• Emily Rose Seeber

Confuddled by the landscape of educational research?

Updated: Nov 8, 2019


From my Twitter feed, it seems that more and more teachers are engaged in the educational research literature. There is visible, or at least a public, a shift towards research-driven pedagogy.

And I have been part of this shift.

But despite being someone who generally feels like they are very involved in educational research, I didn't really know anything about the different kinds of educational research. I had no conception of how what I was reading sat in the bigger picture of the literature. Or how the methods used linked to the questions and claims that researchers were (or should have been) making.

This week, I've been learning about different forms of educational research, so I'm going to share what I've learned, in the hope that it helps other confuddled educational research consumers!

To make it clear, I've come up with research questions to exemplify the kinds of things that are studied in each kind of research. As will become patently obvious, I've gone with a theme of practical work.

1. Historical research

This is focused on a matter of interest in education, and how it has changed or developed over time. The main educative use for researchers, and teachers, is to avoid the pitfalls of repeating the mistakes of history.

How has the assessment of practical work changed in English schools since 1944?

In this example, looking at previous assessment approaches, and their strengths and weaknesses, could give indications about which avenues or ideas are yet to be explored.

2. Correlational research

This is focused on looking for correlations between two or more different phenomena. Such as between students' performance on a particular question in their first year exams and their final degree class. What it doesn't show you is causation. That needs further studies (experimental, case study, etc.) to elucidate.

Is there a correlation between students' motivation during practical work and choosing A-level sciences?

So for this example, we might be tempted to suggest that enjoying practical work is a factor in students choosing sciences at A-level, but mere correlation doesn't give you that. You need detailed case studies of students to show if their enjoyment of practical work is a factor in their choice.

3. Experimental research

This is the kind of research that has a control group. It evaluates the effectiveness of a particular intervention by some kind of trial with one group doing the intervention, and one group not. Large scale so-called randomly controlled trials fit into this category, but they could be carried out by one teacher on two different classes, like my example:

Does the use of a pre-lab exercise improve student efficiency during practical work?

The teacher could give both groups the same practical sheet, but one group have done a pre-lab exercise beforehand, and the teacher times how long it takes for students to complete the practical successfully, and the number of times that students ask for help during the practical. They then compare between the two groups and... voilà... experimental research!

4. Case study research

Case studies are used to answer 'how' and 'why' questions in educational research, than need a lot of rich contextual data. They might follow a study into a correlation, and look for causation. Using the example above, students in Year 10 and 11 could keep reflective journals about their study of sciences, be interviewed about their attitudes to science, and once they are in Year 12 having picked their A-level options, answer questions about factors which influenced their choice. The research question might be something like...

How does students' motivation in practical work impact on their decision to take sciences at A-level?

Here is another example:

How do teachers' beliefs about the value of practical work change during their NQT year?

In this example, the case could either be one NQT, a group of NQTs in a particular school, or all the NQTs in the country. If we imagine the former case, lots of data would be collected about the teacher's beliefs throughout the year, including reflective logs, interviews, etc. These can then build up a picture of how and why the teacher's perceptions of the value of practical teaching shifted throughout the year. From this, ideas about what works in a particular case can be identified, and suggest areas for research which might benefit from being investigated more generally.

5. Phenomenological research

This kind of research is focused on the essences of experiences. For example, what a particular experience feels like, and how that is held in common by a group of individuals. This can tell us all kinds of useful things as teachers, particularly if we look at the collective experience of students in our classes, or at tricky issues pertinent to our experiences as teachers:

How do Chemistry teachers feel about balancing their roles as both teacher and assessor when administering the Core Practicals at A-level?

This kind of research can inform teaching practice, which is intrinsically linked to the collective learning experiences of the class. If balancing these roles is challenging for teachers, this feedback could shape the next curriculum review. (Not that I want that yet, only just feeling confident with this one!)

6. Action research

This is a research practice we discuss a lot as teachers, as action research is teacher rather than researcher driven. It's about planning a change, evaluating it, tweaking the change, trialling that again, and iterating to an informed practice regarding the change. A key theme here is cycles of reflection and modification.

How does the use of an 'integrated instruction' approach impact on my students' recall of the required practicals at GCSE?

Like case studies, action research is very context specific, about what works for me in my school, and with my students. But, again, it could be used to generate larger studies on the intervention, in its final iteration, in a different context so look for generalisability.

So, for anyone who was like me, confused, bothered, and bewildered, I hope this was helpful.

Follow-up Exercise*

Try coming up with your own set of research questions on any of the following themes:

  • setting

  • interleaving

  • marking pupil work

  • teacher talk

  • gender

  • subject specialist teachers

  • the teacher recruitment crisis

Or come up with your own theme!

*Because we all know that this is important for learning!

#professionaldevelopment #educationalresearch

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© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber.