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What is educational research?

From the previous section, you can see that there are many types of activity that fall under the umbrella of educational ‘research’. These include projects that investigate educational changes or developments that are being planned to define the best way of proceeding. Development projects typically include a small pilot study of an educational intervention, carried out with a view to informing how best to implement larger-scale reforms.

Other projects focus on review or evaluation of existing educational activities or curriculum change. These may be small-scale, local projects (such as introducing different teaching or learning methods or new clinical activities) or evaluation of large-scale national initiatives (such as the training programmes or national examinations). Systematic, critical or scoping literature reviews are another educational research activity. These may be carried out as part of ongoing research to inform the research process or as a discrete activity to provide information to a specific audience about the current findings from published literature.

‘Education research is often carried out in naturalistic settings that may carry threats to the validity of the study such as loss of subjects, selection bias, historical events or maturation’ (Bordage and Dawson, 2003). Educational research is primarily qualitative, and therefore differs from other types of research with which you may be more familiar, such as clinical or laboratory research. It tends to draw on different research and theoretical paradigms from scientific research, which has traditionally been grounded in a positivist stance. Kuper, Reeves and Levinson (2008) note that ‘Most qualitative researchers today share a different belief about knowledge, called “constructivism”, which holds that the reality we perceive is constructed by our social, historical, and individual contexts’. We discuss the differences between quantitative and qualitative approaches next.

Educational research draws largely from the social sciences in its approach, research methods and interpretation of results, and may involve a shift in perspective from the neutral, objective seeking of irrefutable ‘facts’ and universal ‘truths’, to offering new insights, acknowledging the subjectivity of researchers, the impact of the research process itself on subjects and outcomes, and the agency of the subjects of the research. Nonetheless, this does not make educational research and its methods less rigorous or valid than those of the physical sciences, but they may require researchers to take a different approach, draw from a different body of knowledge and take particular care over study design and consideration of confounding variables.

See ‘Further Reading’ section for sources that provide a more in-depth discussion into frameworks for educational research.

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