Advice for Communicating Science
By: Cindy Wooldridge
Over the past two weekends, I’ve had the opportunity to attend my first two education conferences: the Annual Conference on Teaching (ACT) by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP; @TeachPsych) and the ResearchED conference (@researchED_US) in Washington, DC. Today, I would like to give a mini-summary of my impressions from these conferences and then touch on a BIG problem identified at both and some ideas about solving said problem.
1) Teaching conferences are awesome. At both conferences, there was an air of building each other up, collaboration, and sharing ideas. If you haven’t been to a teaching conference, I strongly recommend checking one out.
2) The educators who attend teaching conferences are modern-day Renaissance men and women. Their breadth of knowledge is astounding (and at times intimidating). They think outside the box because they spend a considerable amount of time outside the box. This makes their ideas creative and complex because they know the complications involved with research in the classroom.
3) Presenting Science of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research at a teaching conference is very rewarding. The individuals who question the work are still supportive in doing so and try to come up with solutions which are based on variables that I sometimes hadn’t considered.
All in all, my recommendation is to go to a teaching conference, preferably one based in evidence-based practices. You will learn a ton and leave with so many good feels!
The BIG Problem
While at Research ED, Ben Riley, founder of Deans for Impact (@benjaminjriley), made a comment to the effect of, “maybe the people who know about the Science of Learning need to learn a bit more about the Science of Persuasion.” This comment was not a pointed one. He was speaking generally about the challenges of taking science and making it accessible to the masses. This is one of the primary goals of the ResearchED organization – to help educators become more aware of evidence-based strategies that they can use in the classroom.
At ACT, the conversation was similar. During the Presidential Address, Janie Wilson talked about Psychology in Communities and the unique challenges in trying to talk to non-psychologists about research. She shared a personal story about corporal punishment at her local school district and her attempts to make a change. She brought in a stack of research for the principal and tried to talk to the Board. It didn’t go well. Her advice? Stop talking like a researcher when trying to spread science. Rather, know your audience and come down to their level. Become someone they know and respect first and only then try to implement change, but through a dialogue. Spend as much (if not more) time listening as you do speaking.
Solving the BIG Problem
Overall, my advice for trying to solve the problem of translating or disseminating research is very similar to Janie Wilson’s. These pieces of advice are the same whether you are talking to students, educators, or others outside the research world.
1) Speak their language. Avoid jargon and use laymen’s terms as much as possible. You will lose your audience quickly if they don’t understand or you seem to be speaking above their heads.
2) Get to know your audience. You may have very different interests and concerns than those you are speaking to. And their concerns may be in conflict with your own. One of the things we discuss in presentations about learning science is that educators receive pressure from multiple sources and may have to choose between implementing evidence-based research and satisfying the demands of students, parents, and administration. A compromise might be necessary and being one additional source of pressure will not get you far.
3) Create a dialogue. Instead of thinking of science transmission as a one-way street, listen to what your audience has to say about their unique challenges and skepticism. This back and forth communication will not only improve rapport, often it will lead to new and interesting avenues of research. For example, I spoke with a few colleagues about the fact that they do not implement quizzing as much as they should in their classes because it takes so much time to write and grade quizzes. I started investigating more efficient quizzing techniques to try to address that particular challenge that might hinder implementation.
4) Keep it short. In psychology, we often talk about the fact that there are no real absolutes except that “it depends.” That is, effects depend on the type of people in the study, the materials, the situation, etc. When talking to an audience, it’s tempting to include all of those qualifiers, but that’s overwhelming when someone first hears about a topic. Try to keep things short and sweet, let them simmer, and only then add additional information. Trying to introduce everything at once with result in once again speaking over their heads.
Of course, there are many other pieces of advice that could be included in this list. If you are interested, consider checking out this excellent resource page from STP which provides lots of resources for psychologists, but could be used as a model for other disciplines.