Examining learning experiences designed to help teacher candidates bridge coursework and fieldwork

November 2021

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 107

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors conducted an initial investigation of how educators describe providing learning experiences that serve as a bridge between the theoretical world of teacher preparation programs (TPPs) and the practical world of PK-12 classrooms.
Drawing from D'Souza's (2014) notion of bridging, they conceptualize that individuals (e.g., educators) or learning experiences can act as a bridge, connecting the theories and pedagogies learned within TPPs to practical acts of teaching and learning within real-world classroom contexts.

Explanatory case study design (Yin, 2014) guided the authors’ examination of the approaches that a sample of elementary literacy teacher educators in the United States described using to prepare candidates for varying literacy curricular contexts.
This approach moves beyond describing a phenomenon to illuminating how or why a phenomenon exists in a real-world context.
They constructed detailed case studies of six educators who, in addition to participating in their survey, shared representations of candidate learning experiences and participated in semi-structured interviews.
Their purpose for constructing case studies was to learn about how educators engaged candidates in learning experiences that bridged coursework with “real-world” fieldwork experiences through the lens of representations they provided as examples of such bridging.

The authors drew their six educator participants from a larger sample of educators who participated in their initial survey (See Peltier, et al., 2019b for details about the survey).
Of the 119 literacy educators who responded to the survey, 19 educators provided representations of their learning experiences.
They asked these 19 educators to participate in follow-up interviews regarding their representations.
The six educators who agreed to participate in interviews comprise this study's sample.
Five of the six educators held a doctoral degree and one was a doctoral student .
These educators taught at different TPPs located across the United States.

Data Sources
Data sources included selected survey responses, submitted learning experience representations, and semi-structured interviews.
The selected survey responses included demographics about the participants and six questions addressing the representations.
Respondents submitted representations which included but were not limited to course syllabi, summaries of assignments, assignment guidelines, advance organizers, and lecture slides.
To further explore how educators intentionally designed learning experiences that connected coursework and fieldwork, the authors conducted semi-structured interviews.
Two research team members used video conference software to conduct 30-min semi-structured interviews, which were recorded and transcribed.

Data Analysis
Data analysis of the described learning experiences occurred in two phases, with each phase building upon the last.
During phase one, the researchers conducted a document analysis of all submitted learning experience representations to develop an initial understanding of how each experience served as a bridge between coursework and fieldwork resources, practices, policies, and theories.
Phase two analysis was limited to data from the six participants who participated in the semi-structured interviews.
This phase of analysis enriched their understanding of how the experiences served as bridges.
Participants provided additional description, intended outcomes, and context during the interviews.

Results and discussion
Educators encounter varying realities of how to connect coursework to fieldwork, while engaging and supporting candidates in assimilation of new knowledge (Peltier, et al., 2019b).
Emerging from the data analysis, educators described six components for engaging and supporting candidates during learning experiences that bridged fieldwork and coursework.
The authors conceptualize these six components as “pillars” in bidirectional fieldwork-coursework bridges.
First, in thinking about the connections educators created for candidates, it was notable that bidirectional connections from course to field and back provided candidates rich opportunities to navigate standardizing curricular contexts.
However, the educators in this study described few learning experience opportunities like these.
In their coding of over 1400 instances of engagement, support, and connection across six cases, the authors only saw 17 instances where educators worked to both intentionally bring coursework into the field and incorporate fieldwork into their course.
Therefore, they contend that there may be a need for more bidirectional connections between coursework and fieldwork in literacy methods course learning experiences.
The authors suggest that teacher educators should design learning experiences for candidates that not only send information into the field, but also bring the field into the course content.
Second, the finding that just over half of the coded “connection” excerpts included ambiguous or hypothetical connections suggests that there is room for educators to increase the explicitness with which they connect fieldwork and coursework.
While each participant provided candidates with simulated or hypothetical situations for which to prepare, the authors contend that educators must go beyond this to provide authentic and explicit connections between fieldwork and coursework.
These types of learning experiences promote a stronger transfer of learning for candidates (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019; Stillman & Anderson, 2016).
Third, in terms of how they engaged candidates, educators most often engaged candidates in making instructional decisions, but typically did so without explicitly asking them to reflect upon those decisions or critically evaluate content and materials.
These two findings are concerning given Feiman-Nemser and Buchmann's (1983) long-standing argument that connecting coursework learning to fieldwork is not simple - a task that candidates need support to accomplish.
The authors acknowledge that making decisions inherently necessitates some level of reflection and critical evaluation.
However, they worry that without support, candidates may lack awareness of the amount of reflection required in teaching and may not learn to reflect or critically evaluate in the deep, rich ways necessary for sustaining responsive teaching in the real world.
Thus, they recommend that educators provide candidates with explicit and supported opportunities to reflect upon and critically evaluate coursework learning and field placement curricula early in their teaching journeys.
Fourth, educators most frequently supported candidates to think about a specific concept or area of literacy by providing concrete resources.
Many resources were templates or checklists to scaffold candidates' instructional decision-making while providing space in which candidates could be responsive to their fieldwork contexts.
Educators used these concrete resources to prompt candidates' use of conceptual knowledge, theories, or experiences when planning for actual or hypothetical teaching.
Interestingly, providing concrete resources was one of only two codes (the other was situate) that applied to every participant's data.
As literacy educators, the authors are keenly aware of the need for candidates to have these kinds of supports (concrete resources and prompts) to scaffold the complex work of designing responsive instruction.
Too often, though, educators use supports to discuss teaching and instructional practices or engage candidates in decision-making during coursework without explicitly connecting this content to fieldwork (Grossman et al., 2009; Windschitl et al., 2012).
They contend that educators must intentionally articulate how supports promote candidates' learning to responsively enact research-based instructional practices within the complexities of “real-world” classrooms.
Fifth, the research confirms that numerous challenges exist in developing explicit, bidirectional connections between coursework and fieldwork, including a lack of time and resources, diverging histories and goals across contexts, and the wide range of placements candidates experience.
Similar to Ahmed (2019) and Myers et al. (2019), the authors found that explicit connections between literacy coursework and fieldwork occurred most when candidates and the educator traveled to the field together to implement course learning with students.
Educators who engaged in this work spoke of adapting course assignments to include the curricula of the field and explicitly demonstrated for candidates how to bridge constructivist and sociocultural approaches to teaching and learning.
Lastly, throughout the research, it became evident that even when connections were directly made between literacy methods courses and fieldwork, educators may struggle to articulate how these connections were developed or why they existed.
The participating educators saw connections between their courses and local fieldwork, and they strove to help candidates navigate these spaces professionally and with numerous considerations in mind.
However, these intentions were not explicitly shared with candidates in the written descriptions of learning experiences (e.g., assignment descriptions, grade rubrics) educators shared.
This lack of articulation may limit opportunities for candidates to recognize and value the connections educators sought to create across curricula.

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D'Souza, L. A. (2014). Bridging the gap for beginning teachers: Research as mentor. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 3(2), 171-187.
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Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (5th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. 

Updated: Feb. 28, 2022