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Evidence-informed approaches to teaching: what's the evidence?

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Article Sections

  1. Introduction
  2. Evidence-informed practice
  3. Research-based evidence
  4. References

Evidence-informed practice

The terms "evidence-based" or "evidence-informed" practice are used to describe approaches that critically look at teaching practice in order to provide solid evidence for what works, which can then inform policy.

For example, certain types of learning, such as problem- or enquiry-based, have become popular, but are they effective? Exams are being replaced by continuous assessment, but is this effective and what forms of assessment are best?

If evidence can be accumulated which is not simply relevant to one institution, then good practice can be developed for the sector, which can then become enshrined in policy. However, there is an inherent problem around the nature of acceptable evidence when applied to education.

As a concept, evidence-based practice derives from medical science which is located in the positivist tradition and favours quantitative methods. In the UK, for example, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence laid down guidelines on a range of health-care issues which became policy. There is an obvious benefit for a busy doctor to be able to go to a source which, for example, provides the evidence backed by clinical trials for treatment of unstable angina, and the relative merits of coronary artery bypasses versus other forms of surgical intervention.

Education, on the other hand, is less amenable to a hard scientific approach; it is concerned not just with observable improvement, but with other more subtle and less quantifiable factors such as attitude and motivation. And there is also a considerable overlap with other disciplines, e.g. sociology and psychology. Useful research approaches are just as likely to be qualitative as quantitative: for example, ethnographic methods, focus groups, etc.

Oliver and Connole (2003) provide a critique of evidence-based approaches in the context of e-learning, which they consider to be particularly unsuited to a uniquely quantitative measurement, being rooted in a number of different disciplines and models.

Thus, the authors advocate a "more eclectic research paradigm", in other words, qualitative as well as quantitative methods, for example the use of ethnographic as well as experiment-based techniques.

Having established the need for a broad-based approach to empirical research, the question then becomes whether this is the only form of acceptable evidence. Mike Prosser of the UK's Higher Education Academy claims that while the growing body of pedagogical research is important, evidence can be defined more widely. He lists admissible forms of research as follows (Prosser, 2005):

  • Research which makes a significant contribution to the body of knowledge, that is situated in the literature, and which enhances our theoretical and conceptual understanding. Presumably this includes empirical research, as well as conceptualization which draws on empirical research.
  • Investigations and evaluations, which explore a local problem or issue, making recommendations, and which are also firmly linked into the literature.
  • Literature reviews, where the literature is collected and analysed.
  • Scholarship of teaching and learning, which is "evidence-based critical reflection on practice aimed at improving practice".
  • Surveys of academic staff and student experiences of teaching and learning.

Research-led teaching

Although the rest of this article will be concerned with evidence-based practice in higher education, there are other aspects to the growing convergence between teaching and research. As well as an interest in teaching strategies based on evidence of effectiveness, there is also concern with ones that equip the student with the skills of enquiry.

Alan Jenkins has come up with the following definitions of the ways in which teaching can be linked with research (Jenkins, 2005). Thus teaching can be:

  • Research-led: the research lies in the subject content, and follows the research interests of the staff. Thus it is the teacher who determines the research agenda.
  • Research-oriented: there is as much emphasis on the process by which knowledge is acquired as there is on the knowledge itself, and students are taught enquiry skills and research methods.
  • Research-based: here the curriculum is designed around enquiry-based activities undertaken by the students themselves, who thus acquire knowledge rather than have it "handed down" via lectures etc.
  • Research-informed: here teaching is consciously drawn from research on the teaching and learning process.

A number of undergraduate programmes in the US, particularly in the top research universities, provide opportunities for students to carry out research projects, which may result in publication. These are often aimed at the brightest students, and those who may in the past have been under-represented, such as women in science or African Americans; they may also take place outside the formal curriculum, for example in a summer internship (Healy and Jenkins, 2009).

For more on teaching research methods, see the insight article, "Teaching research".