By Jim Rickabaugh, Ph.D.
The typical research study in education involves trying a particular instructional approach or strategy with a group of students, often with a matched “control group.” The data collected from the “experimental group” is compared either to the results of the control group or in some cases with the expected growth of the experimental group itself. The goal is to determine if the approach or strategy made a significant difference in the average learning in the group.
While this research design holds some value in comparing the relative effectiveness of one approach to another at the level of a group, it tells us little about the impact of the instructional approach at the individual student level. Knowing that, on average, one approach might be more effective than another is of little value when trying to decide how best to meet the learning needs and challenges of individual students.
Our commitment to understanding how best to nurture learning at an individual student level demands new research designs. We need to be able to match the characteristics of individual learners to the most effective approach. Information needs to be collected and analyzed in light of the type and nature of the learner and the extent to which the specific research treatment had a significant positive impact.
The good news is that we can borrow much from medical research in which individual patient information is collected and analyzed in response to the applied treatment. While the information might later be aggregated to draw broad conclusions regarding its effectiveness, physicians first need to know the patient characteristics best suited for the medicine or treatment being studied before they take the step of writing a prescription. In fact, failure to do so in the medical field might be grounds for claims of malpractice.
As educators, we need to demand more of education researchers if we are to develop the knowledge base necessary to effectively and consistently address the learning needs of individual students. Further, unless we take this or a similar approach to education research we will not be able to shed the practice of teaching groups of students and hoping for the best and then trying figure out what to do with those who do not learn the first time.
The good news is that as this new research data base begins to emerge, we will dramatically increase our effectiveness as a profession and open doors to fully customizing our instruction to student learning needs. As a result, we will produce the educational outcomes our society needs and deserves.