The Big Problem with Classroom Research

The Big Problem with Classroom Research

By Cindy Nebel

Our goal as Learning Scientists is to try to bridge the gap between researchers and educators. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult goal, often more difficult than many people realize. We have often found that educators are disillusioned by basic research and researchers don’t always understand why. Today I would like to discuss the need for more applied research and dissemination, why so little of this is done, and how we can fix the problem.

The Need for Applied Research

If you have not already done so, I highly recommend that you listen to this podcast in which TES interviews Dylan Wiliam, who talks about many of the issues below. Wiliam discusses a major issue in the disconnect between research and teaching: some of the basic research that is completed in the laboratory doesn’t hold when we move to different classroom contexts. Here is his example… Many schools are encouraged to use small class sizes in order to improve the individualized attention that students receive. Research (and intuition) indicates that reducing class sizes should improve learning and retention. However, this isn’t always the case. In a low socioeconomic area, increasing class sizes might mean increasing salaries for new teachers. Higher salaries would make these positions more competitive thereby attracting higher quality teachers and possibly improving student learning over small classes. These kinds of contexts are not possible and rarely considered in basic laboratory research.


We often talk about three levels of research (what we call the lab to classroom model). There is basic laboratory research in which psychologists examine things like attention and memory using very controlled and contrived materials such as nonsense syllables. The next level on the continuum is applied laboratory research in which researchers use materials such as textbook chapters or foreign language vocabulary but still in the controlled conditions of the laboratory. The goal is eventually to reach the level of applied classroom research, in which classes are manipulated to test those findings that have been found in the lab.

The Problem with Applied Research

So, if we are interested in these effects in the classroom, why not just test them there? Why is it that the vast majority of research is conducted outside of classrooms? The simplest answer is that classrooms are messy research venues. There are numerous variables that we have no control over. We cannot control the motivation level of the students. In a laboratory, the students have somewhat equal motivation levels – their scores do not in any way affect whether or not they will receive credit for participating. In a classroom, some students view their grades as chief importance and strive for 100% on everything. Others just want to pass. (Still others aren’t terribly concerned with even passing.) This motivation difference can lead to differences in time on task (i.e. the amount of time that students spend engaging with the material or the manipulation). In addition, the population to which we have the easiest access – college students – have the opportunity to select their own courses. If we are comparing two sections of an introductory course, we may find that more motivated students enrolled first and chose the more optimal time. This is called a self-selection issue and could result in differences in scores between sections which have nothing to do with our manipulation. When we move outside the laboratory we also have to consider that students are engaged with material outside of class. We might find that similar classes cause interference or confusion with what we are teaching (leading to a decrease in retention) while other classes may cause elaboration (leading to an increase in retention). Younger students in particular may have differences in the quality of help they get from parents. And we haven’t even begun to talk about differences in teachers….


In short, applied research is hard. All of these variables mean that any given manipulation is considerably less likely to work in the classroom setting than it is in the laboratory (where many of these factors are controlled). You might be thinking, “So what? If the classroom is where it matters and these variables matter, then that’s still what’s most important!” You might be right. Here’s the big problem: the vast majority of the individuals engaging in this research are faculty at universities whose jobs depend on bringing in grant funds and publishing their research. Because classroom research is risky (in terms of successful outcomes), these faculty are actually risking their careers by engaging in research that may not be publishable. They are also spending more time and resources that could be aimed at more publishable work.

How to Fix the “Big Problem”

Not all researchers are at universities with this “publish or perish” mentality. My suggestion is that we encourage more faculty at teaching institutions to answer the call for more applied research. These individuals have been trained in quality research design, but are in the unique position to be able to engage in somewhat riskier research endeavors. I have written before about my classroom blunders (which we are in the process of writing up for potential publication!). Because my institution has a different emphasis, they actually incentivize this type of research through small research and curriculum development grants. While I still have requirements for scholarly activity, they look much different than my peers at research institutions.


Teaching University Faculty: Consider engaging in this research. It serves as excellent professional development and scholarly activity and will likely be viewed favorably by your administration.

Research University Faculty: Consider collaborations across institutions. Those of us at teaching institutions may not have the same time to devote to writing, etc., but we may be very eager and willing to implement changes in our classes.

Primary and Secondary Instructors: Consider contacting researchers at local universities (perhaps through psychology departments) to invite collaborations. One extremely difficult step in this process (and therefore gap in the research) is accessing classrooms with motivated instructors and younger students. If you are interested in making changes to your classes and using those changes to inform the scientific community, please get in touch!

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