Monday, 3 February 2014

Challenges of conducting research in schools

Teacher: "You want me to fill in one questionnaire for EACH child in the class?!"
Researcher: "Yes... At three time points throughout the study please."

This snippet of conversation between teacher and researcher has no doubt occurred numerous times, and it highlights the amount of extra work for teachers involved in research. Those of us conducting research in or with schools face a lot of challenges along the way which are often mentioned during corridor catch-ups or over coffee, but rarely in the literature. Here are just some of the challenges in school research.


It's easy to see why so many research studies are done with undergraduate students, as recruitment outside of this area can be difficult and time consuming. In order to draw meaningful conclusions from a piece of educational research, large numbers of children and schools are required. In my most recent research, I aimed to recruit 20 schools. I contacted a total of 391 schools, and ended up with just 16 recruited to the project. Only 14 schools declined to take part, so the rest either didn't respond to my contact, or didn't receive the message in the first place. Over four months I contacted these schools through email, phonecalls, and even school visits. The first hurdle is getting the message to the right person. Researchers are essentially cold-calling schools who are inundated with emails and phonecalls all the time, so it's difficult to persuade administrative staff to pass the message on. Most schools won't let you talk to the Head Teacher, or have their email address, so you really are relying on the person who answers the phone to see the value in your research. This can be very demoralising as the most common response is "we'll get back to you". From the numbers above you can see this rarely happens. In some cases, the message does get through but schools decide they simply can't take on any extra work, which is understandable given the amount of time researchers can be asking for.

Teacher time

For educational research in particular, researchers may be trying to find out if a certain programme of lessons generates learning. In some cases, the researcher may be able to go into schools to try out the programme. But if we want to see how the programme would really work in practise, we need the teacher to deliver the lessons. If we want a lot of schools to take part, to get a large amount of data, it is unlikely that the researcher will be able to deliver all the lessons, so again the teacher is needed to run the lessons. In addition to delivering the lessons, teachers will need some training before they start implementing the programme. This can create a lot of extra work for teachers, who are very busy people.

Data collection

If we want to see the effect of our programme on learning, we will need to carry out tests at the beginning and end of the study to see what changes have occurred over time. We will also need a control group for comparison, which can mean that tests need to be carried out at three time points. For a large number of schools this probably means asking teachers to fill in various questionnaires. It may also involve teachers carrying out slightly more complicated procedures with their pupils. In a study not involving school teachers, the researcher would usually go through training and then try the procedure out a few times before using it for collecting real data. This isn't possible for teachers, so we are relying on them to complete the measures with minimal training or practise. If teachers carry out the test wrong, or do it at the wrong time, this could cause problems with our data that we may not even know about.


Schools sometimes do not see the value in research, or are not willing to take part unless they get something in return. It can be difficult explaining to schools that we need to research school practices to find out if they really are effective. Researchers don't often have large sums of money to offer schools, particularly if they are students with limited funding. Without these incentives some schools decide it isn't worth their time.

These are just some of the challenges of conducting research in schools, and there are many more. Carrying out this research can be quite demoralising, as it involves a lot of rejection from schools, and sometimes drop out. But it is essential if we want to know what really works in the classroom.

No comments:

Post a comment