Invited article: Personalized Professionalization in Pedagogical Fields through Practitioner Research

By Katharina Heissenberger

    Invited article: Personalized Professionalization in Pedagogical Fields through Practitioner Research

    About the Practitioner-Researcher

    Katharina Heissenberger
    University College Professor
    Graz, AT
    Katharina Heissenberger

    I am a University College Professor at the University College of Teacher Education Styria in Austria, specializing in research and teaching in the fields of practitioner research and gifted education. I am also in charge of organization of internships for primary education and coordination of the research project “Personalized Professionalization in Pedagogical Fields through Practitioner Research.” As a former primary school teacher I believe that practice-based research should be an integral part of teacher education. My teaching experience at the primary school and University College led me to conclude that practitioner research in the context of teacher education should focus on the professionalization of future individual teachers and should subsequently aim at the improvement of learning environments in schools and learning outcomes of students.

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    Project Summary

    The concept “Personalized Professionalization in Pedagogical Fields through Practitioner Research” (PPS-PR) is based on the assumption that the professionalization of prospective teachers can be fostered by actively carrying out practitioner-research projects during internships. The research project, presented in the current contribution, aimed at examining the concept “PPS-PR.” The research questions addressed the research topics that teacher-students (also called student-teachers in other parts of the world) had chosen for their practitioner-research projects, and motives why students had chosen these research topics. Additional items examined include: (a) benefit and learning outcomes, (b) conclusions on future preparation, conduct, and reflection on teaching activities, (c) long-term benefits after conducting practitioner projects, and (d) feedback about mentoring by practicum advisors during the research projects. Both quantitative and qualitative research methods were used for this study. After completing practitioner-research projects, 312 teacher-students were asked the above mentioned items via an online questionnaire. Eight practicum advisors were interviewed during a group discussion. Results indicated that Personalized Professionalization in Pedagogical Fields trough Practitioner Research (PPS-PR) could foster teacher-students’ professionalization, providing valuable incentives for further development of the concept PPS-PR.

    Project Context

    Teacher education has been fully reformed in Austria since 2015/2016. At the University College for Teacher Education Styria the new teacher education was implemented in the academic year 2015/2016. Our University College belongs to the “Entwicklungsverbund Süd-Ost,” one cluster of universities and university colleges in the context of teacher education in Austria. This developmental consortium defines the model of “the reflective practitioner” as a central key point in the new conception of pedagogical-practical studies. Linking the fields of educational science, subject-orientated science and didactics by showing teaching competence is a primary goal in the new curriculum for the Bachelor’s degree in Primary School Education. Another important aim is that teacher-students learn to prepare, evaluate, analyze, reflect and enhance their teaching according to the principles of practitioner research (Entwicklungsverbund Süd-Ost, 2016).

    In preparation for the demands of the new curriculum commencing in 2015/2016, the concept PPS-PR was already developed in the academic year 2013/2014. The research project, presented in the current contribution, was conducted in the academic year 2015/2016 with teacher-students studying the old curriculum for Primary School Education at the University College for Teacher Education Styria. The central aim of this research project that examined the concept PPS-PR was to use the research results during the new teacher education for Primary School Education that requires teacher-students to conduct practitioner research.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Theoretical Framework

    Increasing interest in research-based teacher education can be noted during the last decades (Brew, 2006; Haberfellner, 2016). Recent publications provide an overview of different approaches and concepts of research-based learning in the frame of teacher education (Mieg & Lehmann, 2017). The concept, “Personalized Professionalization in Pedagogical Fields trough Practitioner Research” (PPS-PR), is a research-based approach built on the principles of action research (Altrichter & Posch, 2007; Fichten & Meyer, 2014) and follows on the assumption that different aspects of professionalization can be fostered by conducting action-research projects during internships (Burns, 2010; Eliott, 1989).

    PPS-PR also refers to the idea of personalized learning (Schratz & Westfall-Greiter, 2010) because research starting points are also seen as developmental tasks which can be defined as biographically meaningful and subjectively necessary demands (Jank & Meyer, 2011, S. 170 f.). This idea corresponds with the above mentioned approach of action research where research starting points always correspond with personally meaningful developmental tasks or individual interest in knowledge or research (Altrichter & Posch, 2007, S. 15 ff.; S. 53).

    Additionally, the approach Empowerment in internships by Arnold, Hascher, Messner, Niggli, Patry and Rahm (2011) builds a base of the concept. In this approach students are seen as co-actors of their education who co-create their education autonomously. The aim is that students take responsibility to strengthen their own competence and personality (Arnold et al., 2011). In the concept PPS-PR practicum advisors are seen as learning-arrangers who create learning environments that encourage teacher-students´ empowerment. In this context empowerment can be defined as “the feeling of competence to perform a task that is meaningful and has an impact on the situation” (Houser & Frymier, 2005 quoted after Arnold et al., 2011, S. 133).

    Description of the concept PPS-PR

    The concept Personalized Professionalization in Pedagogical Fields through Practitioner Research (PPS-PR) demonstrates one approach to integrating research-based learning in “Pedagogical-Practical Studies”. Teacher-students conduct practitioner-research projects about topics that appear relevant to them during their internships. An internship lasts one semester and includes one day of practice per week.

    At the beginning of the semester students develop subjectively relevant topics which can be seen as starting points for research and developmental tasks. Research projects always focus on teaching activities teacher-students will perform in their internship classes in order to implement the topics they selected. Teacher-students have to derive from literature their rationale for choice of topics and how they intend to work on their topic during their internship. Additionally, teacher-students have to define their research questions and to design their research projects. In this context they plan and conduct teaching activities to work on their subjectively relevant topic in class. To examine the effects of their teaching activities they collect and analyze data. In a final meeting our students present their practitioner-research projects to their practicum advisors and to a community of fellow teacher-students. The focus of attention is on plans for the future and dialogic learning. During the whole semester practicum advisors of the University College take the role of critical friends and provide individualized research-orientated and methodical-didactical support to their students (Heissenberger, 2015, 2016). 

    Current State of Research

    Research-oriented learning is often assumed to promote professionalization (Altrichter, 2003; Dirks & Hansmann, 2002; Fichten, 2010; Fichten & Meyer, 2014). Evidences of various research studies have reported quite different results concerning the effects of research-oriented learning (Boelhauve, Frigge, Olberg & Hilligius, 2005; Fichten, 2010; Fichten & Meyer, 2014; Frenzel, 2003; Rock & Levin, 2002). Thus, if and to what extent the integration of research-oriented learning fosters the understanding of school culture and strengthening teaching competencies is not clear yet (Arnold et al. 2011; Hascher, 2006; Zeichner, 2001). Although there are studies that focus on different aspects of action research during the internship phases of teacher educatio, (Kosnik & Beck, 2000; Salerno & Kibler, 2015; Smith & Sela, 2005; Ulvik, 2014), just a few studies focus concretely on the development of specific competencies (e.g., Yan, 2017). Our research fills the gap in empirical evidence concerning questions about acquisition, transfer and stability of competencies teacher-students gain when they conduct practitioner-research projects during their internships.

    First Insights: The Research Project “PPS-PR”

    The study PPS-PR of Heissenberger, Kernbichler , Matischek-Jauk, Reissner, and Obrecht (2017) sought to clarify effects of the above described concept PPS-PR. Some of the key results are described below in seven sections: (a) subjectively relevant topics as research starting points; (b) motives; (c) research method; (d) mentoring by practicum advisors; (e) benefit; (f) learning outcomes; and (g) long-term benefits, followed by a summary.

    Subjectively Relevant Topics as Research Starting Points

    Content analysis showed that students primarily chose topics in the category of methodological competence. In this category classroom management and time management were mentioned most frequently. Topics of the category personal and social competence were chosen less frequently. Professional competence was the least frequently chosen category (Heissenberger et al., 2017).


    Teacher-students (N = 312) were asked which motives made them choose their subjectively relevant topics. The analysis of motives demonstrated that internal and external motives were important for topic choice. Personal development (internal), the specific setting of the class (external), and the need to promote pupils (external) were some of the motives teacher-students mentioned. Practicum advisors were also asked about motives of teacher-students for choosing their subjectively relevant topics. Content analysis showed that practicum advisors and teacher-students mostly agreed with teacher-students’ motives for topic choice. However, gaining research competence – which is an important topic in current curriculums (Entwicklungsverbund Süd-Ost, 2016) and recent publications – could not be derived as a motive for conducting action-research projects (Matischek-Jauk, Heissenberger, Kernbichler, Reissner, & Obrecht 2017; Heissenberger, Matischek-Jauk, Kernbichler, Reissner, & Obrecht, 2018).

    Research Method

    Content analysis indicated that teacher-students chose quantitative and qualitative research methods, although the latter methods were strongly preferred. The teacher-students chose various qualitative methods, but “collegial teaching observation” as a model of professional learning was used most frequently, followed by research diary. Regarding quantitative methods, instant feedback methods were mostly used (Matischek-Jauk et al., 2017).

     Mentoring by Practicum Advisors

    Teacher-students (N = 312) were asked to give feedback about their practicum advisor’s mentoring. The majority of teacher-students reported positive feedback. Content analysis showed that support by means of feedback- and reflection-talks was especially appreciated. Critical feedback was given by a small number of respondents. This critical feedback in particular was related to the request for more feedback and advice (Heissenberger, 2017).


    Teacher-students (N = 312) were questioned to what degree they benefited from conducting practitioner-research projects. A chi-square-test showed that of the four options (high benefit, benefit, little benefit, and no benefit) the reply options “high benefit” (62%) and “benefit” (33%) were chosen clearly more than expected. The reply options “little benefit” (4%) and “no benefit” (1%) were chosen markedly less than expected. The differences between the percentages of choices concerning the reply options are highly significant in all semesters (3rd semester: 2 = 61,340a, p < 0,001; 4th semester:  2 = 96,386a, p < 0,001; 5th semester: 2 =50,592a, p < 0,001). (Heissenberger et al., 2017).

    Learning Outcomes

    Content analysis of answers to the question “Describe the results that occurred at the end of the practitioner research project!” indicated that teacher-students (N = 312) located their learning outcomes after conducting practitioner-research projects primarily in the area of methodical competence, especially concerning classroom management. Learning outcomes in the areas of personal, professional and social competencies are less often reported (Heissenberger et al., 2017).

    Long-Term Benefits

    Concerning long-term gains, 114 teacher-students of the fourth semester were questioned. These students had conducted practitioner-research projects in the third semester. They were asked in the current, fourth semester, if they benefited from competencies they had acquired from conducting research projects during their previous, third semester. Content analysis indicated that the majority described long-term benefits in the following semester. Numerous respondents mentioned that they could use previously acquired methodical competence. Long-term benefits regarding personal, social, professional and research competencies were also described by some teacher-students (Heissenberger, Kernbichler, Reissner, Matischek-Jauk, & Obrecht, 2018).

    In summary, the results suggest that the professionalization of prospective teachers was fostered and can be seen as a base for further development of “Pedagogical-Practical-Studies” in Teacher Education. The previously reported results of the research project have already led to adaptions of the concept “PPS-PR” which is continued in the new teacher education for the Bachelor’s degree in Primary Education. For instance the template for reflective papers was revised. Additionally, a newly conceptualized seminar, Introduction in Pedagogical Research, which takes place in the fourth semester is fully synchronized with the introduction of practitioner-research projects during the internship in the fourth semester. Finally, it is worth noting that the research project is to be continued so that numerous questions raised but not adequately addressed at this point can be further investigated in future. More detailed results of PPS-PR research are available in German at


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Heissenberger, K. (2018). Personalized Professionalization in Pedagogical Fields through Practitioner Research.

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