Applied Research in Education (Part II of III)

 This is part 2 of a three-part series dedicated to Applied Research in Education. In what follows, I define applied research and give a few examples of what it might look like.

Applied Research is the category of research that takes place by real practitioners (such as teachers) who are in the field. No matter how brilliant a bit of basic research is, it is worthless if it cannot be applied to real life.

B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist psychologist who tested reinforcement and punishment with rats and pigeons and dogs in the laboratory, believed that he had revolutionized the science of teaching and learning. But his laboratory experiments always fell apart whenever they were applied in real life settings. For example, a pair of Raccoons were taught how to deposit coins into a piggy bank (Breland & Breland, 1961). They learned this through a careful schedule of reinforcement. But once the raccoons were removed from the cage and given their gold coins to deposit, their centuries old ancestral racoon-instinct kicked in: the raccoons would not deposit their coins into the piggy bank. They held onto them. The experimental findings did not translate outside of the laboratory.

As a teacher, you might have noticed how principles of motivation or teaching or reinforcement or development don’t always work the way that you were promised they would work. This is because you are trying to take something that was laboratory tested and put it to work in a real-life scenario. Just like the raccoon’s unexpected behavior, you have found that there are factors at play in real life that are absent from the laboratory. In other words, experimental findings do not always translate to real world scenarios. You have to figure it out on your own—by the seat of your pants, as it were.

This means that applied research is every bit as much of an art as it is a science. Once you figure out how to build rapport with a generation of COVID-19 children (these are children who began their socialization between the years 2019-2022), which is something for which no textbook or experimental finding can prepare you, the social world has once again changed. What you have learned is now only partially applicable.

How do you do it? 

If applied research is art and science, then you might be wondering how you might go about practicing it. 

In my experience, applied research is something that is always going on at some level of the teacher’s awareness in the classroom. Before a college semester begins, for example, I design my courses with special emphasis on the first few class periods. I am using my knowledge of best teaching practices, my experience with students in the past, and my personal beliefs and values about teaching and learning. These combine to form a sort of Gestalt or single unit that will guide the tone I adopt for my introduction, the examples I give, the questions I ask, and so on. Notice already how I am combining a priori evidence (this includes those best teaching practices) as well as relying on my intuition (more of an art skill). As I meet with my students for the first few class periods, I am getting important feedback from them. I am aware of student comments, their facial expressions, their excitement or boredom, and so on. These are ordinary classroom interactions, but they are also useful data for understanding my own art and science of teaching.

So what makes the process applied research? In order to make the jump from ordinary self-evaluation practice to applied research simply means being more formal and intentional about the process. This means specifying exactly what you plan on doing, and how you will check to see if it is working. A few years ago, I discovered a fascinating application of motivation psychology in the classroom (which I mentioned earlier) called “autonomy-supportive teaching.” I immediately started using the skills in my courses, and I noted with excitement the effects they had on me and on my students. Students were more likely to spontaneously say things like, “This is so unlike my other classes: you actually care about our interests and goals and take those into consideration.”

That right there is already an example of applied research, though it is admittedly informal and poorly designed, lacking rigor. I took an established teaching method—one that had already been laboratory tested and shown to have certain benefits for teachers and students—and I used it in my classrooms. I did my best to follow the strategy carefully, but I made changes to personalize it because I’m not a very careful rule-follower. Then I observed the changes that were present in myself and my students. Most of the changes were entirely unexpected, such as how I began thinking about every aspect of my course differently.

Now, I could take this much further and distribute to my students on the first day of class a 13-item questionnaire to measure their self-esteem or interest level or perceived support from their teacher. Then I could do the same after a semester of using my strategy, and conduct a mean comparison test (such as t-test) to see if there was a statistically significant difference (which I did and report on in my book Autonomy-Supportive Teaching in Higher Education).

I’ve done this before, many times in fact, but I have never found the results to be as meaningful or as interesting to me as I have found my own personal reflections about what happened as well as the personal reflections from students. Then again, I am a qualitative researcher at heart, and I tend to be more suspicious of quantitative data and the procedures used to interpret/analyze them. You will have to use the approach (more art or more science) that best fits your teaching goals and your personality.

Types of Applied Research 

Applied research can really take any form that is useful and worthwhile to the teacher or practitioner. Significantly, you, the teacher, are the research instrument. As a practitioner in real life, you have something that the scientist does not have, which is a real living context in which to work. You don’t have to wonder about factors x, y, and z, because you encounter them all the time, even if you are unaware of them. You are immersed in a world that the experimenter can only hope to approximate.

This teacher-as-research-instrument is most noticeable in research articles where the author says something like the following, which was shared by a career teacher friend of mine: “In my experience teaching, I have found that giving bonus points for homework leads to better participation and student engagement, even though the research suggests the opposite.” In other words, this teacher noticed how rejecting a common best practice seemed to work better with her demographic of students. Even though I have had a very different experience with bonus points, and even though I disagree with her conclusion, this teacher has thoughtfully adjusted activities, reinforcement and punishment, and so on, and has found the best combination that works for her and for her students. In my opinion, this is much better than if she simply took my word for what I think she should do. She is a thoughtful and self-reflective teacher, and her students are lucky to have her.

Move onto Part III of Applied Research in Education



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