By: Gary L. Villereal, Ph.D., and students
Conducting research provides students a potential method for learning and exploring a topic of interest. A Foundation of Human Services Honors class did just that: they learned about and explored a topic of interest—the impact of divorce.
Thirteen students embarked on a mission to test their hypothesis that, in general, most participants would report negative effects and opinions of divorce. A total of 126 surveys were completed, and the hypothesis was supported. However, the results were not as conclusive as expected. Using a scale of 1 (positive effect) to 5 (negative effect), the mean score was 3.39, generating only 67.8% support of the hypothesis, just shy of constituting a rank of moderate support.
The hypothesis was derived from students’ expectations of higher divorce rates and stronger negative opinions. However, only 30.8% of those surveyed had been involved in divorce situations, and several of those who had not been involved in such situations expressed concern that they were not qualified to answer many of the questions. In a culture known as “the Bible Belt,” a stronger influence on the results seemed logical, but the apparent neutrality encountered suggests that divorce is becoming or has become a cultural norm.
The average age of the survey respondents was 20.6 years, the typical age of a sophomore or junior in college. In general, the strongest opinions came from both the oldest and youngest respondents. The age of the respondents appears to have played a significant role in the results; at age 21, most students are living independently and are trying to develop their own sets of beliefs, separate from the ones they were taught from childhood.
Common themes emerged as the students reflected on what they had learned and what the results meant to them. With the majority being freshmen, what appeared to be an overwhelming task—the actual conducting of the research—proved quite rewarding. This article presents, in the students’ words, the lessons learned from doing the research project and what each student learned from participating.
Emily Greenwood: When Dr. Villereal...told us we would be doing surveys on campus, I was surprised, to say the least. I am not particularly fond of approaching strangers and asking them questions. However, I found that completing the survey was quite enjoyable, and I learned many things.
Sara Moody: I was surprised to encounter so many respondents willing and eager to share so much of their lives with an Honors student working on a project—a stranger.
Danielle Tosti: For me, approaching new people and asking them to participate in our survey was a very new experience. It was difficult stepping out of that comfort zone, but in doing so, I learned that I can, in fact, do whatever I set my mind to do.
Libby Stout: I was very nervous and worried that I would mess up somehow. At first, I was skeptical and not sure as to how people would react to the survey or me. I guess I expected participants to be a little less willing to accept the surveys....This was not the case. I did not have anyone refuse to take the survey, and just about every demographics question was answered as well. After the first few people were so nice, I felt much more comfortable with the rest of the surveys.
Shaylin Gimborys: I was a little hesitant to start handing out surveys to every fifth person, because I was afraid a lot of people wouldn’t give it the time of day or would be rude about it. It turns out I got the complete opposite reaction. People were happy to fill them out and voice their opinions. I only had two people give any resistance, and they ended up taking it anyway.
Blake Mattingly: The surveys actually took much longer for people to do in general than I had supposed. I had thought that people would be more apathetic about filling out a survey, but they took their time and many thought about the questions and at times even asked me to clarify questions to ensure accuracy.
Chloe Muller: I enjoyed administering the surveys. I was surprised at how willing people were to take the survey. Even if they did not want to or did not have time to take it, they hesitated, except for a few who were upfront and said no. But no one was rude.
Kate Douglas: The completion of our class’ survey on children of divorce allowed for numerous different and unexpected learning opportunities. For instance, it became quite obvious while compiling the results that the opinions other people truly hold are not always parallel to what I would expect their opinions to be.
Actually conducting the research began with interesting thoughts about what had to be accomplished.
Amanda Huff: The study we conducted in my social work class was the first of its kind of which I had ever had a part. I wasn’t sure exactly how one conducted a survey or even created one. I didn’t know how to interpret the results, what a T-test was, or what skewness and kurtosis meant. When we were first presented the assignment, I was completely blind to the work that needed to be done.
Michelle Child: A vital step in this project was making a strong survey. All questions had to be unbiased and able to be answered on a 1 to 5 Likert Scale.
Jessica Whitehouse: Before we even considered the questions of the survey, we brainstormed as a group on the subject and narrowed it down to the one we felt would generate the strongest results. We also considered our audience. This thinking really helped me realize how much effort researchers put into their work.
Rebekka Welch: I not only learned from the results of the research, but also learned the methods of conducting research and the teamwork that is involved with other researchers.
Nancy Marshall: As I reflected on the study in which we surveyed people on campus about the impact of divorce on children, I began to think of all the work that was put into it.... After picking the topic and actually preparing for and completing the study, I realized how much work it really took. There were many things I did not realize had to be thought of in preparation.
Doing Things Differently
In retrospect, it is easy to assess how the research could be stronger and clearer, but only an after-the-fact review can reveal such learning.
Emily Greenwood: Through this project, I learned that some of the questions should have been reworded, or different questions should have been asked to gain a more focused understanding of the respondents’ feelings toward divorce. Next time I contribute to a survey, I will try to narrow the topic even further.
Jessica Whitehouse: Our results really showed no great amount of significance, because the negative feedback generally cancelled out the positive feedback, maintaining a small correlation from zero.
Chloe Muller: I disliked the systematic random sampling method. I was not sure how to execute it. I would count the fifth person and they would walk away, or I purposefully counted a friendlier looking fifth person. In the end, our accuracy percentage was not very high. There was too much random and not enough system.
Amanda Huff: I see the main benefit for me in conducting this survey was not only to see that I am not alone in my views concerning divorce, but also to begin to understand, or at least to recognize, the differing views of others.
Emily Greenwood: I was greatly surprised at how strongly some of the respondents felt about divorce. As I was going through the surveys, I noticed many fives circled. People often complain that college students are apathetic, but the overwhelming response in the surveys showed otherwise.
Jessica Whitehouse: Throughout the process, my peers and I were fortunate to learn not only a great deal about the subject of divorce, but also about how to conduct a survey. I now know how to properly compose a survey, how to physically administer a survey, and how to interpret the results.
Rebekka Welch: What I thought to be a striking issue of the times may be a thing of the past. This does not change the fact that divorce is still occurring or the harsh impact it has on families. I think one point to consider is how the ideal family has changed over the years. We are no longer a “Brady Bunch society.”
Danielle Tosti: College is where individuals make a significant step in the journey of transition from adolescence to adulthood, and a major part of that is experiencing new things. Through this new experience, not only did I learn some mechanical skills of actually conducting a survey, but I learned a lot about myself.
Kate Douglas: The results of this survey granted me a further understanding of the ways in which our society becomes desensitized to different acts or circumstances. I remember one of my high school English teachers explaining this “desensitization” phenomenon in terms of violence in the media. Now I believe it is happening in the same way with the idea of divorce.
Michelle Child: I enjoyed this project and class as a whole. I really had time to question and gain a further understanding of how a successful research project should be conducted…. From seeking an IRB approval, to creating and administering a survey, to analyzing the results, my knowledge of research methods has greatly increased.
Sara Moody: I wonder whether or not our original predictions were entirely accurate; stories I told and those I listened to were the most impressionable part of my researching experience…. After the numerical results were calculated and when we were working in groups, we talked about how the results differed from what we had expected. In our group, once more we told stories of our own lives and experiences either including or excluding divorce, of how we expected living in the “Bible Belt” to have influenced people’s answers, and of how the generalizations about divorce we were told growing up were not necessarily true.
Jessica Whitehouse: It also provided me with a firsthand experience of going out there and doing it myself. I feel as though I walk from this having a greater understanding of how to take an enormous task and work on it with others and in smaller bits.
Rebekka Welch: Before this introductory course to social work, I did not have a clear idea of what a career in social work involved. This research provided very good insight into the field.
Nancy Marshall: I was given a taste of how much work goes into the surveys that are written about in magazines…. I had never taken into consideration the amount of time and effort those researchers put into those surveys.
Danielle Tosti: All in all, by participating in the planning, distribution, and analysis of this survey, I learned a lot about my abilities to do things I may have thought I could not do, the basics of conducting surveys, as well as the general perception of the impact of divorce on the campus that is my community. It was a wonderful experience.
Blake Mattingly: Through looking into the vastness of an actual project such as this and all of the ground that something like “the impact of divorce on children” can cover, it now makes a lot more sense to me that divorce is a very difficult subject to fully understand.
Libby Stout: My first survey was a great learning experience. I learned a great deal about peoples’ kindness and willingness to participate. I also learned a lot about the subject of divorce and what people’s feelings are toward it.
Shaylin Gimborys: The actual process of this study was quite rewarding. I’m always up for new experiences…. Overall, this was a unique learning experience, and as a psych major, I need to know what it’s like to study people’s thoughts and views.
Chloe Muller: In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and learned a great deal. We executed the process somewhat roughly, but learned much by our mistakes. I will be more prepared to do new research projects in the future. The results taught me the great importance of questioning my assumptions and hypotheses. They showed a trend opposite of what I initially thought.
Kate Douglas: The occurrence of divorce is so common in our society that it has become much more widely accepted, at least in the younger adult generations. Since it is now more of a normality in society, in general people are more open-minded about it and therefore do not possess a strong judgment about its consequences either way.
A variety of learning, both personal and academic, has taken place. It was a unanimous opinion that as each student continues in his or her academic career, such a research project will always have a place in this introductory social work course.
Gary L. Villareal, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the social work department at Western Kentucky University. His co-authors were students in his honors social work course. They are Michelle L. Child, Katherine E. Douglas, Shaylin N. Gimborys, Emily A. Greenwood, Amanda Huff, Nancy Marshall, Blake Mattingly, Sara R. Moody, Chloe S. Muller, Libby P. Stout, Danielle N. Tosti, Rebekka N. Welch, and Jessica D. Whitehouse.