The purpose of research is to learn more about a subject. What is assumed in education is that we want to learn more about how students learn in order to improve their learning.
While there is little argument with this in theory, there can be ambivalence amongst teachers when it comes to research. It is not uncommon to hear research described as 'wordy', 'out-of-touch', 'out-of-date', 'created in ivory towers', or 'too theoretical'.
During the past 20 years, college and university faculty have begun to utilize several areas of the learning sciences (including cognitive psychology) to inform pedagogy. Much of this work has happened in ways that have helped our profession more effectively teach and our students to more effectively learn. However, we still have much work to do if we are to claim that we have a well-developed set of tools that can be applied across disciplines.
The issue is one of practicality. In order to get the attention of busy faculty, those involved in interpreting what we’ve learned about how people learn need to show its utility. The utility can take many forms, and often is, essentially, the application of a finding from the laboratory to the classroom. In the sciences this is known as “translational research.” The efforts involved in such a process are valuable, and faculty often find one or two techniques that seem to work with their discipline in their classes. However, for the science of learning to really gain a strong foothold as a key player in higher education, I would argue for a much more sophisticated and theory-rich position.
The idea of translation is really to take something from one area, perspective or interpretation, and determine how that can be germane or understood in the context of another perspective. In language, for example, translation is more than just providing a word for word substitution to evoke the same meaning. Rather, translation in languages requires that subtle differences in the way that languages represent meaning are taken into account and the translated version of what was spoken captures the “essence” or the “semantics” of what was conveyed rather than just a copy of what was said. Much of the subtleties of good language translation occurs in the ability of the translator to account for the linguistic variability that exists in each language and culture and provide an account of what was spoken that is meaningful to the speaker and listener.
The same can be said for the translation of work from the learning sciences to the classroom (e.g., Benassi, Overson, & Hakala, 2014; Daniel, 2012; Daniel & Chew, 2013; Gurung & Daniel, 2005). In many cases, faculty are enthusiastic in learning about new ways to teach. They are eager to hear about how others have used different techniques and want to know how to apply that technique to their course or their discipline. I would argue, however, faculty need to be cautious when such a translation is occurring. Translation of material from the lab to the classroom requires a number of things for it to be successful:
By examining these questions, faculty can then decide if the technique is one that would be applicable to their course and begin the process of translation from the experimental context to the classroom.
There is a commonly cited ‘know-do gap’ (Bennett and Jessani, 2011) which gives four reasons why someone might choose not to apply the best available information or research.
The biggest problem of translational research is that of scalability. Often, a result is robust in the microcosm of the lab, but when tried in the classroom, faculty find that the students are not all responding in the way the participants did in the study. To that end, faculty would do well to slowly ramp up from lab to classroom (Daniel, 2014). In addition, in order for translational research to be effective, faculty need to consider critical variables to ensure that approach is the appropriate one for the needs of the faculty member. That is, faculty need to determine if the approach is one that is in line with their pedagogy and the content.
In addition to all that, there is a plethora of research out there that is designed to help faculty begin the process. But we must be deliberate in our approach to translate. We need to ensure that, like translating a foreign language, we take into account the culture, the processes, the content, the instructor and students so that we provide a translation that captures the critical variables necessary for success, but that doesn’t change either the instruction so that it is less effective, or the instructor, so that he or she doesn’t feel like they have lost control of how to effectively teach the course.
The challenge for those doing research is to make it easier for practitioners to find, understand and apply their research.