2012. Vol.3, No.5, 649-657
Published Online September 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2012.35095
Copyright © 2012 SciR e s . 649
Experiential Learning in Graduate Education: Development,
Delivery, and Analysis of an Evidence-Based Intervention
Samantha M. Harden, Kacie C. Allen, Clarice N. Chau,
Serena L. Parks, Ashley L. Zanko
Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA
Received July 11th, 2012; revised August 15th, 2012; accepted August 30th, 2012
Certain expectations are outlined for a young professional with a recently earned doctoral degree. In aca-
demia, it is anticipated that graduates will demonstrate the ability to obtain funding, actively engage in an
interdisciplinary work environment, and value experiences with critical thinking and problem solving.
This paper outlines a unique learning experience of five graduate research students who progressed from
the initial stage of research question conceptualization to dissemination of research results. The process
included a written research design proposal, grant review process, physical activity program development,
intervention delivery, data analysis, and publication of findings. Challenges overcome by these young in-
vestigators throughout the research process (i.e., intervention recruitment, development and delivery) are
included within the manuscript, as well as other important findings from this process evaluation. The
first-hand account of their learning experiences demonstrates the value of promoting internal competition
(i.e., within a department, college, university), while working as a collaborative research team to prepare
graduate students for “real-world” research and work-related scenarios. Graduate student faculty mentors
should incorporate more opportunities for their students to glean research experience described here.
Keywords: Graduate Education; Experiential Learning; Process Evaluation; Research Reflexivity
In the realm of education, experiential learning boasts as one
of the foremost sciences (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000)
in which students may learn through a process rather than plac-
ing the majority of emphasis on outcomes (Dewey, 1897). The
post-higher education job-market expects candidates to have
developed reflective and collaborative skills (Hanrahan &
Isaacs, 2001; Tsang, 2011). Contemporary pedagogy advises
that students should learn through interactive, inquiry-based
teaching and learning environments (Moore, Fowler, & Watson,
2007; Moore, Tatum, & Sebetan, 2011) based on the complexi-
ties of the twenty-first century society (e.g., technology, multi-
culturalism, diversity, and globalization). These varied experi-
ences will prove to be invaluable in the work-field and
real-world settings. It is understood that people learn complex
materials when the learning process is an active one rather than
a simple knowledge transfer from teacher to student (Bransford
et al., 2000). Yet, for the most part, pedagogical practices are
still didactic (i.e., lecture-based) and antiquated.
However, this can change, with one assignment that inspires
a department, exhilarates a college, influences the university at
large, and thus, sparks a transformation in learning. While
many learner-centered pedagogical approaches clearly outline
the details for undergraduate students, the research on appro-
priate graduate education measures is less abundant. Recent
twenty-first century-based changes have occurred in graduate
curricula. The outcomes of a doctoral degree include meeting
the expectations of job calls: development of sound, the-
ory-based interventions, train and mentor students, obtain and
manage extramural funding, design an evidence-based program
and implement it as such, and publish the findings. These skills
are integral to a high level of success in academia. Unfortu-
nately, there is criticism that those who earn a doctoral degree
are often not meeting work expectations (Barnett & Coate,
2005; Gaff, 2002), as the skill-sets built through different doc-
toral programs within and across university settings are varied
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the experiential proc-
ess provided to junior research scientists at Virginia Tech,
within the Translational Obesity Research Program (TORP) of
the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise. This
fellowship provided five graduate students with funding for a
2-group randomized control trial (RCT) to increase physical
activity (PA) among Black college women.
Grant Review Process
As argued above, graduate education curricula do not neces-
sarily develop the skills students will actually need to be com-
petitive in tenure-track, research driven positions. Therefore,
this experiential opportunity focused on simulating the grant
proposal process. The team of young investigators developed
and submitted a grant proposal. This proposal then underwent
review utilizing National Institutes of Health (NIH) processes
and requirements, including revisions and resubmission. Once
awarded, the investigative team then had to manage funding,
obtain IRB approval, develop and deliver the intervention con-
tent, collect data, and analyze the results. Along the way the
team reported current project status and plans for dissemination
to their funders.
S. M. HARD EN ET AL.
Proposal De velopment an d Review
To begin the fellowship, the funders (i.e., faculty advisors
within the TORP lab) issued a call for proposals with the aim of
objectively measuring physical activity (PA) using acceler-
ometers. Students were slow to respond due to “poor timing,”
expressed as potential scheduling conflicts due to coursework
and various other commitments. The point exactly: can anyone
in academia identify a time in which a call for proposals was
released when there were no other conflicts of time or intere st?
Students were better able to understand this underlying message
when faculty members explained this perspective. Thus, stu-
dents continued to develop their proposal, and experienced the
importance of time management when working on several aca-
demic/research related projects at one time. This explanation is
of particular importance to contemporary students who are
known to respond positively when faculty members communi-
cate the overarching lesson.
NIH grant submission guidelines provided a model for the
grant proposal. In “Demystifying the NIH Grant Application
Process,” Berg and colleagues (2007) provide valuable insight
to successful grant applications. First, they suggest familiariz-
ing oneself with previously accepted grants and determining the
appropriate funding mechanism; then developing a collabora-
tive team. Key dialogue with a collaborative research team
assists in the iterative process that is “grant writing.” The re-
search team was able to ensure that their proposal was com-
patible with the specific call (i.e., to use accelerometers as an
outcome measure). The young investigators interested in ap-
plying for the fellowship met to discuss their research back-
grounds and all contributed t o the submit t e d proposal.
The submitted proposal was a 2 × 2 group RCT as seen in
Figure 1 below. The purpose of the proposed study was to
determine 1) the effectiveness of a group dynamics-based PA
promotion program could increase minutes of PA for Black
college women and 2) the extent to which group based or indi-
vidually based incentives. Group dynamics-based PA promo-
tion programs are based on Carron & Spink’s (1993) team
building model that posits that group structure (i.e., roles),
group environment (i.e., developing a sense of distinctiveness),
and group processes (i.e., group goal setting) ultimately in-
crease the participant’s perception of group cohesion. Group
cohesion is the idea that group members will stick together and
remain united towards their task (Carron, Widmeyer, & Braw-
ley, 1998). A greater perception of group cohesion has been
linked with increased attendance and compliance with exercise
prescription. Group cohesion is, then, the strongest predictor of
PA behavior change (Estabrooks, 2000; Golembiewski, 1962;
Lott & Lott, 1965).
In the first condition of the group dynamics-based interven-
tion, compensation was based solely around assessment and
program supplies. If an individual completed all assessments,
they could earn twenty-eight dollars, and receive the IMA
DIVA T-shirt and weekly session supplie s. The next arm was a
group dynamics-based and compensation at the group level,
based on group goal setting and group attendance. The inter-
vention arm would have cohorts (n = 4) within the session (i.e.,
four smaller groups within the larger meeting), which were
designed to facilitate group goal setting. The facilitators would
assist in appropriate group goal setting to develop attainable
goals to meet the American College of Sports Medicine’s PA
guidelines, while re-directing groups away from unreachable
PA goals. The team with the highest percentage of goal com-
pletion would win a nominal award for winning that week’s
challenge. Team goal setting would be reestablished midway
through the program (week 4), after the first round of incentives.
The third condition would include group dynamics-based PA
sessions, with compensation for individual goal setting and
individual attendance. Group discussion, as outlined above, was
to yield a collaboratively set goal, as well as individual goals.
Within this intervention arm, the participant who achieved the
greatest PA percentage and the participant with the highest
attendance would receive the monetary incentive for that week.
Finally, the fourth group would receive compensation for both
individual and group goal setting and attainment. The group
with the highest percentage of goals attained would receive an
incentive based on the points system. In addition, whomever
had the highest percentage achieved of their individual goal and
greatest attendance would receive a monetary incentive.
Lessons Learned from Grant Submission
In the grant review process of the proposals submitted, four
faculty members and one senior graduate student independently
scored abstracts following NIH criteria (overall impact, signifi-
cance, investigators, innovation, approach, and environment)
and identified key strengths and weaknesses of each proposal.
Students sat in on a mock NIH study section, while their pro-
posals were discussed amongst the reviewers. In the mock grant
review session, faculty members provided further feedback and
dialogue on the proposed studies. The proposal with the best
combined score from reviewers was awarded the fellowship.
While it is not common for grant authors to be present during
reviews, the audible and written feedback served as a learning
experience for the students, useful for the development of fu-
ture grant proposals. General strengths of the proposal were: a
RCT research design, defined measures, a group-based ap-
2x2 Group Randomized
Group Dynamics w/
Group Dynamics w/
Group Dynamics w/
Group + Individual
Proposed 2 × 2 group randomized control trial.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
S. M. HARD EN ET AL.
proach, and a significant target population. Weaknesses to be
addressed included unclear incentive distribution and unclear
distinction between research groups. Hearing about the
strengths and weaknesses of the proposal was a critical learning
experience because the young investigators were able to hear
inquiries about outcomes/directions that they had not previ-
ously considered. Overall, this was a humbling experience for
the young investigators to witness and absorb the seemingly
harsh critique of their proposals by the reviewers.
Revise and Resubmit
Based on the feedback received by the funders, and the po-
tential setback in recruiting 100 women, the research design
was changed to a 2-group RCT as seen in Figure 2. The revised
primary specific aim was to determine the effectiveness of a
group dynamics based PA program in the target population of
young adult (i.e., 18 - 25 years old), Black, college women.
Within the group dynamics intervention arm, participants
were assigned to small groups (i.e., teams of five) to remain in
for the duration of the program. Within these small groups, the
facilitators were able to integrate interaction and communica-
tion, foster friendly competition as well as accountability, and
develop a sense of distinctiveness (i.e., team names). The fa-
cilitators also led collaborative, self-selected group goal setting
within the intervention arm. These strategies and principles,
applied within the group dynamics intervention arm, served to
increase the participant’s perception of group cohesion (Es-
Group cohesion is a predictor of PA program attendance and
adherence (Estabrooks, 2000); therefore, each session was de-
signed to target the dimensions of group cohesion [i.e., indi-
vidual’s attraction to the group’s task (ATG-T), individual’s
attraction to the group socially (ATG-S), the group’s integra-
tion towards the task (GI-T), and the group’s integration so-
cially (GI-S)]. Beginning with the first session, participants
engaged in activities that increased the perception of group
cohesion, such as completing a timeline of their lives that in-
cluded thoughts and behaviors regarding PA. The sessions were
also designed with specific attention to cultural issues, values,
and experiences. For example, one class session addressed
common hair concerns (i.e., barrier) for this specific population
when engaging in PA.
Participants in the second condition were assigned to
matched-contact control group, where they engaged in PA in
sessions modeled similar to typical gym classes (i.e., no facili-
tated group-based strategies). Trained facilitators led the
weekly, 1-hour group sessions. Sessions outlined as above,
except the program components (i.e., relay races) were deliv-
ered to aggregates. This meant participants were placed into
various groups throughout the program and facilitation was
PA Agg regate (Contro l)
Group Dynamics Enhanced
Delivered research design.
around PA rather than increasing cohesion (i.e., interaction and
communication around common barriers). The research team
met regularly to discuss the ongoing processes of the interven-
tion delivery, while noting necessary on-the-spot adaptations.
Following the grant review process, students addressed re-
viewer comments and further sought advice and expertise from
senior research personnel.
The research team developed an acronym for the program
[IMA DIVA (Increased Movement in African Diaspora Indi-
viduals of Virginia)]. This served to signify that the program
was meant for women and to align with temporally relevant use
of the term “diva” as a positive, rather than negative, depiction
of women. IMA DIVA was inspired by the popularity of popu-
lar-culture singer Beyoncé’s song entitled, “Diva,” and became
the unifying, up-beat theme song for the project. The program
was 8-weeks in duration, as previous 8-week long PA interven-
tions have proven effective (Doak, Visscher, Renders, &
Seidell, 2006), with both post-intervention and 3-month fol-
low-up assessments. Each week, participants engaged in one-
hour sessions, enhanced with evidence-based activities. The
total time in sessions was 8 hours with additional intervention
contacts. Each week, participants received reminders about the
time and location of the session by email (one day before the
session) and phone (two-hours before the session). These total
contacts were approximately five minutes per week, for a total
of 40 minutes for each condition. During the first session, par-
ticipants were also given a hand-bill outlining all the informa-
tion above (i.e., time, location, on-campus and off-campus PA
resources). Participants were encouraged to perform 30 minutes
of moderate intensity activity five times per week and to incor-
porate two days of strength training according to the current
adult PA recommendations (CDC, 2011). Class sessions pro-
vided a variety of activities on how to meet these recommenda-
tions (i.e., resistance bands, Zumba, abdominal work-outs, re-
lays). The research team developed a program manual to ensure
delivery fidelity. Additionally, a post-program focus group was
conducted to gain valuable feedback from participants for
strengthening program delivery and utility. The Virginia Tech
Institutional Review Board approved all study activities and
After receiving the fellowship, the students discussed role
clarity to ensure individual student ownership and primary re-
sponsibility of specific project tasks. All members of the team
had previous research experience; however, roles were assigned
based on an assessment of individual strengths. The research
team consisted of a principal investigator (Ph.D. candidate with
expertise in group dynamics), a project manager (Master’s stu-
dent with organizational skills), a recruitment agent (Ph.D.
student with access to the target population), a retention strate-
gist (Ph.D. student with experience tracking participants), and a
data manager (Ph.D. student with a Master’s degree in statis-
tics). These roles were associated with responsibilities of 1)
intervention design, session delivery, overall project manage-
ment; 2) administrative duties, budget, incentives; 3) develop-
ment distribution and presentation of recruitment materials; 4)
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 651
S. M. HARD EN ET AL.
participant tracking, retention efforts, data collection; and 5)
data entry, management, analysis.
Recruitment and Retention
The collaborative research team developed a strategic plan
for recruitment. Using previously effective methods, the team
decided on a multi-strategy approach. First, the research team
established the eligibility criteria, which was relatively inclu-
sive as to increase representativeness (Dzewaltowski, Es-
tabrooks, & Glasgow, 2004). The targeted population consisted
of African Diaspora women enrolled at the Virginia Tech’s
Blacksburg campus in rural Southwest, Virginia. The sample
eligibility criteria included being enrolled in at least 3 credit
hours, 18 - 25 years of age, and self-identification as a Black
female. Non-English speaking women and those who had phy-
sician contraindications to PA were excluded. Table 1 indicates
both the planned strategies, as well as those that were actually
Planned Recruitment Strategies
The strategic plan for recruitment included word of mouh,
culturally appropriate flyers posted around campus, mass
emails to targeted listservs, and presentations at organizational
meetings, with audiences consisting primarily of the target
population. Using targeted listservs, the research team planned
to present recruitment sessions at all student organizations that
were identified as primarily focusing on minority populations.
Interested persons who requested more information about the
study were to be contacted within 48 hours of initial contact.
These individuals were provided study details, consent form,
and demographic screener. If an interested person did not return
the consent form or demographic screener within two weeks of
initial interest, the contingency plan was to first send an email
and then make a phone call.
Implemented Recruitme nt S trategies
Due to the timing of the recruitment which occurred at the
end of the Fall semester just prior to Winter break, only five out
of 23 planned recruitment sessions at organizational meetings
occurred. These presentations provided real-world experience
to answering program inquiries, consenting multiple parties,
and administering surveys. At times, the presidents of student
organizations were unresponsive. After speaking with funders,
the research team was advised to contact advisors of student
organizations directly. Upon receiving advice from funders, the
recruitment team emailed advisors of the unresponsive organi-
zations. To help with recruitment, emails were sent from a fac-
ulty member of the target population who had access to emails
of the target population. Even though the research team planned
to follow-up with participants via phone calls; this proved chal-
lenging as many interested persons did not provide phone
numbers. Thus, email was the only reliable way to contact indi-
Lessons Learned in Recruitment
The recruitment team learned that sometimes it is not the in-
tensity of recruitme nt, but that the timing is more important . In
the Fogg Behavior Model, timing is a critical element that is
often missing from behavior change (Fogg, 2009). To over-
come statistical power issues, the research team anticipated
recruiting 100 people. Though recruitment lasted three months,
it began toward the end of the fall semester (November) and
ended after the first three weeks of the spring semester (early
February). By the time recruitment started, some organizations
had already held their last monthly meeting and/or many stu-
dents were preparing for end of semester assignments and final
exams. Additionally, participants that signed up at the begin-
ning of recruitment may have lost interest due to the lag time
for the intervention start date. Thus, even though potential par-
ticipants may have been aware of the study through various
mediums, they may have chosen not to participate due to the
timing and competition with academic and/or personal demands.
One final critique for recruitment was the data obtained from
the initial screener. The screener only included information on
demographics, which may have lead to the recruitment of a
population that was more active than the initial desired popula-
tion (i.e., sedentary or insufficiently active Black college
women). Essentially, the screener, or specifically the lack of PA
information available from the screener, led the researchers to
recruit a large proportion of participants who were already
meeting PA recommendations.
Planned & Implemented Retention Strategies
The research team also devised a retention strategy a priori
to the intervention. Strategies were presented at an initial team
meeting and revamped accordingly (see Table 2). To facilitate
program retention, the strategic plan was to remind participants
about upcoming sessions via email the day before each session
and encourage continued participation among those who were
no longer interested in the program. These strategies were im-
Planned and implemented recruitment strategies.
Planned Recruitment Strategies Implemented Recruitment Strategies
Flyers in academic buildings and residential halls Executed as planned
Recruitme nt sessions at most/all student organization meetings Recruitme nt sessions at few student organization meetings
Project recruitment sessio ns at 23 organizational meetings 3 organizational recruitment sessions & additional recruitment sessions in residential halls
Recruitment emails to listservs Recruitme nt emails to listservs + email from fa culty member with access to emails of target
In initial contact get phone numbe r and email Only emails r eceived, no phone numbers
Recruitment follow-u p protocol Additional follow-ups for unres ponsive in dividuals
Recruitment e mails to Presidents of student organ i zations Recruitment e mails to Presidents and/or advisors due to dela yed/unresponsive to emails
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
S. M. HARD EN ET AL.
plemented as planned. However, another program retention
strategy was to call participants at least two hours in advance.
This strategy was not consistently implemented due to time
demands of calling all participants within the proposed time
period. During focus group interviews, some participants stated
that the timing of their call was acceptable, while others stated
that calls were not critical, as they had already received an
email reminder the day before. The two remaining strategies
that were not implemented as planned were primarily team-
based and included the timing of updating attendance sheets,
emailing participants regarding absences, and executing the
three month follow up. The research team was not able to up-
date the attendance sheets as quickly as planned due to the ad-
ditional time demands associated with validating attendance. In
order to validate attendance, the research team had to review
the completion of survey assessments as some participants ar-
rived late, missing the sign-in sheet. Lastly, the research team
was not able to distribute data collection instruments during the
week planned due to resource sharing with an intra-lab study.
Three month data collection was then off by one calendar week.
Planned & Implemented Sessions
The program manual created by the research team outlined
activities, to be conducted in each session, based on the under-
lying theoretical components of group dynamics (see Table 3).
For the intervention arm, each week included an “ambitious
girls” friendly competition related to with nutritional facts or
PA competitions (i.e., relay race). To enhance the effect of this
challenge, the winning team was always given a nominal award
(i.e., water bottles, gym towels). The women were also asked to
sit in their small groups and engage in task-oriented communi-
cation around PA goals. The research team also conducted
activities, such as a physical activity and healthy eating timeline,
which allowed the participants to explore the existence of
deeper similarities (i.e., hometown location, sports played in
high school). Small groups were limited to five participants in
order to increase the likelihood of interaction and communica-
tion. The control group was to meet for the same duration and
frequency as the intervention arm. However, the session out-
lines were created for the facilitators to provide information on
appropriate individualized goal setting, nutritional facts, and a
special ‘Size Healthy’ presentation that highlighted fitness ver-
sus fatness. The participants in the control group were also
scheduled to engage in the same duration of PA as the interven-
Implementation fidelity, according to the original RCT de-
sign, was slightly altered, mostly due to intervention drift. One
potential influence on drift was distributing the IMA DIVA
shirts to all participants, rather than simply the intervention
condition. The original intent was to use the t-shirts as com-
pensation for participation for all. The facilitators then encour-
aged the participants in the intervention group to wear their new
t-shirts to the sessions and at the gym to create a sense of dis-
tinctiveness within the intervention group. However, in both
conditions, participants wore the shirts to sessions and around
campus. Furthermore, the influence of friendly competition
may have been compromised. The intervention condition had
predetermined small groups that competed weekly and received
incentives. In the control condition, facilitators randomly as-
signed groups (i.e., chosen by counting off in height order) to
engage in similar physical activities as the intervention arm.
While the groups in the control arm were approximately 12
participants versus 12 participants, friendly competition still en-
sued as the women cheered on their teammates. Finally, when
facilitating individualized goal setting in the control arm, the
participants organically wanted to share advice and tips with
Planned and implemented r etention strategies.
Planned Rete ntion Strategies Implemented Retention Strategies
Email partic i pants reminders about the upcoming sessio ns and any
missing measures every Sunday of the intervention period. Executed as planned.
Update attendance sheet after every session. Email participants to
inquire about their absence, and document it in the attendance sheet. Wasn’t able to update attendance sheet and contact pa r t icipants until 1 or 2 day s after
the session due. This delay was due to t ime assoc i ated with validating atten d ance.
Should a participant choose to drop, inquire about their reasons for
dropping ou t , and try to encourage continued participation. Executed as pla nned. Successful in encourag ing 1 participant to complete assessments.
3 month follow up planned for the end of June. Follow -up was delayed a week due to sharing resources (e.g. accelerometers) with
Planned and delivered implementation components.
Planned Im plem e ntat io n Delivered Implementation
Group Dynamics [Strategie s & Principle s]
Facilitated I n t eraction & Communicati o n
Group Goal S etting
Feedbac k on Group Goals
Matched Contact Contr ol
Physical Activity Aggregate
Didactic Nut rition and P hysical Activity Lessons/ Information
Individualized Goal Setting
Group Dynamics [Strategie s & Principle s]
Facilitated I n t eraction & Communicati o n
Matched Contact Control
Didactic Nu trition and Physical Activity Lessons/Information
Individualized Goal Sett ing
Interaction & Communication
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 653
S. M. HARD EN ET AL.
other participants on how everyone could achieve their goals;
this led to an increase of interaction and communication. A
specific example of this can be seen in one participant offering
to teach a few other participants how to swim at the pool on
campus (i.e., outside of class time). While the intent of the de-
livered research design was to determine the influence of group
dynamics in this specific population, the true comparison ended
up being between group-dynamics based PA sessions delivered
to small groups versus large groups.
Lessons Learned in Implementation Fidelity
Due to lower attendance rates in the intervention group, the
small group composition changed frequently. In other words, if
a participant came to the intervention session and her group
members were not present, the facilitator placed her in an ex-
isting group for the duration of that session. This adaptation
deterred from the longitudinal effects of small group design.
Additionally, two of the key components of behavioral inter-
ventions grounded in group dynamics are group goal setting
and feedback loops (i.e., facilitator feedback). However, the
groups’ self-selected goals were not necessarily PA behavior
based (i.e., minutes of physical activity, attendance), but more
socially based (i.e., meeting with group members for dinner).
Intervention drift was also seen as the “aggregate” of 25 women
organically (and enthusiastically) engaged in friendly competi-
tion and encouraged each other with verbal and physical cues of
The program was evaluated through a mixed methods ap-
proach using validated and reliable self-reported questionnaires
as well as focus groups. Members of the research team had
varying levels of experience in both quantitative and qualitative
data collection and analysis.
Quantitative outcomes were measured at baseline before the
start of the program, immediately after the program ended, and
3 months after program completion. Validated and reliable
self-reported questionnaires measured health-related quality of
life (CDC), PA self-efficacy and self-regulation (Anderson,
Wojcik, Winnett, & Williams, 2006), deep and surface level
similarities (Beauchamp, Dunlop, Downey, & Estabrooks, 2012)
and group dynamics through the Physical Activity Group En-
vironment Questionnaire (Estabrooks & Carron, 2000). PA was
measured subjectively with the modified Godin Leisure-Time
Exercise Questionnaire (Godin & Shephard, 1985) and objec-
tively with Actigraph GT3X triaxial accelerometers (Sasaki &
Freedson, 2011). Participants wore accelerometers for one
week at each data collection period and kept a log of the hours
they wore the device, indicating the time periods they engaged
in exercise. All responses to the validated questionnaires were
entered into PASW 18.0. Means scores for key variables were
calculated at each data collection point. Paired sample t-tests
detected any mean differences of outcomes by group enroll-
ment between baseline and post-program, while linear regres-
sion sought to detect predictors of PA change over the course of
the program. Due to the dynamic nature (i.e., sporadic atten-
dance) of the intervention group, it was difficult to obtain con-
sistent data throughout the intervention. In the final sample,
there were 24 participants randomized to the control group and
20 to the intervention group, indicating a small sample size
with low statistical power. Additionally, while the attrition rates
were low, due to the small sample size, it was difficult to defect
any statistically significant changes of the measured variables.
The research team also used predetermined semi-structured
interview questions to obtain data on recruitment, retention,
feedback on implementation, and potential program sustainabil-
ity. Each focus group was led by two novice moderators and an
experienced co-moderator. This opportunity allowed novice
moderators to experience common focus group interactions,
such as leading through awkward silences, controlled responses
to positive feedback (i.e., avoid leading), encouraging partici-
pation from all attendees, adjusting to and avoiding tangents,
and time management. After the conclusion of both focus
groups, two trained young investigators independently tran-
scribed the focus group discussion verbatim. A senior member
of the research team reviewed each transcription for accuracy
and requested the revision of one transcription. Reviewing the
transcriptions taught the senior member and one of the young
investigators the importance of carefully selecting transcribers
and paying attention to detail, in order to avoid repetition of
transcribing. Approved transcripts were independently coded
for meaning units. Analyzing the focus group data provided
opportunities for mentorship of the young investigators and the
opportunity to apply classroom-based knowledge and experi-
ence on a larger scale. While coding, researchers made con-
scious efforts to code transcripts with minimal bias. The ex-
perience taught researchers that qualitative data may not sup-
port the theoretical framework of an intervention, but is still
informative. Researchers were able to identify themes that pro-
vided feedback for structure, content, and delivery.
As set by the a priori hypothesis, the enhanced group dy-
namic arm would show more changes in the measures than the
control group. Therefore, the first round analysis sought to
detect changes in all variables outlined in Table 4 between
post-program and baseline by a paired sample t-test. However,
analysis revealed more significant changes in the control group
than in the enhanced group dynamics group, contradicting the
hypothesis. After the 3-month follow up data collection, the
same paired sample t-test between post-program and follow-up
sought to detect significant changes in measured variables be-
tween the two groups. Again, there were no statistically sig-
nificant changes in minutes of physical activity, indicating that
there was no measured difference between the conditions that
effected outcome measures. Therefore, a different data analysis
was approached to try to detect statistical significance by group
membership. In this new regression model, we sought to the
determine PA change (e.g., the dependant variable) based on
the variables of group membership, group similarities, group
dynamics, and total class attendance (e.g., the independent
To satisfy the objective of the specific grant call (e.g., use
accelerometers as an outcome measure), data from accelerome-
ters worn by the participants were extracted at each data collec-
tion period (i.e., baseline, post-program, follow-up). An Acti-
Graph GT3X triaxial accelerometer measured activity at 60
second epochs on the vertical, antero-posterior (AP), and vector
magnitude (VM) axes. The research team learned that the initial
Freedson cut points (Freedson, 1998) used to determine inten-
sity of physical activity were outdated on the triaxial acceler-
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
S. M. HARD EN ET AL.
ometers, and used suggested new cut points instead (Sasaki &
Freedson, 2011). Aggregate minutes of physical activity were
calculated by intensity category. However, since current re-
search is inconclusive on the best practices for using triaxial
accelerometers, the data collected on the accelerometers were
not included in further analyses and did not contribute to the
overall outcomes (Sasaki, 2011; Trost et al., 2011).
When combining both moderate and vigorous self-reported
minutes of PA, both the control and the enhanced group were
meeting the PA recommendations of 150 minutes per week
(Table 5). Participants in the control group increased their
post-program PA by almost an hour (i.e., 58.6 minutes). How-
ever, by the 3-month follow-up, the control group was engaging
in less PA than they were at baseline by 76 minutes. The group
dynamics-based intervention arm increased physical activity by
84 minutes from baseline to the post-program follow-up. By the
3-month follow-up, the group dynamics-based intervention arm
had still increased from baseline, by 48.8 minutes. However,
none of these increases were significantly different between the
intervention and control group. Also, as depicted in Table 5,
the standard deviations for both groups were very large.
While the proposed and implemented study did not have the
predicted outcome of increasing total minutes of PA for the
intervention arm, programmatic, evaluative, and real-world
adaptation lessons were learned by the five graduate students
involved in the planning and implementation of the program.
From the beginning of the experiential learning process, stu-
dents learned invaluable feedback from the grant review (i.e.,
research design is strong, but some programmatic adaptations
should be made), to successful recruitment strategies for a
population that was dispersed across a large university, and the
use of technology (i.e., text, E-mail) for retention strategies.
The most significant lessons learned surrounded obtaining and
analyzing data as well as drift of intervention components.
As seen throughout the paper, the researchers were propo-
nents of group dynamics-based PA interventions. The first it-
eration of the trial design was to compare individual v group
based incentives to add to the current body of literature; hy-
pothesizing that in a group based intervention, working to-
wards group goals (and compensation based on group goals)
may be more effective. When the design was then changed to
examine the potential effectiveness of a group dynamics based
intervention specific to Black, college women with a matched
Variables measured during IMA DIVA and time period measures.
Variables Baseline Post program 3-month follow up
Health-related quality of life (HRQOL) X X X
Self-repor t ed physical activity (PA) X X X
Physical activity self-efficacy (PASE) X X X
Physical activity self-regulation (PASR) X X X
Group similarities (GS) X X X
Group dynamics (GD) measures to include:
Individual attracti on to group task (ATGT) X X X
Individual attraction to gr oup socially ( ATGS) X X X
Group’s integration toward the task (GIT) X X X
Group’s integration socially (GIS) X X X
Group’s communication (COMM) X X X
Group’s competition (COMP) X X X
Group’s cooperation (COOP) X X X
Objectively measured PA, by accelerometer X X X
Physical activity outcomes.
Baseline Post-Program Follow-Up
Control Enhanced Control Enhanced Control Enhanced
Moderate o nl y 57.3 (71. 8) 63.0 (68.9) 147.6 (483.7) 202.7 (564.7) 62.9 (73.3) 119.2 (124.9)
Vigorous only 119.0 (196.4) 87.5 (84.7) 87.3 (159.5) 63.7 (59.4) 37.4 (64.7) 19.6 (109.3)
Moderate and vigorous 176.3 (235.2) 150.5 (138.3) 234.9 (487.7) 266.3 (587.5) 100.3 (107.5) 198.8 (180.3)
Strength training 17.7 (37.7) 35.3 (54.7) 12.1 (27.9) 10.3 (19.1) 22.1 (48.1) 34.6 (70.1)
*Minutes mean (SD), based on self-report measures, stratified by group randomization.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 655
S. M. HARD EN ET AL.
contact control, the intent of the study changed entirely. Evi-
dent in this manuscript, however, is that the organic climate of
the control group led to yet another variation in the research
design. The end result was a trial that compared group dynam-
ics delivered to small groups (n = 5) versus a larger cohort (n =
25). Further still, the varying attendance rates of the small
groups led to the need for further investigation before definitive
conclusions can be made on appropriate group composition for
The second largest changes were seen in the intended and
delivered data analysis. As increasing minutes of PA was the
primary specific aim of the intervention, it seemed most plausi-
ble to obtain PA duration at baseline, post-program and follow-
up through both self-report (i.e., Godin) and objective measures
(i.e., tri-axel accelerometers). Two lessons learned here: first,
the women were not insufficiently active at baseline and, two,
self-report did not highly correlate to objective outcome meas-
ures. As for the latter, it is opposite from what typically hap-
pens in the literature. Participants tend to overestimate their
activity levels (Adams et al., 2005). Yet, participants in IMA
DIVA were more active according to their accelerometer read
outs than their own self-report of PA. And, finally, the demo-
graphic screener distributed during recruitment did not measure
participants’ baseline PA levels. This lead to the recruitment of
sufficiently active women that make it harder to detect an in-
crease in PA over the 8 week program.
In addition, the collaborative effort set forth by the students
allowed a needed balance between leadership and followership
(DeVore & Hyatt, 2010). Each member of the team had a spe-
cific role and associated responsibilities. Role clarity was estab-
lished and agreed upon within a preliminary team meeting.
When members are unaware of their roles or have unfulfilled
expectations, they tend to have negative group outcomes in-
cluding frustration and mistrust (Hare & O’Neil, 2000). Dis-
tinct roles allow the unique talents of individuals to contribute
to successfully accomplishing the group’s task. When role ex-
pectation is clear, individuals feel accountable and confident in
their position within the group. Role clarity and acceptance
leads to greater satisfaction and cohesion (Carron, Colman,
Wheeler, & Stevens, 2002). Additionally, millennials (students
born post-1982) are criticized that while their social networks
may be in the upper hundreds, they lack the ability to under-
stand conflict resolution and to assess opinions of others (Phlan,
2011). Contrary to this criticism, the research team actively
engaged in opinion assessment and acknowledgment of differ-
ent strengths in each other as researchers. The research team,
like all groups, exhibited a distinct culture guided by shared
values, beliefs, and norms (Sanchez & Yurrebaso, 2009). The
common goal for implementing a successful intervention was
only one common thread among the young investigators, while
the desire to have a public health impact, increase PA for a
health disparate population, and changing lives were underlying
There is also a call for pedagogical practices to initiate pro-
grams and coursework that produce students who value diver-
sity and do not engage in damaging biases (i.e., racism, sexism,
ableism; Rovengo, 2008). Since this project had both a racially
diverse research team (e.g., African-American, Caucasian, and
Asian) and target population (i.e., females of African descent),
the research team had to engage in cultural humility. Cultural
humility promotes self-evaluation and self-critique that aims to
be open and acknowledge differences rather than claiming cul-
tural competence, which is an unobtainable endpoint (Israel,
Eng, Schulz, & Parker, 2005).
The research team also gained confidence in their ability to
successfully deliver an evidence-based program as IMA DIVA
was founded on tenets of group dynamics. While there is not a
standard package of group dynamics strategies applied across
the literature (Estabrooks, Harden, & Burke, 2012), the research
team reviewed the current literature for appropriate set of
strategies to guide the design and development of a program
manual for the intervention. While making real-world adapta-
tions was a challenge, the researchers aimed to adhere to un-
derlying program principles and record any variations from the
manual. The lessons learned throughout this process equipped
the five junior researchers with experiential knowledge to in-
crease the likelihood of success in their next funding opportu-
Graduate students often find themselves within a (fairly nar-
row, time-constrained) research niche. This project brought
together five research scientists with varying levels of interven-
tion experience and expertise. While the a priori hypothesis of
the intervention was not supported (i.e., minutes of PA did not
increase throughout the project), the research team gained in-
valuable skills for future health promotion programs and
real-world grant applications for prospective NIH K, R03 and
R21 or non-profit grants as young researchers. Phlan (2011)
calls to educate students in such a way that they can interact
properly within a complex, and multidisciplinary job market
upon graduation; this paper provides support for a graduate
student competitive project that has the potential to utilize skills
fostered in an immeasurable experiential learning opportunity
for future career development.
The authors would like to acknowledge their mentors Drs.
Fabio Almeida, Paul Estabrooks, Jennie Hill, and Jamie Zoell-
ner for providing us with this valuable experiential learning
opportunity. We would like to thank Blake Krippendorf, Susie
Choi, and Shannon Summers and the other undergraduate re-
search assistants for their contributions during the project. We
would also like to acknowledge the competitive Translational
Obesity Research Program Fellowship that funded this research
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