Book Reviews

Book by Edward P. St. John, Michael Wilkerson
Review by Patrick J. Donnelly
Academic Advisor
The Center for Access and Transition
University of Cincinnati

The premise of this book -- that research in higher education should include applied research that will empower faculty and administrators to focus on how institutions can provide opportunities for academic success for all students -- challenged my understanding of how and why institutions pursue a specific research agenda. Readers familiar with the Jossey-Bass New Directions series will recognize the formula used to discuss and argue for the concept: introduce the basic problem and thoroughly explore the topic in chapters written by scholars in the field. I found the Editor’s introduction and the subsequent seven chapters to be well-written and based in sound research. However, although interesting and informative, the text is not without its problems.

I would be more comfortable with this book if its title more clearly reflected what is discussed in the text.  “Using Action Research” more accurately describes the research changes proposed by the editors; the chapters that specifically address action research are where the book really shines. For example, chapter 4, “Using Action Research to Support Academic Program Improvement” provides a clear and concise plan for implementing action research in higher education. Chapter authors Hansen and Borden note that an important aspect of this is the shift from individuals who conduct research in isolation for publication to teams that collaborate on research projects for the purpose of learning from one another and thus produce initiatives that can be quickly implemented and reviewed (p. 49). Additionally, the background chapters, which act as a literature review, are also quite good.

After making the initial title change delineated above, I would endeavor to recast “to Improve Academic Success” as “to Improve Persistence.” The most problematic aspect of this book is the lack of definitional boundaries for the term “academic success.” I am certain that the editors and chapter authors would respond to this criticism by noting that an important characteristic of action research is that it starts without preconceived notions; these things develop as the research matures. As such, “academic success” is used because it intentionally vague. While I would concede the point that the term “persistence” is also vague, the specific program examples used throughout the book are generally centered on student retention. As a result, when “academic success” is used with these examples, it sounds awkward and forced. My only other criticism of the text is the editors’ claim that traditional persistence research “has vague implications for practice” (p.1). In fact, throughout the book the opposite seems to be true. Action research relies heavily on the persistence research that came before it and this research will continue to thrive no matter what paradigm changes occur. It might be true that individual persistence studies have little use outside of the context in which they were developed, but there will always be the need for the research base provided by a multitude of studies.

This book will be most valuable to individuals who conduct research, including faculty, administrators, graduate students and advisors fortunate enough to have research as a part of their job descriptions. Advisors who spend their time working with students, and who have little or no time to complete research, will have a harder time adopting this new paradigm.

Reframing Persistence Research to Improve Academic Success (New Directions for Institutional Research, No. 130).(2006) Book by Edward P. St. John, Michael Wilkerson (Eds.). Review by Patrick J. Donnelly. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.128 pp., $29.00, (paperback), ISBN # 0-7879-8759-X
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