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DISCUSSION PAPER NUMBER 6
Public discussion on the meaning of ‘evidence based’ in higher education
Systematic Review: a way of synthesising and making accessible research evidence to inform policy and practice in higher education
David Gough, Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre), Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London
This paper describes how research evidence can be synthesised through a process of systematic review to provide maps of research evidence and identify the best evidence available to answer questions that are relevant to people who are developing policy or wanting to inform their practice. Using web technology these data can be made available to a range of users to inform their decisions and practices. A summary of education-focused research syntheses produced by, or with the help of, the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre, is provided in an appendix.
Types of knowledge
Before undertaking any new policy, practice, research or any other action it is sensible to examine what knowledge has already been collected that is relevant to the action. Such knowledge can be used as evidence to support different courses of action, but policy, practice and other decisions are made on the basis of many complex reasons including political belief, availability of resources, desired outcomes (including self-interest), and the perceived balance between predicted positive and negative outcomes.
Research evidence and other prior knowledge may be used in many different ways in such complex decision-making processes. It may, for example, be used instrumentally to support decisions made for other reasons rather than as part of a rational and systematic(?) decision- making process (Gough and Elbourne, 2002).
Even if knowledge is used as part of a rational deductive process, the way in which knowledge is turned into evidence is not ideologically or conceptually neutral but depends upon the underlying assumptions of those making these interpretations. We need to be aware of the wide variation in how different individuals and groups interpret evidence but this can still be a rationale process that can be explicit and transparent (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Evidence and ideology. Ideology can be applied in any or all of the stages of data gathering, interpretation and decision making.
Data Interpretation Evidence selection Decision making
If we want to use different sorts of knowledge in a rational way as evidence to inform decisions about teaching and learning in higher education then we need to consider the different sorts of knowledge available. Pawson et al. (2003) distinguish research, practitioner, policy, organisational, and service user/public modes of knowledge. Each form of knowledge has its own methods of production, criteria for assessment of veracity, and has differential influence on other forms of knowledge. This paper is concerned with the methods of production of research knowledge in a way that it can optimise the value of the knowledge for decision making in policy and practice in education. We may want to make decisions on teaching and learning on the basis of ideology or available resources but if we want also to use research knowledge then how can this be achieved in practice?
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