This chapter describes the methods I used to evaluate the learning needs of postsecondary vocational students, and then to relate these needs to the principles of democratic education. The results of my research are presented in chapter 4 with discussion in chapter 5.

Research Site and Subject Selection

The research sites used were Porter and Chester Institute, Rocky Hill, Connecticut; Porter and Chester Institute, Branford, Connecticut; and Porter and Chester Institute, Enfield, Connecticut. All three were campuses where I taught and/or supervised the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration departments. The Rocky Hill campus had over 400 students in eight programs, the Branford campus had around 300 students in eight programs, and the Enfield campus had over 200 students in six programs and serves as the pilot campus for changes to instructional approach or curriculum.

The students on all campuses range in age from 17 to 55 years of age. All are required to have either a high school diploma or a GED. In Rocky Hill, most of the daytime students are graduates from the surrounding Connecticut school districts of Wethersfield, Hartford, Rocky Hill, Manchester, and East Hartford. The older students are a diverse population. Some come from the military or are changing careers by choice or because of being laid off. The evening students are employed and attend school part-time. They are more likely to have been out of public schools for a longer period before attending PSVE.

The research sites are part of an eight-campus organization. The Rocky Hill campus has one of the most diverse populations of the eight campuses. It is one of two campuses in an urban setting and the only campus that is on a city bus route. The Branford campus is on the Connecticut shoreline and attracts students from the surrounding towns as well as from New Haven. The Enfield campus is located in a rural community with few minority students.

Research Methods

This research used a mixed-methods approach. First, I completed a qualitative  research study with the goal of determining a student profile. Then, I designed a survey to identify students diagnosed with learning disabilities and to gauge student satisfaction with the vocational/career program in which they were enrolled. The survey is in Appendix B. As a part of the survey, students were asked if they wished to volunteer for an in-depth interview regarding their learning habits and needs. The goal of the surveys and interviews was to identify from students’ point of view where changes needed to occur in the way they were being taught, and what the students believe the changes should be.

The third, and primary, method used in this research was ethnography (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003). Through analysis of my journals and observations from my first 3 years as a vocational education instructor, I showed the need for change and captured my growth and transformation as an educator. I also demonstrated through auto-ethnographic analysis of my continuing work in the classroom how small changes in the classroom and shop can affect student understanding of and satisfaction with a postsecondary vocational program.

Hesse-Biber and Leavy (2006) wrote that by using autoethnography, the researcher is able to make use of detailed journals and logs to evaluate change over a period of time. Additionally, Hesse-Biber and Leavy pointed out that this form of research blurs traditional intellectual research by combining it with the body, including people’s emotions, feelings, and intuition. They wrote, “This method can help a researcher raise his or her self-consciousness and is, by nature, a highly reflective practice” (p. xxii). By looking critically at my own experience as I implement democratic education interventions, I am better able to understand the feasibility of the democratic postsecondary model for vocational education.

Research Instruments

            In this section I describe the various instruments that I have used to complete my research, which include the initial student survey, the student interview questions, the journals, and my classroom observations. I discuss their origin, the purpose behind each, and their use in my research.

Student Surveys

            The student survey consisted of four sections. The first section was designed to gather student demographics; it was important to the research to clearly identify age, culture, and prior education of the respondents. The second section of the survey was designed using observations of prior students who were known to have attention deficit disorder (ADD), as well as reading I have done on learning disabilities. The purpose of the second section was to determine if a significant portion of the students might have a learning disability. Since it appears that democratic vocational education might enhance the ability of those with learning disabilities to succeed it was important to my research to understand how many of the enrolled students may be affected. The third part of the survey was created from the Pharmacists’ Inventory of Learning Styles (see Austin, 2004). The questions were designed to identify the learning styles of the students. Based upon my review of the literature review in chapter 2 there are many indications that democratic postsecondary vocational education would allow a more positive outcome to those of varying learning styles than traditional vocational education methods. The fourth and final section of the survey asked the student respondents if they had ever been diagnosed with a learning disability, or if they had never been diagnosed, did they believe they had one. Teaching students with learning disabilities plays a major role in vocational education as it is a path many of the students take. My research had to evaluate if students with different educational backgrounds, learning styles, and those with learning disabilities can successfully learn in a single postsecondary vocational classroom, or if the outcome would be better served in a democratic postsecondary vocational classroom.

Student Interviews

            Following the student survey I met with several students that had volunteered in the survey and used a set of 13 questions (Appendix C) to open communication regarding their experiences in postsecondary vocational education. The questions were designed to get the students talking about their experiences. During the course of this research I formally interviewed 27 students who spoke to me about their time in postsecondary vocational education. The first four participants I interviewed reluctantly allowed me to record the sessions but became very uncomfortable when we began to speak about current problems, and challenges with classes and I shut the tape recorder off when I noticed they kept looking at the recorder. The conversations became much better after that point. For the following interviews I decided not to use the recorder and just talk with the students. The student interviews were important, as I wanted to make sure that I did not miss anything in my surveys, journals, and classroom observations with respect to student satisfaction, frustration, and outcome.

The interviews were conducted in an office on school property during the morning break, or if the student preferred after or before classes. Because of school policy that a male staff member cannot be alone in a closed office with a female student I conducted the interviews in the office that is used as a testing center. The office is video monitored, but no audio monitoring exists. I made sure the student was aware that the videocamera existed. Any video recorded is erased and overwritten in 25 days. Some of the interviews took 15 minutes, and a few went as long as 35.


My journals and class logs began in May 2005, when I began working as an instructor in vocational education. These journals have gaps during periods when I believed my department was operating smoothly. There is an especially large gap during the period of July 2009 through October 2009 when I was no longer responsible for classes because of a change in my position with the school. The journals and logs pick up again in November 2009 with a different group of students at a different campus. During periods when I was making changes in my classes, I kept better track of what I was teaching, how I was teaching it, student responses, and reflections on these changes.

I designed the journals to be an outlet, a tool for reflection, and a way to converse with myself when I did not have anyone with whom to share my ideas. The journals have served as a great tool for my understanding of the problems I have come across. As I researched this dissertation, I looked back at these journal entries and found that in hindsight, they were a record of my transformation as an instructor. I began by teaching using traditional classroom management styles, using lectures, grades, homework, and exams as motivators for students to learn. A sample of one of my early journal entries describes this approach:

July 15, 2006. It is over!  I just spent the last 6 weeks teaching my first course. We have been doing close to 3 hours of lecture each day, and then I have been able to take the students into shop for about one and a half hours each evening. We did all the notes that the binders said we had to, and I was able to push them through all the shop projects. I think that about half the class did very well and learned a lot. The notebook checks showed that about 50% of my students understood the material. The notebooks looked great; everything was labeled, dated, and neatly drawn with rulers. I gave a 100-question, multiple-choice final exam and the class average was 76%. I had several students score in the high 90s, and several students scored below 50. That was a good point spread. The biggest problem is the effort and attitude grade, which is based on attendance; many students missed a lot of time, and I have no idea why. I will solve the problem next term by making sure that those students who do not show up, or come in consistently late, will miss a daily quiz. How can I make sure I meet the curriculum if the students are not coming to class? I have to enter final grades and then explain to my supervisor that I had to fail four students.

As I worked through my dissertation I used entries such as the above to create an instructor’s view of what works and what doesn’t. I also used these entries to show the need for change and why instructional methods of the past, such as the ones Meyer (2005) suggested for instructors in adult vocational schools to use, do not work. Additionally, I used the journal entries such as the above to show that the traditional, institutional, and efficient ideals of vocational education need to be changed.

Although I made every effort to keep these journal entries intact, I have on occasion made minor changes in wording, primarily to protect the privacy of individuals who did not agree to be part of a research study or who I can no longer find or contact. Names of places, classes, and instructors were altered to ensure privacy when necessary and to meet the requirements of the Federal Educational Privacy Act.

Classroom Observations

            My research includes classroom observations as a part of my normal teaching duties. I believe that my research would not be complete without ongoing observations of the students in my classes. Watching, listening, and communicating with those students in my postsecondary vocational education classes is important to my research as well as my ongoing self-improvement as an educator. I include these in my research because they show change, and successful outcomes. The observations also help assure that my conclusions are current.

Research Steps

I evaluated the learning needs of postsecondary vocational students, and then the applicability of these needs with democratic education in five steps. The first step was to obtain a clear picture of the student population at the research site. A 53-question anonymous survey was given to all 400 students at the research site location, and the students were asked to voluntarily complete it. The survey was designed to identify motivation, learning styles, and student age, ethnic, and social grouping (Appendix B). The survey questions were compiled from sources that I have listed earlier in this chapter. The results of the surveys were entered into a relational database against which I used Structured Query Language (SQL) code to extract statistical information.

During July 2009, in cooperation with the institution and the instructors in each of the programs, I distributed close to 400 surveys and asked for voluntary completion of the surveys over the course of a 10-day period. At the end of the 10 days, I received 208 completed surveys for a 52% return rate. From this 52% return I was unable to use four of them because of multiple responses or not enough questions answered. In February 2010, I distributed a second set of surveys to the Branford campus. This second set of surveys was used to validate the results from those of the primary research site; thus, the data were not specific to one campus and were representative of students on multiple campuses.

The second step of the process was to interview 27 students. The students self-selected for the interviews by completing a tear-off page at the end of the anonymous survey. This page explained the purpose of the study and allowed them to volunteer for a personal interview. Six interview questions (Appendix C) were used to allow the students to describe their past, present, and future educational goals. The questions also asked them to identify any learning disabilities they have and to talk about those disabilities. The students were asked if they could change anything they wanted at school, what would they change? And if they could design their own educational program, how would they do it differently? The goal of this step was to identify the characteristics of the population. Steps 1 and 2 were important because they identified how different the adult education student population is from the secondary school population as reported by the United States Department of Education (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005), the latter of which is more often represented in the literature on democratic education. The student interviews were completed during December 2009.

The third step was the intervention during the January 2010 term. I began to use the following ideals of democratic education in the classroom: allowing students to move at their own pace, to help plan the curriculum for the term (based on state requirements), and to have a voice in the classroom and reducing the importance of and emphasis on testing. As an ongoing part of this step, I conducted informal phenomenological interviews with a small group of students to gauge their reactions to these changes.

The fourth step of my research was informal conversations with students during and following the changes that I had made. Patton (2002) wrote, “Phenomenological analysis seeks to grasp and elucidate the meaning, structure, and essence of the lived experience of a phenomenon for a person or group of people” (p. 482). In this set of interviews, I asked the students, who lived the experiences pre- and post-change to share their opinions about the democratic reforms made to the vocational classroom. Husserl (1913) first used phenomenology as a developing social science, writing that phenomenology was the study of how people described things and experienced them through their own senses. Patton (2002) explained that Husserl’s most basic “philosophical assumption was that we can only know what we experience by attending to perceptions and meanings that awaken our conscious awareness” (pp. 105–106). 

Patton (2002) wrote that phenomenological analysis was an important method for social science research because the only way we can know what a participant thinks about a phenomenon is to conduct in-depth interviews after he or she has experienced it. In this step of the research, I wanted to find out what the students’ opinions, successes, frustrations, and experiences of their current PSVE education were. In chapter 4, I use these interviews, along with an auto-ethnographic analysis of my journals, to evaluate the intervention.

The fifth step of the process was my analysis of the journals, which were kept over a 3-year period. During this analysis, I compared my current approach, ideas, and journal entries with those of the past to evaluate the differences between the traditional methods I used to use and the new democratic methods I have brought into the classroom. Even if my classroom experiment does not reveal strong indicators to prove my premise, I am able to share my reflections and experiences with future educators. I completed my research in April 2010.

I am directly responsible for one section of the Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration (HVAC/R) program at the research site. In this section, I introduced the values of democratic education, the freedom to be involved, and the freedom to take charge of and set personal goals. Over the course of one term (12-week period), I evaluated the results of this change through personal observations, journaling, and normal conversations with students. The students were asked to write weekly reflective summaries, and these were monitored in order to implement necessary changes to the instructional approach during the term.

The sixth step was an evaluation of the standard institutional student surveys at the end of the term. The surveys were evaluated for student satisfaction along with final exam and practical examination outcomes. Additionally, standard administrative reports were used to compare attendance and attrition rates from the current term to previous terms. The standard reports, attrition rates, attendance, and student opinions determined the success or failure of the democratic model.  The surveys where completed in November 2009 and January 2010. As a part of my professional review I was given access to the results of these surveys and have used them in the evaluation of my journals in chapter 4.

The seventh step, the concluding discussion, combined the findings of the qualitative research and the ethnographic findings to develop a model for others to adapt to their own environment and needs, and use in the future.

Qualifications of Researcher

Often, researchers who use qualitative and ethnographic research methods are asked to identify personal bias and experiences that may affect their research (Krathwohl & Smith, 2005). I am a product of the vocational education system. First, I graduated from Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where I studied agriculture. Following high school graduation, I attended the State University of New York in Cobleskill, where I studied animal husbandry. I decided not to continue my education there because I believed that very little of what I was studying had any application to my success on the farm, following graduation.

I returned to vocational education in 1986 at ITT Technical Institute in Portland, Oregon, to study electrical engineering technology. Following my time at ITT, I spent 14 years in the computer industry before returning to vocational school at Porter and Chester Institute. I then spent a few years in the field as an HVAC/R technician before returning to Porter and Chester Institute as an instructor.

In November 2009, I began to develop the distance learning and hybrid program for the HVAC/R curriculum at Porter and Chester Institute. In April 2010, I became the distance learning curriculum specialist for Porter and Chester Institute and have the responsibility of creating an alternative hybrid program and a distance learning program for all of the programs offered. As I finalize this dissertation, I am transitioning out of the classroom and training a new instructor to take over my students.

During my time as an HVAC/R technician, following vocational school, I attended Northeastern University and obtained my bachelor’s degree in technical communication. Once I returned to Porter and Chester Institute as an instructor, I decided to continue at Northeastern University and complete my master’s degree in education with a concentration in adult education.

I believe that without strong vocational education, I would not have had the many opportunities I have today. I believe in the importance of adult vocational education, as it gives people skills that can never be taken away. I noticed the student population began to change 2 years ago as the generational composition of the student body changed. I found that I could no longer teach the way I had been taught, and I began to look for alternatives. The search for alternatives was what persuaded me to take this educational journey that culminated in this dissertation project.