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For all of us, the question of how to make educational research better is pressing. We don’t mean by more self-flagellation, which has become an almost obligatory competency for educational researchers. The limits constraining our advancement of knowledge have been vocally, and repeatedly, articulated: some argue that the methodologies employed need to be changed;1 others contend that we as a community have done a poor job reporting on our data analyses,2 and yet others question the quality of reporting more generally.3 This editorial is not meant to comprise more of the same (although we would note that the debate is worth continuing), but is aimed instead at offering some perspectives with which we, as a community, might grow beyond the self-flagellation compulsion towards effective advancement of our excellence as a field of knowledge.

Firstly, the conditions of educational research in the health professions require attention. Much of health professions education takes place within university environments where faculty staff carry out research activities as part of their academic portfolios, regardless of whether they have formal training to support the conduct of rigorous research. This is ironic, given that a common and historical criticism of the broader university environment concerns the fact that faculty members are hired on the basis of research skills and are then expected to teach, regardless of ability, interest or training in educational competencies. Although it is wrongheaded to believe that research is the only way to demonstrate educational scholarship,4 this common belief has led to a proliferation of educators striving to undertake educational research as a means of demonstrating their scholarship and their legitimacy within a promotional framework.

In this context, health professions educators and teachers are often advised to adopt a ‘piggyback’ approach whereby they perform research on the teaching or administrative responsibilities in which they are already engaged. This approach has the advantages of efficiency and maintenance of focus; however, it can lead to the disadvantage of one-off studies that are focused on local issues and available data and are not rooted in a literature-based need for research. As consultants, we frequently encounter scenarios where an individual is interested in administering a survey or running a focus group to assess the efficacy of his or her approach to teaching, without reference to a broader issue or educational problem to which such a study might speak. This is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, it will be very difficult to publish a study that appears to have only local and immediate relevance (e.g. How was my course received?), which will undermine the faculty member’s goal of demonstrating scholarship. Secondly, and more concerningly, performing such a study will represent a missed opportunity to move knowledge in the field forward as the study will not enter into conversation with larger concepts or push the boundaries of conventional approaches to recurrent issues. Thus, both the individual faculty researcher and the broader community of knowledge suffer stasis.

Medical Education is dedicated to avoiding such inertia. It strives to move the field of educational research forward by giving priority to studies that are presented within a strong conceptual framework, meaning, in part, studies that enter into a knowledge-building conversation with other works – theoretical or applied – in the field. Such studies link their work to the ideas that have come before – not just through the review of relevant previous studies, but also through shared theoretical concepts, interlacing research questions, attempts at replication and extension, or methodological innovation. In these ways, studies reflect higher-level ideas that assist readers to use the insights reported to think anew about the challenges they face in their local contexts. Often referred to as theory generation and theory testing, this effort helps to advance the field’s knowledge in a meaningful way by engendering generalisable or transferable knowledge. For this reason, in a scholarly journal like Medical Education, which has taken on the role of promoting ‘knowledge’ dissemination, generalisability and transferability represent the strongly held values by which educational research is judged.

At the same time, we recognise that, without full immersion in a literature, a theoretically oriented field or a scholarly discipline, it is exceedingly difficult to know which studies would be relevant or capable of filling gaps that exist in a community’s understanding. Equally fundamental is the notion that, for many in health professions education, any effort that focuses solely on striving to advance theory overlooks the fact that there are many relevant practical questions to which an answer would be of immediate importance and usefulness to those who aim to fulfil their roles as educators.5 For these reasons it is important to recognise that few individuals will develop sufficiently variable expertise to offer all that education-focused research teams require. Busy individuals often find it impossible to engage deeply in a foreign content area, so we strongly encourage individuals interested in educational research to broadly explore the intellectual resources available through their campuses or other connections outside their own professional schools. Interdisciplinary collaboration (e.g. with researchers in kinesiology, anthropology, linguistics, sociology or countless other fields with relevance to educational research in the health professions) and institutional support of such efforts are likely to be key to continuing the forward motion of our field.

A good heuristic for encouraging research that centres on knowledge-building conversation and connects to broader issues is to ask oneself the question: ‘What’s next?’ (i.e. to imagine the series of steps involved in grappling with a significant educational issue). In other words, when deciding how to expend one’s research efforts, one should think beyond the proximal challenge that needs to be addressed and, instead, identify the bigger problem that the community would benefit from understanding better. In doing so, one should ask oneself: ‘What follow-up research questions or projects might this study proposal lead me towards?’, ‘Why is the current study proposal a good place to start?’, ‘What will I “do” with the study once completed (other than placing it on my CV)?’, ‘What will the community learn from the study?’ and, perhaps most importantly, ‘What might someone else do differently (in research or education) as a consequence of my work?’ One should not necessarily pre-specify a series of studies to be carried out in sequence because what is important to do next should depend on the outcome of previous studies, but, if it is not possible to answer these questions about where the research efforts might lead, one should be concerned about traversing a terminal path from which claims of progress will be questionable.

Most research methods workshops start off by teaching new researchers about the importance of spending considerable amounts of time carefully phrasing a research question to direct a specific research project. Those efforts are critically important, but they should not be undertaken without giving equal consideration to how that specific project fits into the broader research theme of interest. Very rarely are single studies sufficiently strong to warrant change of opinion or practice or theory. One needs a programme of research (i.e. a series of studies, all triangulating on a central issue) to meaningfully advance understanding. In fact, Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of science, argued that it is the maintenance of programmes of research that ultimately defines the quality of scientific progress.6

This view of progress as a series of related studies does not discount the importance of delving into what is already known before settling into a research programme. On the contrary, envisioning the potential path requires an understanding of relevant literatures (plurality intended – hence the need for collaboration). That level of engagement should enable researchers to write critical and re-orienting reviews of what is already known, to better foreshadow what a specific study could provide, and to strengthen discussion sections by raising awareness of limitations, implications and the broader context relevant to the studies. Science should be viewed predominantly as a way of building argument to carry a community towards better and better insight (i.e. towards refined understanding of a problem even if a solution cannot yet be identified). As such, concerted exploration of a particular issue from a variety of perspectives and with a variety of research projects should become the standard to which we all strive. In some circles this describes what is already happening, but for the broader educational research community, our hope is that this programmatic view of research is itself ‘what’s next’.

Acknowledgments

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Acknowledgement:  The authors would like to thank Ivan Silver for his comments on a previous version of this editorial.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Acknowledgments
  3. References