original data can be hard, stressful work, but you can learn and contribute so much through these experiences. Dr. Greene calls our trips to the field “Laura’s Super Bowl” because it took so much time and work to make all of the moving parts function and succeed in such tightly scheduled visits. I encourage anyone who is interested in delving into arts field trip research to plan ahead, invest in creating lasting positive relationships with schools and partners, embrace the chaos, and be flexible!
Laura Florick is a Research Associate in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.