NCEE Blog

National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

“The How” of “What Works:” The Importance of Core Components in Education Research

Twenty-some odd years ago as a college junior, I screamed in horror watching a friend open a running dishwasher. She wanted to slip in a lightly used fork. I jumped to stop her, yelling “don’t open it, can’t you tell it’s full of water?” She paused briefly, turning to look at me with a “have you lost your mind” grimace, and yanked open the door.

Much to my surprise, nothing happened. A puff of steam. An errant drip, perhaps? But no cascade of soapy water. She slid the fork into the basket, closed the door, and hit a button. The machine started back up with a gurgle, and the kitchen floor was none the wetter.

Until that point in my life, I had no idea how a dishwasher worked. I had been around a dishwasher, but the house I lived in growing up didn’t have one. To me, washing the dishes meant filling the sink with soapy water, something akin to a washer in a laundry. I assumed dishwashers worked on the same principle, using gallons of water to slosh the dishes clean. Who knew?

Lest you think me completely inept, a counterpoint. My first car was a 1979 Ford Mustang. And I quickly learned how that very used car worked when the Mustang’s automatic choke conked out. As it happens, although a choke is necessary to start and run a gasoline engine, that it be “automatic” is not. My father Rube Goldberg-ed up a manual choke in about 15 minutes rather than paying to have it fixed.

My 14-year-old self learned how to tweak that choke “just so” so that I could get to school each morning. First, pull the choke all the way out to start the car, adjusting the fuel-air mixture ever so slightly. Then gingerly slide it back in, micron by micron, as the car warms up and you hit the road. A car doesn’t actually run on liquid gasoline, you see. Cars run on fuel vapor. And before the advent of fuel injection, fuel vapor was courtesy your carburetor and its choke. Not a soul alive who didn’t know how a manual choke worked could have started that car.

You would be forgiven if, by now, you were wondering where I am going with all of this and how it relates to the evaluation of education interventions. To that end, I offer three thoughts for your consideration:

  1. Knowing that something works is different from knowing how something works.

 

  1. Knowing how something works is necessary to put that something to its best use.

 

  1. Most education research ignores the how of interventions, dramatically diminishing the usefulness of research to practitioners.

My first argument—that there is a distinction between knowing what works and how something works—is straightforward. Since it began, the What Works Clearinghouse™ has focused on identifying “what works” for educators and other stakeholders, mounting a full-court press on behalf of internal validity. Taken together, Version 4.1 of the WWC Standards and Procedures Handbooks total some 192 pages. As a result, we have substantially greater confidence today than we did a decade ago that when an intervention developer or researcher reports that something worked for a particular group of students, we know that it actually did.

In contrast, WWC standards do not, and as far as I can tell have not ever, addressed the how of an intervention. By “the how” of an intervention, I’m referring to the parts of it that must be working, sometimes “just so,” if its efficacy claims are to be realized. For a dishwasher, it is something like: “a motor turns a wash arm, which sprays dishes with soapy water.” (It is not, as I had thought, “the dishwasher fills with soapy water that washes the mac and cheese down the drain.”) In the case of my Mustang, it was: “the choke controls the amount of air that mixes with fuel from the throttle, before heading to the cylinders.”

If you have been following the evolution of IES’ Standards for Excellence in Education Research, or SEER, and its principles, you recognize “the how” as core components. Most interventions consist of multiple core components that are—and perhaps must—be arrayed in a certain manner if the whole of the thing is to “work.” Depicted visually, core components and their relationships to one another and to the outcomes they are meant to affect form something between a logic model (often too simplistic) and a theory of change (often too complex).

(A word of caution: knowing how somethings works is also different from knowing why something works. I have been known to ask at work about “what’s in the arrows” that connect various boxes in a logic model. The why lives in those arrows. In the social sciences, those arrows are where theory resides.)  

My second argument is that knowing how something works matters, at least if you want to use it as effectively as possible. This isn’t quite as axiomatic as the distinction between “it works” and “how it works,” I realize.

This morning, when starting my car, I didn’t have to think about the complex series of events leading up to me pulling out of the driveway. Key turn, foot down, car go. But when the key turns and the car doesn’t go, then knowing something about how the parts of a car are meant to work together is very, very helpful. Conveniently, most things in our lives, if they work at all, simply do.  

Inconveniently, we don’t have that same confidence when it comes to things in education. There are currently 10,677 individual studies in the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) database. Of those, only about 11 percent meet the WWC’s internal validity standards. Among them, only 445 have at least one statistically significant positive finding. Because the WWC doesn’t consider results from studies that don’t have strong internal validity, it isn’t quite as simple as saying “only about 4 percent of things work in education.” Instead, we’re left with “89 percent of things aren’t tested rigorously enough to have confidence about whether they work, and when tested rigorously, only about 38 percent do.” Between the “file drawer” problem that plagues research generally and our own review of the results from IES efficacy trials, we have reason to believe the true efficacy rate of “what works” in education is much lower.

Many things cause an intervention to fail. Some interventions are simply wrong-headed. Some interventions do work, but for only some students. And other interventions would work, if only they were implemented well.

Knowing an intervention’s core components and the relationships among them would, I submit, be helpful in at least that third case. If you don’t know that a dishwasher’s wash arm spins, the large skillet on the bottom rack with its handle jutting to the sky might not strike you as the proximate cause of dirty glasses on the top rack. If you don’t know that a core component of multi-tiered systems of support is progress monitoring, you might not connect the dots between a decision to cut back on periodic student assessments and suboptimal student outcomes.

My third and final argument, that most education research ignores the how of interventions, is based in at least some empiricism. The argument itself is a bit of a journey. One that starts with a caveat, wends its way to dismay, and ends in disappointment.

Here’s the caveat: My take on the relative lack of how in most education research comes from my recent experience trying to surface “what works” in remote learning. This specific segment of education research may well be an outlier. But I somehow doubt it.

Why dismay? Well, as regular readers might recall, in late March I announced plans to support a rapid evidence synthesis on effective practices in remote learning. It seemed simple enough: crowd-source research relevant to the task, conduct WWC reviews of the highest-quality submissions, and then make those reviews available to meta-analysts and other researchers to surface generalizable principles that could be useful to educators and families.

My stated goal had been to release study reviews on June 1. That date has passed, and the focus of this post is not “New WWC Reviews of Remote Learning Released.” As such, you may have gathered something about my plan has gone awry. You would be right.

Simply, things are taking longer than hoped. It is not for lack of effort. Our teams identified more than 930 studies, screened more than 700 of those studies, and surfaced 250 randomized trials or quasi-experiments. We have prioritized 35 of this last group for review. (For those of you who are thinking some version of “wow, it seems like it might be a waste to not look at 96 percent of the studies that were originally located,” I have some thoughts about that. We’ll have to save that discussion, though, for another blog.)

Our best guess for when those reviews will be widely available is now August 15. Why things are taking as long as they are is, as they say, “complicated.” The June 1 date was unlikely from the start, dependent as it was upon a series of best-case situations in times that are anything but. And at least some of the delay is driven by our emphasis on rigor and steps we take to ensure the quality of our work, something we would not short-change in any event.  

Not giving in to my dismay, however, I dug in to the 930 studies in our remote learning database to see what I might be able to learn in the meantime. I found that 22 of those studies had already been reviewed by the WWC. “Good news,” I said to myself. “There are lessons to be learned among them, I’m sure.”

And indeed, there was a lesson to be learned—just not the one I was looking for. After reviewing the lot, there was virtually no actionable evidence to be found. That’s not entirely fair. One of the 22 records was a duplicate, two were not relevant, two were not locatable, and one was behind a paywall that even my federal government IP address couldn’t get behind. Because fifteen of the sixteen remaining studies reviewed name-brand products, there was one action I could take in most cases: buy the product the researcher had evaluated.

I went through each article, this time making an imperfect determination about whether the researcher described the intervention’s core components and, if so, arrayed them in a logic model. My codes for core components included one “yes,” two “bordering on yes,” six “yes-ish,” one “not really,” and six “no.” Not surprisingly, logic models were uncommon, with two studies earning a “yes” and two more tallied as “yes-ish.” (You can see now why I am not a qualitative researcher.)

In case there’s any doubt, herein lies my disappointment: if an educator had turned to one of these articles to eke out a tip or two about “what works” in remote learning, they would have been, on average, out of luck. If they did luck out and find an article that described the core components of the tested intervention, there was a vanishingly small chance there would be information on how to put those components together to form a whole. As for surfacing generalizable principles for educators and families across multiple studies? Not without some serious effort, I can assure you.

I have never been more convinced of the importance of core components being well-documented in education research than I am today. As they currently stand, the SEER principles for core components ask:

  • Did the researcher document the core components of an intervention, including its essential practices, structural elements, and the contexts in which it was implemented and tested?
  • Did the researcher offer a clear description of how the core components of an intervention are hypothesized to affect outcomes?
  • Did the researcher's analysis help us understand which components are most important in achieving impact?

More often than not, the singular answer to the questions above is a resounding “no.” That is to the detriment of consumers of research, no doubt. Educators, or even other researchers, cannot turn to the average journal article or research report and divine enough information about what was actually studied to draw lessons for classroom practice. (There are many reasons for this, of course. I welcome your thoughts on the matter.) More importantly, though, it is to the detriment of the supposed beneficiaries of research: our students. We must do better. If our work isn’t ultimately serving them, who is it serving, really?  

Matthew Soldner
Commissioner, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance
Agency Evaluation Officer, U.S. Department of Education

An Evidence-Based Response to COVID-19: What We’re Learning

Several weeks ago, I announced the What Works Clearinghouse’s™ first ever rapid evidence synthesis project: a quick look at “what works” in distance education. I asked families and educators to send us their questions about how to adapt to learning at home, from early childhood to adult basic education. I posed a different challenge to researchers and technologists, asking them to nominate high-quality studies of distance and on-line learning that could begin to answer those questions.

Between public nominations and our own databases, we’ve now surfaced more than 900 studies. I was happy to see the full-text of about 300 studies were already available in ERIC, our own bibliographic database—and that many submitters whose work isn’t yet found there pledged to submit to ERIC, making sure it will be freely available to the public in the future. I was a little less happy to learn that only a few dozen of those 900 had already been reviewed by the WWC. This could mean either that (1) there is not a lot of rigorous research on distance learning, or (2) rigorous research exists, but we are systematically missing it. The truth is probably “both-and,” not “either-or.” Rigorous research exists, but more is needed … and the WWC needs to be more planful in capturing it.

The next step for the WWC team is to screen nominated studies to see which are likely to meet our evidence standards. As I’ve said elsewhere, we’ll be lucky if a small fraction—maybe 50—do. Full WWC reviews of the most actionable studies among them will be posted to the WWC website by June 1st, and at that time it is my hope that meta-analysts and technical assistance providers from across the country pitch in to create the products teachers and families desperately need. (Are you a researcher or content producer who wants to join that effort? If so, email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.)

Whether this approach actually works is an open question. Will it reduce the time it takes to create products that are both useful and used? All told, our time on the effort will amount to about two months. I had begun this process hoping for something even quicker. My early thinking was that IES would only put out a call for studies, leaving study reviews and product development to individual research teams. My team was convinced, however, that the value of a full WWC review for studies outweighed the potential benefit of quicker products. They were, of course, correct: IES’ comparative advantage stems from our commitment to quality and rigor.

I am willing to stipulate that these are unusual times: the WWC’s evidence synthesis infrastructure hasn’t typically needed to turn on a dime, and I hope that continues to be the case. That said, there may be lessons to be learned from this moment, about both how the WWC does its own work and how it supports the work of the field. To that end, I’d offer a few thoughts.

The WWC could support partners in research and content creation who can act nimbly, maintaining pressure for rigorous work.

Educators have questions that span every facet of their work, every subject, and every age band. And there’s a lot of education research out there, from complex, multi-site RCTs to small, qualitative case studies. The WWC doesn’t have the capacity to either answer every question that deserves answering or synthesize every study we’re interested in synthesizing. (Not to mention the many types of studies we don’t have good methods for synthesizing today.)

This suggests to me there is a potential market for researchers and technical assistance providers who can quickly identify high-quality evidence, accurately synthesize it, and create educator-facing materials that can make a difference in classroom practice. Some folks have begun to fill the gap, including both familiar faces and not-so-familiar ones. Opportunities for collaboration abound, and partners like these can be sources of inspiration and innovation for one another and for the WWC. Where there are gaps in our understanding of how to do this work well that can be filled through systematic inquiry, IES can offer financial support via our Statistical and Research Methodology in Education grant program.   

The WWC could consider adding new products to its mix, including rigorous rapid evidence syntheses.

Anyone who has visited us at whatworks.ed.gov recently knows the WWC offers two types of syntheses: Intervention Reports and Practice Guides. Neither are meant to be quick-turnaround products.

As their name implies, Intervention Reports are systematic reviews of a single, typically brand-name, intervention. They are fairly short, no longer than 15 pages. And they don’t take too long to produce, since they’re focused on a single product. Despite having done nearly 600 of them, we often hear we haven’t reviewed the specific product a stakeholder reports needing information on. Similarly, we often hear from stakeholders that they aren’t in a position to buy a product. Instead, they’re looking for the “secret sauce” they could use in their state, district, building, or classroom.

Practice Guides are our effort to identify generalizable practices across programs and products that can make a difference in student outcomes. Educators download our most popular Guides tens of thousands of times a year, and they are easily the best thing we create. But it is fair to say they are labors of love. Each Guide is the product of the hard work of researchers, practitioners, and other subject matter experts over about 18 months.  

Something seems to be missing from our product mix. What could the WWC produce that is as useful as a Practice Guide but as lean as an Intervention Report? 

Our very wise colleagues at the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation have a model that is potentially promising: Rapid Evidence Assessments based on pre-existing meta-analyses. I am particularly excited about their work because—despite not coordinating our efforts—they are also focusing on Distance Learning and released a rapid assessment on the topic on April 22nd. There are plusses and minuses to their approach, and they do not share our requirement for rigorous peer review. But there is certainly something to be learned from how they do their work.

The WWC could expand its “what works” remit to include “what’s innovative,” adding forward-looking horizon scanning to here-and-now (and sometimes yesterday) meta-analysis.

Meta-analyses play a critical role in efforts to bring evidence to persistent problems of practice, helping to sort through multiple, sometimes conflicting studies to yield a robust estimate of whether an intervention works. The inputs to any meta-analysis are what is already known—or at least what has already been published—about programs, practices, and policies. They are therefore backward-looking by design. Given how slowly most things change in education, that is typically fine.

But what help is meta-analysis when a problem is novel, or when the best solution isn’t a well-studied intervention but instead a new innovation? In these cases, practitioners are craving evidence before it has been synthesized and, sometimes, before it has even been generated. Present experience demonstrates that any of us can be made to grasp for anything that even smacks of evidence, if the circumstances are precarious enough. The challenge to an organization like the WWC, which relies on traditional conceptions of rigorous evidence of efficacy and effectiveness, is a serious one.

How might the WWC become aware of potentially promising solutions to today’s problems before much if anything is known about their efficacy, and how might we surface those problems that are nascent today but could explode across the landscape tomorrow? 

One model I’m intensely interested in is the Health Care Horizon Scanning System at PCORI. In their words, it “provides a systematic process to identify healthcare interventions that have a high potential to alter the standard of care.” Adapted to the WWC use case, this sort of system would alert us to novel solutions: practices that merited monitoring and might cause us to build and/or share early evidence broadly to relevant stakeholders. This same approach could surface innovations designed to solve novel problems that weren’t already the subject of multiple research efforts and well-represented in the literature. We’d be ahead of—or at least tracking alongside—the curve, not behind.  

Wrapping Up

The WWC’s current Rapid Evidence Synthesis focused on distance learning is an experiment of sorts. It represents a new way of interacting with our key stakeholders, a new way to gather evidence, and a new way to see our reviews synthesized into products that can improve practice. To the extent that it has pushed us to try new models and has identified hundreds of “new” (or “new to us”) studies, it is already a success. Of course, we still hope for more.

As I hope you can see from this blog, it has also spurred us to consider other ways we can further strengthen an already strong program. I welcome your thoughts and feedback – just email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.

The Role of RELs in Making WWC Practice Guides Actionable for Educators

Earlier this year, I wrote a short blog about how I envisioned the Regional Educational Laboratories (REL) Program, The What Works Clearinghouse™ (WWC), and the Comprehensive Center Program could work together to take discovery to scale. In it, I promised I would follow-up with more thoughts on a specific—and critically important—example: making WWC Practice Guides actionable for educators. I do so below. At the end of this blog, I pose a few questions on which I welcome comments.

The challenge. The single most important resources the WWC produces are its Practice Guides. Practice Guides evaluate the research on a given topic—say, teaching fractions in elementary and middle school—and boil study findings down to a handful of evidence-based practices for educators. Each practice is given a rating to indicate the WWC’s confidence in the underlying evidence, along with tips for how practices can be implemented in the classroom. In many ways, Practice Guides are IES’s most specific and definitive statements about what works to improve education practice and promote student achievement.

Despite their importance, the amount of effort IES has intentionally dedicated to producing high-quality resources that support educators in implementing Practice Guide recommendations has been uneven. (By most measures, it has been on the decline.) Why? Although we have confidence that the materials we have already produced are high-quality, we cannot prove it. Rigor is part of our DNA, and the absence of systematic efficacy tests demonstrating tools’ contribution to improved teacher practice has made us hesitant to dramatically expand IES-branded resources.

To their credit, several organizations have stepped in to address the “last mile problem” between Practice Guides and classroom practice. Some, like RELs, are IES partners. As a result, we have seen a small number of Practice Guides turned in to professional learning community guides, massively on-line open courses, and other teacher-facing resources. Despite these efforts, similar resources have not been developed for the overwhelming majority of Practice Guides. This means many of our Guides and the dozens of recommendations for evidence-based practice they contain are languishing underused on IES’s virtual bookshelf.

An idea. IES should “back” the systematic transformation of Practice Guide recommendations from words on a page to high-quality materials that support teachers’ use of evidence-based practices in their classrooms. And because we should demonstrate our own practice works, those materials should be tested for efficacy.

From my perspective, RELs are well-suited to this task. This work unambiguously aligns with RELs’ purpose, which is to improve student achievement using scientifically-valid research. It also leverages RELs’ unique value proposition among federal technical assistance providers: the capacity to conduct rigorous research and development activities in partnership with state and local educators. If RELs took on a greater role in supporting Practice Guides in the next REL cycle—which runs from 2022 until 2027—what might it look like in practice?

One model involves RELs collaborating with state and/or district partners to design, pilot, and test a coherent set of resources (a “toolkit”) that help educators bring Practice Guide recommendations to life in the classroom. Potential products might include rubrics to audit current policy or practice, videos of high-quality instructional practice, sample classroom materials, or professional learning community facilitation guides, each linked to one or more Practice Guide recommendations.

Long-time followers of the WWC may recognize the design aspect of this work as similar to the defunct Doing What Works Program. The difference? New resources would not only be developed in collaboration with educators, they must be piloted and tested with them as well. It’s simple, really: if we expect educators to use evidence-based practices in the classroom, we need evidence-based tools to help teachers succeed when implementing them.  

Once vetted, materials must get into the hands of educators who need them. It’s here where the value of the REL-Comprehensive Center partnership becomes clear. With a mission of supporting each state education agency in its school improvement efforts, Regional Comprehensive Centers are in the ideal position to bring resources and implementation supports to state and local education leaders that meet their unique needs. Tools that are developed, piloted, and refined by a REL and educators in a single state can then be disseminated by the national network of Comprehensive Centers to meet other states’ needs.

Extensions. It isn’t hard to imagine other activities that the WWC, RELs, and Comprehensive Centers might take on to maximize this model’s potential effectiveness. Most hinge on building effective feedback loops.

Promoting continuous improvement of Practice Guide resources is an obvious example. RELs could and should be in the business of following Comprehensive Centers as they work with states and districts to implement REL-developed Practice Guide supports, looking for ways to maximize their effectiveness. Similarly, Comprehensive Centers and RELs should be regularly communicating with one another about needs-sensing, identifying areas where support for evidence-based practice is lacking and determining which partners to involve in the solution. When there is a growing body of evidence to support educator best practice, the WWC is in the best position to take the lead and develop a new Practice Guide. When that body of evidence does not exist yet—or when even the practices themselves are underdeveloped—the RELs and other parts of IES, such as the National Centers for Education and Special Education Research, should step in.  

Questions. When the WWC releases a new Practice Guide, its work may be done—at least temporarily. The work of its partners to support take-up of a Guide’s recommendations will, however, have just begun. I’d appreciate your thoughts on how to best accomplish that transition, and offer up the following additional questions for your consideration:

  1. Are we thinking about the problem correctly, and in a helpful way? Are there elements of the problem that should be redefined, and would that lead us to different solutions?

 

  1. What parts of the problem does this proposed solution address well, and where are its shortcomings? Are there other solutions—even solutions that don’t seem to fit squarely within today’s model of the REL Program—that might be more effective?

 

  1. If we proceed under a model like that which is described above:

 

  1. What sort of REL partnership models would be most effective in supporting the conceptualization, design, piloting, and testing of teacher-facing “toolkits” aligned to WWC Practice Guides?

 

  1. What research and evaluation activities—and which outcome measures—should be incorporated into this activity to give IES confidence that the resulting “toolkits” are likely to be associated with changed teacher practice and improved student outcomes?

 

  1. How does the 5-year limit on REL contracts affect the feasibility of this idea, including its scope and cost? What could be accomplished in 5 years, and what might take longer to see to completion?

 

  1. How could RELs leverage existing ED-sponsored content, such as that created by Doing What Works, in service of this new effort?

 

If you have thoughts on these questions or other feedback you would like to share, please e-mail me. I can be reached directly at matthew.soldner@ed.gov. Thanks in advance for the consideration!

by Matthew Soldner, NCEE Commissioner 

Leading experts provide evidence-based recommendations on using technology to support postsecondary student learning

By Michael Frye and Sarah Costelloe. Both are part of Abt Associates team working on the What Works Clearinghouse.

Technology is part of almost every aspect of college life. Colleges use technology to improve student retention, offer active and engaging learning, and help students become more successful learners. The What Works Clearinghouse’s latest practice guide, Using Technology to Support Postsecondary Student Learning, offers several evidence-based recommendations to help higher education instructors, instructional designers, and administrators use technology to improve student learning outcomes.

IES practice guides incorporate research, practitioner experience, and expert opinions from a panel of nationally recognized experts. The panel that developed Using Technology to Support Postsecondary Student Learning included five experts with many years of experience leading the adoption, use, and research of technology in postsecondary classrooms.  Together, guided by Abt Associates’ review of the rigorous research on the topic, the Using Technology to Support Postsecondary Student Learning offers five evidence-based recommendations:

Practice Recommendations: Use communication and collaboration tools to increase interaction among students and between students and instructors, Minimal evidence. 2. Use varied, personalized, and readily available digital resources to design and deliver instructional content, moderate evidence. 3. Incorporate technology that models and fosters self-regulated learning strategies. Moderate evidence. 4. Use technology to provide timely and targeted feedback on student performance, moderate evidence. 5. Use simulation technologies that help students engage in complex problem-solving, minimal evidence.

 

Each recommendation is assigned an evidence level of minimal, moderate, or strong. The level of evidence reflects how well the research demonstrates the effectiveness of the recommended practices. For an explanation of how levels of evidence are determined, see the Practice Guide Level of Evidence Video.   The evidence-based recommendations also include research-based strategies and examples for implementation in postsecondary settings. Together, the recommendations highlight five interconnected themes that the practice guide’s authors suggest readers consider:

  • Focus on how technology is used, not on the technology itself.

“The basic act of teaching has actually changed very little by the introduction of technology into the classroom,” said panelist MJ Bishop, “and that’s because simply introducing a new technology changes nothing unless we first understand the need it is intended to fill and how to capitalize on its unique capabilities to address that need.” Because technology evolves rapidly, understanding specific technologies is less important than understanding how technology can be used effectively in college settings. “By understanding how a learning outcome can be enhanced and supported by technologies,” said panelist Jennifer Sparrow, “the focus stays on the learner and their learning.”

  • Technology should be aligned to specific learning goals.

Every recommendation in this guide is based on one idea: finding ways to use technology to engage students and enhance their learning experiences. Technology can engage students more deeply in learning content, activate their learning processes, and provide the social connections that are key to succeeding in college and beyond. To do this effectively, any use of technology suggested in this guide must be aligned with learning goals or objectives. “Technology is not just a tool,” said Panel Chair Nada Dabbagh. “Rather, technology has specific affordances that must be recognized to use it effectively for designing learning interactions. Aligning technology affordances with learning outcomes and instructional goals is paramount to successful learning designs.”

  • Pay attention to potential issues of accessibility.

The Internet is ubiquitous, but many households—particularly low-income households and those of recent immigrants and in rural communities—may not be able to afford or otherwise access digital communications. Course materials that rely heavily on Internet access may put these students at a disadvantage. “Colleges and universities making greater use of online education need to know who their students are and what access they have to technology,” said panelist Anthony Picciano. “This practice guide makes abundantly clear that colleges and universities should be careful not to be creating digital divides.”

Instructional designers must also ensure that learning materials on course websites and course/learning management systems can accommodate students who are visually and/or hearing impaired. “Technology can greatly enhance access to education both in terms of reaching a wide student population and overcoming location barriers and in terms of accommodating students with special needs,” said Dabbagh. “Any learning design should take into consideration the capabilities and limitations of technology in supporting a diverse and inclusive audience.”

  • Technology deployments may require significant investment and coordination.

Implementing any new intervention takes training and support from administrators and teaching and learning centers. That is especially true in an environment where resources are scarce. “In reviewing the studies for this practice guide,” said Picciano, “it became abundantly clear that the deployment of technology in our colleges and universities has evolved into a major administrative undertaking. Careful planning that is comprehensive, collaborative, and continuous is needed.”

“Hardware and software infrastructure, professional development, academic and student support services, and ongoing financial investment are testing the wherewithal of even the most seasoned administrators,” said Picciano. “Yet the dynamic and changing nature of technology demands that new strategies be constantly evaluated and modifications made as needed.”

These decisions are never easy. “Decisions need to be made,” said Sparrow, “about investment cost versus opportunity cost. Additionally, when a large investment in a technology has been made, it should not be without investment in faculty development, training, and support resources to ensure that faculty, staff, and students can take full advantage of it.”

  • Rigorous research is limited and more is needed.

Despite technology’s ubiquity in college settings, rigorous research on the effects of technological interventions on student outcomes is rather limited. “It’s problematic,” said Bishop, “that research in the instructional design/educational technology field has been so focused on things, such as technologies, theories, and processes, rather than on the problems we’re trying to solve with those things, such as developing critical thinking, enhancing knowledge transfer, and addressing individual differences. It turns out to be very difficult to cross-reference the instructional design/educational technology literature with the questions the broader field of educational research is trying to answer.”

More rigorous research is needed on new technologies and how best to support instructors and administrators in using them. “For experienced researchers as well as newcomers,” said Picciano, “technology in postsecondary teaching and learning is a fertile ground for further inquiry and investigation.”

Readers of this practice guide are encouraged to adapt the advice provided to the varied contexts in which they work. The five themes discussed above serve as a lens to help readers approach the guide and decide whether and how to implement some or all of the recommendations.

Download Using Technology to Support Postsecondary Student Learning from the What Works Clearinghouse website at https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/25.

 

Sharing strategies to increase research-based educational practices

By Cora Goldston, REL Midwest

Highlighted Resources

How can states, districts, and schools identify effective practices to address challenges and achieve their goals? Education research can point the way, but sometimes finding and accessing relevant research can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. And even when practitioners can find research, it can be difficult to determine a study’s rigor and the strength of research evidence supporting interventions.

Equipping practitioners to use research evidence

Through the Midwest Alliance to Improve Knowledge Utilization (MAIKU), the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest is partnering with practitioners to help states, districts, and schools use research to inform practice. The goal is to make it easier for educators to find research relevant to their priorities, assess the level of evidence that supports potential practices, and implement those practices that are based on strong evidence.

REL Midwest and MAIKU are supporting the use of research in education practice in several ways. For example, REL Midwest provided coaching sessions for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) on understanding the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) tiers of evidence. In addition, REL Midwest created a crosswalk that shows how the ESSA evidence tiers align with ratings from research clearinghouses, such as the What Works Clearinghouse. In turn, ODE is using this information to help Ohio districts that are applying for Striving Readers grants. To receive the grants, districts must demonstrate that they plan to use research-based practices to improve student literacy. As a result of REL Midwest’s support, ODE has strengthened its capacity to help districts determine the level of evidence supporting certain practices and, thus, to submit stronger grant applications.

REL Midwest is providing similar support across the region. In Michigan, we are conducting coaching sessions for the state Department of Education to help agency leadership choose priorities from the state’s Top 10 in 10 plan, identify research-based practices that support those priorities, and collaborate to implement new state-level practices. In Wisconsin, REL Midwest hosted a training series for the Department of Public Instruction to increase the agency’s capacity to collect, analyze, and use data to adjust state-level policies and practices. And in Illinois, REL Midwest is holding a training series for the State Board of Education on research methods, data collection, and data analysis and how to use the findings to inform agency practices.

June webinar on increasing evidence use

MAIKU is also working with researchers to support evidence use in education practice. On June 19, 2018, REL Midwest and MAIKU hosted a webinar to discuss how researchers can share evidence with practitioners in useful and accessible ways.

The webinar featured a presentation by Alan J. Daly, Ph.D., of the University of California at San Diego, and Kara Finnigan, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester. Dr. Daly and Dr. Finnigan discussed how information-sharing networks are structured among school and district staff and the challenges for practitioners in accessing and using research-based practices.   

Building on this context, Dr. Daly and Dr. Finnigan shared insights about the most effective ways to maximize the reach of research. One of their key findings is that the pattern of people’s social ties makes a difference for sharing and using research-based practices. Finnigan and Daly noted that the set of relationships we have can increase access to research evidence if the right ties are present but can constrain access to resources when those ties are not present. The quality of relationships also matters; high levels of trust are essential for more in-depth exchanges of information. The takeaway: fostering both the quantity and quality of social relationships is important for sharing research evidence.  

During the webinar, Jaime Singer, senior technical assistance consultant at REL Midwest, also shared actionable strategies that researchers can use to support evidence use in practice, including training and coaching sessions, checklists, blog posts, and clearinghouses of effective practices.

The webinar included a panel discussion about REL Midwest’s ESSA evidence tiers coaching sessions and crosswalk for ODE. REL Midwest researcher Lyzz Davis, Ph.D., provided a researcher perspective on developing resources to meet ODE’s needs. Heather Boughton, Ph.D., and Melissa Weber-Mayrer, Ph.D., at ODE provided practitioner perspectives on how REL Midwest’s work has strengthened the agency’s capacity to help districts find and use evidence-based interventions.

Looking for evidence outside of the scope of the WWC?

by Chris Weiss and Erin Pollard, What Works Clearinghouse

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) strives to be a central and trusted source of research evidence for what works in education. But did you know that the WWC is one of several repositories of evidence produced by the federal government? Our mission at the WWC is to review the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. However, there are several other government repositories that review evidence on interventions that impact children and schools, reviews that may be of use and interest to WWC users.

 

Different Clearinghouses for Different Needs.

The mission of the different clearinghouses and the reasons for different reviews stems from the unique mission of each agency and the specific focus of the clearinghouse. The Department of Education focuses primarily on prekindergarten through postsecondary education; however, many public health and crime prevention programs are implemented through schools. So, for example, you would find information about a school-based bullying prevention program on the National Institute of Justice’s Crime Solutions website. The WWC would not review the evidence of this program’s effectiveness because its aim is to reduce bullying and victimization, rather than education-focused outcomes.

 

Some interventions are reviewed by multiple clearinghouses.

Users are often surprised that an intervention might be reviewed by multiple clearinghouses. For example, the WWC reviewed the evidence and created an intervention report on Career Academies, a school-within-school program where students take both career-related and academic courses, as well as acquire work experience. But reviews of the program are included in other clearinghouses. The Department of Labor’s CLEAR reviewed the study because of the intervention’s increase of student’s earnings. Similarly, the National Institute of Justice’s Crime Solutions has reviewed the intervention because it showed an effect on increasing earnings of young men – an economic factor linked to lowered risk of criminal activity. Each clearinghouse looked at different outcomes from the same study to highlight the domains they find most relevant to achieving their goal.

 

Each repository is different. The WWC may be your best bet – or others may fit your needs better.

We encourage users to look at the other clearinghouses to find information on outcomes that are outside of our scope. These sites have a lot of great information to offer. Here is a list of the other repositories for finding evidence:

  • Clearinghouse for Labor Evaluation and Research (CLEAR) – Department of Labor. CLEAR's mission is to make research on labor topics more accessible to practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and the public more broadly so that it can inform their decisions about labor policies and programs. CLEAR identifies and summarizes many types of research, including descriptive statistical studies and outcome analyses, implementation, and causal impact studies.
  • Compendium of Evidence-Based Interventions and Best Practices for HIV Prevention - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evidence-Based Interventions and Best Practices in the Compendium are identified by CDC’s Prevention Research Synthesis Project through a series of ongoing systematic reviews. Each eligible intervention is evaluated against explicit a priori criteria and has shown sufficient evidence that the intervention works. Interventions may fall into one or more chapters including: Risk Reduction that includes PrEP-related outcomes and outcomes such as injection drug use, condom use, HIV/STD/Hepatitis infection; Linkage to, Retention in, and Re-engagement in HIV Care that includes outcomes such as entering and staying in HIV care; Medication Adherence that includes outcomes such as adhering to HIV medication and HIV viral load; and the most recently added Structural Interventions that includes outcomes such as HIV testing, social determinants of health, and stigma. Information sheets are available for all identified evidence-based interventions and best practices on the PRS Compendium Website.
  • CrimeSolutions - National Institute of Justice, Department of Justice. The clearinghouse, accessible via the CrimeSolutions.gov website, present programs and practices that have undergone rigorous evaluations and meta-analyses. The site assesses the strength of the evidence about whether these programs achieve criminal justice, juvenile justice, and crime victim services outcomes in order to inform practitioners and policy makers about what works, what doesn't, and what's promising.
  • Evidence Exchange - Corporation for National and Community Service. A digital repository of sponsored research, evaluation reports, and data. These resources focus on national service, volunteering, and civic engagement.
  • Home Visiting Evidence of Effectiveness (HomVEE) – Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services. HomVEE provides an assessment of the evidence of effectiveness for home visiting models that target families with pregnant women and children from birth to kindergarten entry (that is, up through age 5).
  • Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Evidence Review – Department of Health and Human Services. A transparent systematic review of the teen pregnancy prevention literature to identify programs with evidence of effectiveness in reducing teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and associated sexual risk behaviors.
  • The Community Guide - Community Preventive Services Task Force (CPSTF). A collection of evidence-based findings to help you select interventions to improve health and prevent disease in your state, community, community organization, business, healthcare organization, or school. The CPSTF issues findings based on systematic reviews of effectiveness and economic evidence that are conducted with a methodology developed by the CPSTF.
  • youth.gov – Interagency. The youth.gov Program Directory features evidence-based programs whose purpose is to prevent and/or reduce delinquency or other problem behaviors in young people.

The WWC Evidence Standards: A Valuable and Accessible Resource for Teaching Validity Assessment of Causal Inferences to Identify What Works

by Herbert Turner, Ph.D., President and Principal Scientist, ANALYTICA, Inc.

 

The WWC Evidence Standards (hereafter, the Standards) provide a detailed description of the criteria used by the WWC to review studies. The standards were first developed in 2002 by leading methodological researchers using initial concepts from the Study Design and Implementation Assessment Device (DIAD), an instrument for assessing the correspondence between the methodological characteristics and implementation of social science research and using this research to draw inferences about causal relationships (Boruch, 1997; Valentine and Cooper, 2008).  During the past 16 years, the Standards have gone through four iterations of improvement, to keep pace with advances in methodological practice, and have been through rigorous peer review. The most recent of these is now codified in the WWC Standards Handbook 4.0 (hereafter, the Handbook).

 

Across the different versions of the Handbook, the methodological characteristics of an internally valid study, designed to causally infer the effect of an intervention on an outcome, have stood the test of time. These characteristics can be summarized as follows: A strong design starts with how the study groups are formed. It continues with use of reliable and valid measures of outcomes, has low attrition if a randomized controlled trial (RCT), shows baseline equivalence (in the analysis sample) if a quasi-experimental design (QED), and has no confounds.

 

These elements are the critical components of any strong research design – and are the cornerstones of all versions of the WWC’s standards. That fact, along with the transparent description of their logical underpinning, is what motivated me to use Standards 4.0 (for Group Designs) as the organizing framework for understanding study validity in a graduate-level Program Evaluation II course I taught at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education.

 

In spring 2017, nine Master and four Doctoral students participated in this semester-long course. The primary goal was to teach students how to organize their thinking and logically derive internal validity criteria using Standards 4.0—augmented with additional readings from the methodological literature. Students used the Standards (along with the supplemental readings) to design, implement, analyze, and report impact evaluations to determine what interventions work, harm, or have no discernible effect (Mosteller and Boruch, 2002). The Standards Handbook 4.0 along with online course modules were excellent resources to augment the lectures and provide Lynch School students with hands on learning.

 

At the end of the course, students were offered the choice to complete the WWC Certification Exam for Group Design or take the instructor’s developed final exam. All thirteen students chose to complete the WWC Certification Exam. Approximately half of the students became certified. Many emailed me personally to express their appreciation for the (1) opportunity to learn a systematic approach to organizing their thinking about assessing the validity of causal inference using data generated by RCTs and QEDs, and (2) developing design skills that can be used in other graduate courses and beyond. The WWC Evidence Standards and related online resources are a valuable, accessible, and free resource that have been rigorously vetted for close to two decades. The Standards have few equals as a resource to help students think systematically, logically, and clearly about designing (and evaluating) a valid research study to make causal inferences about what interventions work in education and related fields.

 

References

Boruch, R. F. (1997). Randomized experiments for planning and evaluation: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Valentine, J.C., & Cooper, H. (2008), A systematic and transparent approach for assessing the methodological quality of intervention effectiveness research: The Study Design and Implementation Assessment Device (Study DIAD). Psychological Methods, 13(2), 130-149.

Mosteller, F., & Boruch, R. F. (2002). Evidence matters: Randomized trials in education research. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Making the WWC Open to Everyone by Moving WWC Certification Online

In December 2016, the What Works Clearinghouse made a version of its online training publicly available through the WWC Website. This enabled everyone to be able to access the Version 3.0 Group Design Standards reviewer training to learn about the standards and methods that the WWC uses. While this was a great step to increase access to WWC resources, users still had to go through the 1 ½ day, in-person training to become a WWC certified reviewer.

To continue our efforts to promote access and transparency and make our resources available to everyone, the WWC has now moved all of its group design training to be online. Now everyone will have access to the same training and certification tests. This certification is available free of charge and is open to all users. It is our hope that this effort will increase the number of certified reviewers and help increase general awareness about the WWC.

Why did the WWC make these resources publicly available? As part of IES’s effort to increase access to high quality education research, we wanted to make it easier for researchers to use our standards. This meant opening up training opportunities and offering training online was a way to achieve this goal while using limited taxpayer resources most efficiently.

The online training consists of 9 modules. These videos feature an experienced WWC instructor and use the same materials that we used in our in-person courses, but adapted to Version 4.0 of the Group Design Standards. After completing the modules, users will have the opportunity to download a certificate of completion, take the online certification test, or go through the full certification exam.

Becoming a fully certified reviewer will require users to take a multiple choice online certification test and then use the new Online SRG application to conduct a full review using the same tools that the WWC team uses. The WWC team will then grade your exam to make sure you fully understand how to apply the Standards before certifying you to review for the Clearinghouse.

Not interested in becoming a certified reviewer? Online training still has several benefits. Educators can embed our videos in their course websites and use our training materials in their curricula. Researchers can use our Online SRG tool with their publications to determine a preliminary rating and understand what factors could cause their study to get the highest rating. They could also use the tool to use when conducting a systematic evidence review.

Have ideas for new resources we could make available? Email your ideas and suggestions to Contact.WWC@ed.gov!

by Erin Pollard, WWC Project Officer

 

Improving the WWC Standards and Procedures

By Chris Weiss and Jon Jacobson

For the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), standards and procedures are at the foundation of the WWC’s work to provide scientific evidence for what works in education. They guide how studies are selected for review, what elements of an effectiveness study are examined, and how systematic reviews are conducted. The WWC’s standards and procedures are designed to be rigorous and reflective of best practices in research and statistics, while also being aspirational to help point the field of education effectiveness research toward an ever-higher quality of study design and analysis.

To keep pace with new advances in methodological research and provide necessary clarifications for both education researchers and decision makers, the WWC regularly updates its procedures and standards and shares them with the field. We recently released Version 4.0 of the Procedures and Standards Handbooks, which describes the five steps of the WWC’s systematic review process.

For this newest version, we have divided information into two separate documents (see graphic below).  The Procedures Handbook describes how the WWC decides which studies to review and how it reports on study findings. The Standards Handbook describes how the WWC rates the evidence from studies.

The new Standards Handbook includes several improvements, including updated and overhauled standards for cluster-level assignment of students; a new approach for reviewing studies that have some missing baseline or outcome data; and revised standards for regression discontinuity designs. The new Procedures Handbook includes a revised discussion of how the WWC defines a study.  All of the changes are summarized on the WWC website (PDF).

Making the Revisions

These updates were developed in a careful, collaborative manner that included experts in the field, external peer review, and input from the public.

Staff from the Institute of Education Sciences oversaw the process with the WWC’s Statistical, Technical, and Analysis Team (STAT), a panel of highly experienced researchers who revise and develop the WWC standards. In addition, the WWC sought and received input from experts on specific research topics, including regression discontinuity designs, cluster-level assignment, missing data, and complier average causal effects. Based on this information, drafts of the standards and procedures handbooks were developed.

External peer reviewers then provided input that led to additional revisions and, in the summer, the WWC posted drafts and gathered feedback from the public. The WWC’s response to some of the comments is available on its website (PDF).   

Version 4.0 of the Handbooks was released on October 26. This update focused on a few key areas of the standards, and updated and clarified some procedures. However, the WWC strives for continuous improvement and as the field of education research continues to evolve and improve, we expect that there will be new techniques and new tools incorporated into future versions the Handbooks.

Your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions are welcome and can be submitted through the WWC help desk.

The What Works Clearinghouse Goes to College

By Vanessa Anderson, Research Scientist, NCEE

The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) was founded in 2002 and, in its first decade, focused mainly on reviewing studies of programs, policies, products and practices—or interventions—for improving student outcomes in pre-K, elementary and secondary schools. But in 2012, the WWC broadened its focus and has been using rigorous standards to review studies of interventions designed to increase the success of students in postsecondary education.

This week, the WWC launches a new topic—Supporting Postsecondary Success—and it is a good time to look at the work we’re doing, and will do, in the postsecondary area. 

The WWC postsecondary topic area includes reviews of studies on a wide range of interventions, including learning communities, summer bridge programs, multi-faceted support programs, academic mentoring, and interventions that aim to reduce performance anxiety. As of today, 294 postsecondary studies have been reviewed by the WWC. Those reviews are summarized in six Intervention Reports, 25 Single Study Reviews, and four Quick Reviews. And there’s much more in the works!  For instance, a WWC Educator’s Practice Guide that includes strategies for supporting students in developmental education is planned for publication later this year. (Learn more about Practice Guides)

Identifying Studies for Review

In the postsecondary topic area, there are currently three main ways that studies are identified by the WWC for review.

The first is studies that are reviewed for WWC Intervention Reports. All WWC Intervention Reports use a systematic review process to summarize evidence from all available studies on a given intervention. The WWC conducts a broad search for all publicly available studies of interventions that are related to the topic. This process often identifies hundreds of studies for review. The effectiveness studies are then reviewed against WWC standards. Only the highest quality studies are summarized in an Intervention Report.

We released two new intervention reports this week as part of our new Supporting Postsecondary Success topic. You can view the new Intervention Reports on Summer Bridge programs and first-year experience courses on the WWC website.

The second way that studies are reviewed by the WWC is through Quick Reviews, which are performed on studies that have received a great deal of media attention. In these reports, the WWC provides a brief description of the study, the author-reported results, and a study rating. We like to think of Quick Reviews as a way to help people decide whether to fully believe the results of a study, based on the research design and how the study was conducted. For example, we released a quick review earlier this month that focused on a study of computer usage and student outcomes for a class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Finally, the WWC reviews postsecondary studies submitted as supporting evidence for discretionary grant competitions funded by the U.S. Department of Education, such as the Strengthening Institutions Program, First in the World and TRIO Student Support Services. These grant competitions require applicants to submit studies as evidence of the effectiveness of the interventions they propose to implement. The WWC reviews these studies and includes the results of those reviews in our database.

If you want to see all the studies on postsecondary interventions that have been reviewed by WWC you can check out—and download—the Reviewed Studies Database. In the “Topic Areas” dropdown menu, just select “Postsecondary,” and then easily customize the search by rating, publication type, and/or reasons for the review (such as a grant competition).  

For more information, visit the WWC postsecondary topic area on the website. To stay up-to-date on WWC news, information, and products, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and sign up for the WWC newsflash!