Why Reading Educational Research can be a Challenge?

Written with co-author Dr Christine Bottrell. Pre-service teacher education students, in most courses, are required to undertake some study of education research methods, to provide them with skills to read and make use of education research. However, the field of education research is a complex and difficult area. Perhaps focusing upon the most frequently used research methods could be a useful starting point. So, what type of research methods are most favoured in education? This article describes the authors’ attempts to answer this question, and the unexpected outcomes of the quest.

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Introduction

Understanding research and being able to critically read research reports in education would seem to be an important skill for teachers to acquire,Why Reading Educational Research can be a Challenge? Articles and many initial teacher education programs, in countries such as Australia, require students to study a research method subject. In the case of pre-service teachers, there are important questions for a lecturer to consider. What should be the content and focus of an introductory course in research methods for pre-service education students? What are the priorities? Where to start? The starting point is important because, for many of these pre-service teachers, this may be the only study they will ever undertake in the area of education research. A pre-service teacher who is provided with a sound foundation in research methods is more likely to be a productive user of education research as an education practitioner.

In the limited time available for an introductory course in research methods, decisions have to be made regarding what to teach and what to leave out; what topics are considered to be more important than others and why. The field of education research is complex and, for students, the area can be overwhelming. In the experience of the authors, who have taught research methods at both under-graduate and post-graduate level over many years, students consistently describe their confusion and frustration at the sheer scope of the area and, in some cases, this acts as a disincentive.

Perhaps a useful starting point would be to focus upon the type of research that is most prevalent in education, on the assumption that students would be more likely to come across examples in the journals they read. If students are cognizant with the methods used in the research that they most frequently encounter then surely confidence would be increased. As journals are readily accessible for students, an investigation of relevant education journals would be a useful source in order to determine if certain types of research are published more frequently than others.

An investigation of this nature may reveal a profile of education research that could have implications for education researchers as well as assisting teachers and pre-service teachers. This article describes the authors’ endeavor to profile selected education research journals and the unexpected surprises encountered along the way; in particular, difficulties in the development of a suitable ‘mapping tool’. There may be implications for education researchers as well as teachers of research.

The Nature of Educational Research

Educational research is undertaken by a range of stakeholders including government departments and non-government organisations, but the majority of educational research, as with most disciplines, is undertaken by academics in universities. Educational research covers a broad range of topics such as curriculum and pedagogy, education systems (encompassing early childhood, primary, secondary education) and various specialist studies, including areas such as assessment, leadership, technology and gender.

Research needs of stakeholders vary. Education departments use research to inform teaching and curriculum practice, devise professional learning activities, target resources and improve system requirements. Non-government organisations may use research to develop teaching resources or provide information to improve services to a range of clients. Research that underpins the teaching and learning process is of particular importance to inform teacher practice. Universities usually require students to engage with the education research literature, whereby students undertake a unit in research methods or read educational research. With the growth of pre-service teacher education courses offered at the Master degree level in countries such as Australia, the requirement for research skills has escalated.

Research in education encompasses many different naturalistic, interpretative, hypothesis generating models as well as hypothesis testing models. A rich resource of text books is available for those studying the theory and practice of educational research: Burke & Christensen (2012), Punch (2009), O’Toole & Beckett (2013), Wiersma and Jurs (2009) and Yin (2012), to name a few. Due to the nature of research in an educational setting the majority of research utilises a hypothesis generation approach with a predominance of verbal qualitative data gathering.

The reporting of educational research is usually presented in a range of publications such as academic journals, including online journals, professional magazines and books. Academic journals are a pathway that allows for the results of research to be released quickly into the public space. The content of academic journals also contains opinion papers, book reviews and editorial pieces; however, in some journals, the distinction between position/opinion papers and reports of research are left to the reader to discover, which can be a problem for students and inexperienced researchers. Nevertheless, articles in journals are a readily accessible starting place for students of research methods.

Several studies have attempted to map the type of research methodology used in various educational research; for example: Murray, Nuttall & Mitchell (2008), Nuttall, Murray, Seddon & Mitchell (2006), and Tuinamuana (2012). However, Burns (2000) contends that in general, most educational research tends to be classified as “case study research”, which has become an “over-arching” term to describe educational research that does not fit with experimental, historical or descriptive research methods.

Barriers exist regarding classification of different types of research methodology; in particular, where there is not a shared understanding of categories, such as method, data source, data gathering, and data analysis. The wide-spread use of general terms, such as “qualitative research” and “quantitative research”, and the term “mixed method research”, that largely refers to the use of both verbal data and numerical data in a research study, can cause confusion. The education research field is broad and interrelated so that students, novice researchers, and teachers new to reading research are often overwhelmed and unsure where to start.

Where should the novice begin?

The question of where to start the journey into the ‘research methodology forest’ would be answered in numerous ways depending upon the preferences or individual expertise of a lecturer. Pre-service teachers, and those commencing research for the first time, often seek advice regarding the ‘best’ method, or the ‘most useful’ approach, but it is not that simple. Students themselves bring to the situation their own experience and knowledge of research, both formal and informal. As teachers of research methods to pre-service teachers and early career researchers, over many years, questions to the authors, such as “where do I start?”, “it is difficult to know who to believe when one lecturer talks about the same term in a completely different way” and “what research method is most useful for teachers?”, were often followed by complaints about the daunting size of the task and difficulty in reading research reports in education journals.

For the novice some knowledge of research methods would be essential for reading and understanding research reports in order to make a judgement of the usefulness of the findings to their situation. The absence of information about the research process deters understanding no matter what level of research expertise the reader brings to the task. Indeed, education doctoral students attending a recent conference session, given by one of the authors, expressed concern with inadequate information provided in research journal articles about the methods used, data gathering techniques and subsequent data analysis. Comments such as “it is often not clear what is being reported when components, such as how the data were collected, are missing” and “I expect to read details on the data source or data gathering but sometimes this information is just not there”, as well as comments about the difficulties encountered by students in “identifying the type of research methodology used in educational research” (Knipe& Bottrell, 2013). It seems that pre-service teachers are not alone in their concerns about reading and understanding education research.

If particular types of research methodology are more frequently us

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