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What do we know, so far, about the best ways to help users use good research evidence?

Stephen Gorard, Durham University Evidence Centre for Education

Research evidence is considered important, contributing to improvements in education policy and practice. High-quality evidence can lead to important gains for the public and for society. Therefore, for decades there has been pressure from stakeholders for research in education to improve, in terms of its trustworthiness and relevance to real life. Following the setup of the US Institute of Education Sciences and other initiatives, significant progress has been made in terms of research capacity. In addition, publicly funded researchers in the UK are now required to demonstrate engagement and impact from their work, and practitioners and policymakers are encouraged to seek out evidence-led approaches to their work. We now have a growing understanding of effective interventions to inform both education policy and practice.

However, despite considerable writing on the matter (as shown in Gorard, See, & Siddiqui, 2020), the situation in terms of the use of this improved research evidence in real-life policy/practice is less clear. Over 20 years, there has been no equivalent improvement in secure knowledge about how best to get good research evidence into use. The quality of this evidence on evidence-use still appears to be very weak. Causal claims, of impact and of how evidence is best presented in order to maximise use, are being made on the basis of case studies and reports by stakeholders in a way that would not be accepted for the primary evidence itself.

What we have done in our new paper for BERA’s journal Review of Education (Gorard, See, & Siddiqui, 2020) is to review the existing literature on evidence-use across a range of policy areas including not only education but also social work, health sciences, housing and criminal justice. We found at least 290 papers that claimed to be theorising the field, but were largely either just increasingly complex conceptual models with no robust evidence base, or reports of research that involved asking stakeholders what they believed was an effective way to get good research evidence into use. It is shocking how much of the research into evidence-use is not itself robustly evidence-informed. We found only 33 studies across all areas of public policy that were of an appropriate design for making causal claims about evidence-into-use. A synthesis of these studies and their implications provides the main basis for our new paper. There is only room here to illustrate a few of the findings.

Making evidence available to users is not an appropriate method of general transfer, and this is true whether access consists of the full open availability of research articles, or a research summary or toolkit approach, whereby findings are combined and modified. These essentially passive methods reach only a subset of their intended audiences and do not promote regular or sustained use of evidence. Many evidence summaries are also being increasingly criticised for their bias, or for an overly casual approach to quality control (see Gorard, 2018).

Although practitioners and policymakers often claim that training and workshops in understanding evidence help them to understand it better, the existing evidence suggests that such approaches make no difference to attitudes towards using research, or to subsequent user behaviour (see for example Pappaioanou et al., 2003; Uneke, Ezeoha, Uro-Chukwu, Ezeonu, & Igboji, 2018). This discrepancy is part of the reason why there is little value in simply asking stakeholders what they think works in terms of getting evidence into use.

Schools having research leads/champions to interpret relevant evidence for them is a slightly more promising approach, but the causal evidence on this is unclear. Similarly, there is promise, but no solid evidence yet, that users being involved in the conduct of research may alter both their attitudes and behaviour (Gorard, See, & Siddiqui, 2017; Slavin, 2020). However, there is no evidence that simply linking users and researchers in research projects, as encouraged by research funders, has any benefits.

The most effective means of getting evidence into use relate only to specific interventions, not to the generic encouragement of evidence use. One is individual coaching on evidence-informed approaches for specific topics, with ongoing monitoring and auditing to confirm that evidence is being used and being implemented properly. This is lengthy and relatively expensive. The single most promising approach is (rather depressingly) the enforced use of evidence (Kansagra & Farley, 2012; Williams 2016). In public health and nursing there are a number of examples in which evidence-led interventions have simply been enacted (the fluoridisation of water is the classic example). This approach has a lower cost per individual treated, and has to be so heavily engineered that its evidence base is no longer clear to the user (see for example Doabler et al., 2014).


This blog post is based on the article ‘What is the evidence on the best way to get evidence into use in education?’ by Stephen Gorard, Beng Huat See Nadia Siddiqui, published in Review of Education


References

Doabler, C., Nelson, N., Kosty, D., Fien, H., Baker, S., Smolkowski, K., & Clark, B. (2014). Examining teachers’ use of evidence-based practices during core mathematics instruction. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 39(2), 99–111.

Gorard, S. (2018). Education Policy: Evidence of equity and effectiveness. Bristol: Policy Press

Gorard, S., See, B. H., & Siddiqui, N. (2017). The trials of evidence-based education. London: Routledge

Gorard, S., See, B. H., & Siddiqui, N. (2020). What is the evidence on the best way to get evidence into use in education? Review of Education. Advance online publication. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3200 

Pappaioanou, M., Malison. M., Wilkins, K., Otto, B., Goodman, R., Churchill, R., White, M., & Thacker, S. (2003). Strengthening capacity in developing countries for evidence-based public health: The data for decision-making project. Social Science and Medicine, 57(10), 1925-1937.

Uneke, C., Ezeoha, A., Uro-Chukwu, H., Ezeonu, C. & Igboji, J. (2018). Promoting researchers and policy-makers collaboration in evidence-informed policy-making in Nigeria. International Journal of Health Policy Management, 7(6), 522-531.

Slavin, R. (2020). Getting schools excited about participating in research [blog post]. Retrieved from https://robertslavinsblog.wordpress.com/2020/02/13/getting-schools-excited-about-participating-in-research/

Williams, M. (2016). To what extent has research been used to inform anti-poverty policy in Ghana [doctoral thesis, University of Bristol].  Retrieved from from EBSCOhost ddu database.

Kansagra, S., & Farley, T. (2012). Translating research into evidence-based practice. American Journal of Public Health, 102(8).

 

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