Stacey Purvis-Buchwald can’t wait to share the results of her dissertation research.

The former counselor and social worker, current assistant principal, and Ed.D. candidate at Saint Mary’s University was interested to see how students perceive their classroom engagements—within the categories of behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and agentic engagement. Using photo-elicitation, she compared student responses from a STEM magnet school and a traditional public middle school.

She presented her findings this past weekend at the 13th Annual Doctoral Research Symposium at Saint Mary’s Twin Cities Campus.

The timing and the topic coincided perfectly with her work. “I’ve always wanted to continue my education and get a doctorate,” she said. “The timing was perfect because my school at the time was transitioning from a traditional middle school to a STEM magnet middle school. This was an opportunity to do research and apply my learning to the work I would be doing at my site for my community and my students. I was able to find a program at Saint Mary’s that allowed me to choose focus areas within the curriculum that I wanted to learn more about and could apply to my practice.”

Using a sample of students at the traditional middle school and the STEM magnet school, Purvis-Buchwald completed in-classroom lessons around engagement. After studying the four different areas, she then asked students to provide examples of their lived experiences of their engagement in the classroom in each of these areas, using photos taken on iPads. After choosing the best photos and categorizing them, the students submitted their findings to Purvis-Buchwald.

The photos were then published and used in a focus group interview.

Purvis-Buchwald said she found that students at both sites perceived their engagement very similarly. “What I also found was there is a definitely a multi-dimensionality to engagement. For example, when students are talking about emotional engagement, they pair similar perceptions to other categories, behavioral or cognitive. They aren’t isolated.”

And, most interestingly, she discovered that students at the STEM site perceived their engagement as highly collaborative. “In all four areas of engagement, students regularly talked about engagement in relationship to other students or the teacher in the class,” she said. “They always referred to how they were interacting with other students, which is really interesting. Students at the STEM site were thinking, ‘I need to check my thinking with someone else.’ That didn’t happen at the traditional site.”

Purvis-Buchwald can see areas where further research could be developed. “The STEM site had a heavy concentration of inquiry-based instruction, and I would like to do more research on that connection,” she said. “Does inquiry-based instruction lead to a higher-level collaborative engagement? This would help educators to guide their own instructional practices.

“As a principal, I’d like to work with teachers in professional development and evaluation and explain the four categories and help them understand how to look for these categories in their classroom. It would help them determine if students are fully engaged,” she added. “Too often we monitor if students are compliant, on time, have good attendance, and are completing homework. Rarely are there studies looking at all four categories and how students perceive their own engagement. This is very useful for teachers to understand and use in their classrooms.”

Purvis-Buchwald said the experience was fun as well as practical. As an assistant principal for District 196 (located in Rosemount and covering the south suburban Twin Cities), she will be sharing her research with her district, the fourth-largest in Minnesota.

Looking back at her time at Saint Mary’s, Purvis-Buchwald said it was the convenience of Saint Mary’s Ed.D. program that she appreciates most. “The combination of the online format and summer seminar couldn’t be more ideal for an educator,” she said. “Meeting members of my cohort and building relationships was also very valuable. When we got to the online portion, I truly felt like I knew these individuals because we’d spent time together over the summer. I have made amazing connections.”


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