June 30th, 2011

Building a Bridge Between Research and Practice


If you read this blog regularly, you know that one of my concerns is the divide between research and practice, and our need to build bridges between the two.

In my writing and speaking I often mention a review of a research piece on motivation by Paul Pintrich. It summarizes and integrates research on such an important topic and one that concerns most faculty. It’s also much better organized than most reviews pieces I’ve read. Pintrich starts with seven questions about motivation:

  1. What do students want?
  2. What motivates students in classrooms?
  3. How do students get what they want?
  4. Do students know what they want or what motivates them?
  5. How does motivation lead to cognition and cognition to motivation?
  6. How does motivation change and develop?
  7. What is the role of context and culture?

He then summarizes research relevant to each question and suggests what practitioners should do about the answers.

Sounds wonderful and it is, but don’t for a moment imagine you can cruise through this 20 page (font size 6) article and in 10 easy minutes learn what you need to know about motivation. It is tough reading from start to finish—I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve made my way through it and there are still lots of things in the article I don’t understand or grasp marginally. As far as reviews of research go, it’s better than most, but it cannot be recommended to faculty without these caveats.

Faculty so need summaries of research. There is just no way somebody teaching four courses, keeping up with developments in the discipline, doing some scholarly work and service for the institution can be expected to read enough individual studies to keep current. Moreover, there is potential harm in happenstance reading. The voluminous research on student ratings illustrates that problem all too clearly. Many years ago now, Ken Feldman, the researcher who has done the most work summarizing and integrating ratings research, told me he had two thousand individual studies in this files. And studies of ratings have produced findings all over the map. I sometimes say kiddingly that if you have something special you want to believe about ratings, give me a couple of hours and I can find you a study documenting what you’d like to be true. That’s another reason faculty need research summaries: they need to know what conclusions are most regularly and strongly supported by the research.

Equally important, faculty need to know what they should do about findings. Sometimes it’s obvious, but more often it’s not. And this leads me to why I believe the reviews of research teachers need ought to be written by teachers themselves. With their in-class experience, teachers are in a better position than researchers to propose a strategy, assignment or policy that puts a research finding into practice. I’m really talking about Boyer’s scholarships of integration and application which I see less and less of in discipline-based scholarship of teaching. As far as I’m concerned too much of the scholarship of teaching is basic research—studies that aspire to advance knowledge. Yes, we need that work. But I believe teachers need scholarship that integrates and applies even more.

There is such an opportunity for creative thinking here. Practitioners don’t read traditional reviews of research for all sorts of reasons. What would they read? I’m not sure. What do they need? That I can answer. They need reviews that explain research designs simply and clearly. They need to have findings summarized with integrity, not making claims beyond what the research justifies. And they need reviews that explore implications even going so far as to propose how faculty might implement findings and test their results. That’s the kind of bridge between research and practice we need to be building.

Reference: Pintrich, P. R. “A Motivational Perspective on the Role of Student Motivation in Learning and Teaching Contexts.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 2003, 95 (4), 667-686.