The meanings of evidence based practice in higher education: themes, concepts and concerns emerging through public discussion




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HIGHER EDUCATION ACADEMY WORKING PAPER


The meanings of evidence based practice in higher education: themes, concepts and concerns emerging through public discussion


Norman Jackson, Higher Education Academy


Introduction


This Working Paper has been prepared to inform and stimulate discussion at the Higher Education Academy Mike Daniel Symposium on ‘The meaning of evidence based practice in higher education: how far can we take it?’ The paper has drawn upon four sources of evidence: 1) contributions to the email public discussion conducted between January and June 2004 through the QEnetwork and IRnetwork1 2) papers that have been contributed to this discussion 3) selective engagement with published literature 4) written feedback in response to the circulation of drafts of this paper. Further written contributions to extend or modify the ideas, concepts and perspectives are welcome. Please send them to Norman.Jackson@ltsn.ac.uk. Thank you.


Questions to promote discussion


This working paper is intended to open up thinking about evidence based practice in higher education and stimulate further discussion. Your views on the ideas, positions and omissions are welcome.


1 Does this paper incorporate an appropriate range of perspectives and ideas on the meanings of evidence and evidence based practice for UK higher education? Are there any important omissions? Please suggest ways of improving it.

2 Are the visual aids helpful in illuminating the dynamics of research, enquiry, social engagement and approaches to evidence selection helpful? Can they be applied to the contexts in which you work? How might they be developed further? Are there other visual aids that would be helpful?

3 How would HE teacher/scholars respond to the idea of evidence based practice in teaching and learning? How might responses differ between disciplines?

4 How do policy developers and policy decision makers respond to the idea of evidence based practice in the politically constrained environments in which they operate?

5 Could the evidence based practice model for medicine (as described on pages 7-9) be adapted to the needs and interests of higher education teaching? If yes, what would need to be done to facilitate and support this process?

6 What are the issues relating to the use of systematic reviews and research synthesis in higher education teaching and learning practice and policy making?

7 Is the sense of direction proposed at the end of the paper the right way to go? What other things might be done?

8 What are the key issues and challenges to implementing evidence based approaches in higher education?

9 What are the barriers and resistances to the idea of evidence based practice in higher education?

10 What other questions do we need to ask about evidence based practice in higher education?


An evidence based approach to public discussion?


In 1999, the US National Research Council published the results of a research synthesis aimed at answering the question ‘how do people learn?’1. Three key principles were identified for effective learning.


Principle 1: Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught.


Principle 2: To develop competence in an area of inquiry students must have :

  • A deep foundation of factual knowledge.

  • Understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework.

  • Organise knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.


Principle 3: A metacognitive approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring progress in achieving them.


If these are fundamental principles for learning then they should be applicable to the public discussion on evidence based practice in higher education, which can be visualised as a co-operative learning process. In facilitating the discussion, the HE Academy has sought to draw in a range of personal perspectives on the meanings of ‘evidence based’ and to connect these to factual knowledge derived from the broader field of education and other professional domains (the first two principles). In this and other contributions to the discussion, we have tried to develop new conceptual understanding to help us make more sense of this discursive territory and to help us consolidate, organise, connect, interpret and make future use of the knowledge created through this process (principle 2). The process and the results have the potential to cause people to reflect on what evidence means and how they use it in their particular decision-making and practice contexts (principle 3). In applying these principles of how people learn to our discussion process we are employing an evidence based approach – at least to the ‘what do we do?’ part of the enterprise.


But to apply an evidence based approach to the whole enterprise we would have to go further than this and evaluate the process and the outcomes using appropriate questions and criteria. From this we might deduce that an evidence based approach to anything might focus on one or more of:

  • the prospective action e.g. ‘what evidence can I draw upon to help me decide what to do?’ ‘what are the important principles for effective practice?’ ‘what has worked in contexts other than my own?

  • the action itself e.g. ‘what evidence is there that this is working in the way I intended?’ ‘what might I change to improve the quality of the action to achieve the intended result?’

  • or the results e.g. ‘what evidence is there that this has worked in the way I intended?’ ‘what are the unexpected outcomes from this process?’


It is unrealistic and unnecessary to expect people to work and behave like this all the time. They must make decisions about what to focus attention on and where to direct their evidence based actions – for example, when trying something out for the first time, when seeking an alternative way to do something, or when it is really important to know or demonstrate that something has worked.


Such a conception of evidence based practice can be linked to the comprehensive and well researched theory of learning and action known as self-regulation (Zimmerman, 2000; and Zimmerman and Schunk, 2004). Implicit in this model (represented diagrammatically in Figure 1) is that we might use evidence to inform thinking, decisions about actions, and the implementation of action during the planning or forethought stage, the performance stage or the reflective stage of a learning enterprise (whether it is at the level of the individual or an institution).


Figure 1. Model of self-regulated learning Zimmerman (2000 p.226) coupled to notions of reflection (Ertmer and Newby,1996). Source: Jackson (in press).


What is evidence?


Underlying the question, ‘what does evidence based practice mean in higher education?’ is a concern to examine what people understand by evidence.


‘Evidence is information but evidence and information are not synonymous. Evidence presupposes an underlying proposition, belief, or assumption. Information, on the other hand, can exist independently of such. Perhaps we can conceive of evidence as a subset of information, specifically that which relates to a hypothesis’2.


‘It is information or data that people select to help them answer questions … Evidence is anything that can be used as evidence to answer questions … One person’s evidence is another’s information’ (Knight, 2004).’


A number of definitions of evidence emerged or where implicit in the contributions to the debate. Morris (2004) suggested that ‘evidence is factual knowledge or data that lends support to or casts doubt on a hypothesis. It is information on which we base our beliefs and ideas of how the world works.’


Solesbury (2004) cites the Oxford English Dictionary definition of evidence: ‘the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief of proposition is true or valid’. So availability and validity are key issues. In bringing evidence of any kind to bear on policy or practice, the key questions to be asked are threefold: how relevant is this to what we are seeking to understand or decide? How representative is this of the population that concerns us? How reliable, how well-founded theoretically, empirically is it? ‘These are tough but necessary tests for evidence based policy and practice’ (Solesbury, 2004). They highlight the importance of criticality. ‘As regards evidence based work, all too often this is deliberately divorced from critical thinking on the grounds that the evidence speaks for itself. It usually doesn't and, even when it does, it rarely answers “why?” questions.  What is needed is a combination of evidence based work and critical analysis based on sound theory.’3


Coe and Fitz-Gibbon (2004) argue that the professional decisions that teachers make should be informed by evidence – the kind of evidence that will tell us what works comes from trying it out – not from opinion, however plausible, but from well-designed, well-evaluated, controlled trials. This locates evidence rather narrowly in the scientific domain and it brings to the fore the tension in the ‘evidence for practice’ debate between those who see evidence as information that is scientifically produced and validated, and those who see it as a rich mixture of scientific and more socially constructed dynamic information.


How evidence is used


The discussion brought to the surface a family of conceptions of evidence use.


‘One key distinction that I wish to draw is the difference between ‘evidence based’ and ‘supported by evidence’. The former I define as independent objectivity and the latter as reinforcement and justification of prejudice or dogma, or to generate leverage to drive a desired change (Brown, 2004).


This way of thinking helps us to connect the ideas of evidence for different purposes – like answering a question, supporting/refuting a claim, or driving change by assertion – with the extent of evidence use and the ways in which it is used in planning, acting and reviewing outcomes. For example, whether all or best available evidence is taken into account, or evidence is used very selectively and perhaps deceptively. To these we might add the state of ‘evidence informed’ in which a significant and relevant body of evidence is used to inform decisions or practice but the decisions and actions which emerge make no pretence of being based solely on evidence. The issue here is about levels of transparency and honesty in what evidence has been used and how and why it has or hasn’t been used in decision making. These are challenging questions for anyone seeking to employ and evidence based approach.

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