Writing Well About Research in Education
Today's post is part two of a two-part blog series reflecting on what a young research-practice partnership learned since its inception. Read part one here: 5 People Skills Ed. Researchers Need to Succeed in Partnership Work.
A basic decision for every new education research-practice partnership is how and where to write about its research. Will it produce articles for academic journals? Will the partnership publish its own reports? Or will it produce a mix of journal articles and reports? A thoughtful answer to these questions involves determining the intended audiences for the products and a theory about how the approach will advance the partnership's goal of improving education.
At the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC), a small partnership where I have served as director since January 2017, we made a decision to produce research reports that are freely available to the public through our website. PERC's research topics are prioritized by public school leaders and primarily intended to inform their decision making. However, we also believe that publicly-disseminated research on education conditions and progress in our city can inform a broader civic discourse. Further, we hope that communities outside of Philadelphia can learn from our research, just as we seek to gain ideas and perspectives from theirs.
The challenge of writing about research for a broad audience
Writing for broad audiences is not an easy task for most researchers. The standard organization of the academic paper —literature review, empirical and theoretical rationale for a new study, methods, findings, and discussion— is deeply ingrained. Researchers are trained to carefully define their terms, document their assumptions, describe their methods, and thoroughly explore the nuances of their findings. This can make research manuscripts dense and lengthy. How can these professional expectations be reconciled with the plain, clear, and concise writing necessary for informing and engaging educators and the broader community?
At PERC, we are wrestling with this issue. We believe that brief, well-organized reports are more likely to be read and perhaps acted upon by education practitioners. Additionally, we want readers without research training to feel confident that they understand the study and its findings, opening the door for more people to enter a research-informed conversation. At the same time, we seek to balance plain, concise writing with enough detail about data and methods to establish the credibility of our studies and to enable replication in Philadelphia or elsewhere.
One solution: Adapting a report format from the Regional Educational Laboratory program
Our most recent report, published last June, uses a format that we adapted — or in some ways, outright copied! — from the Regional Educational Laboratories' (REL) reports. We have used this format to develop a template that we expect most PERC reports to follow.
Below are some reporting strategies that we think aid understanding and engagement by readers who do not have research training, with examples of how we have incorporated these strategies into our reports. We hope to continue to improve our written reporting, but the REL format gave us a good foundation.
1. Present the key takeaways early, often, and in multiple ways. When readers open (or begin to scroll through) the report, they immediately see a page of text that summarizes the study's purpose, design, and findings. The summary is placed here so the reader does not have to flip — or scroll — through acknowledgements, a table of contents, and other front matter before they finally get to the findings. The report's table of contents appears after the summary. That is a non-standard placement, but perhaps partnership work requires bending a few rules!
The report's findings section is structured by headers that, in a sentence, convey an important takeaway message. These headers also appear in the table of contents, providing yet more reinforcement of the key findings of the report.
2. Make things obvious. The headers in the major sections of the report describe the contents in the plainest of plain language: "Why this study," "What the study examined," "What the study found."
3. Box it up, or put it in an appendix. Detailed descriptions of data and methods are essential to demonstrate a research study's credibility, and literature reviews help to motivate the study and set it in context. However, in a report for a broad audience, lengthy literature reviews or methods sections in the main text may distract, confuse, or even repel the reader. In PERC reports, we seek to summarize data and methods in a box set off from the main text, with detailed information provided in an appendix. A brief, motivating description of relevant research may be sufficient to explain the importance of the study, and a longer literature review (if needed and relevant) can be available in an appendix.
4. Keep it short. At PERC, we have a target for reports to be no more than 20 pages of main text, plus appendixes if needed. Not all types of studies can or should be reported with such parsimony, but this amount of space often works quite well for descriptive reports that are commonly produced by research-practice partnerships. A page limit can help the writer to focus on identifying the key takeaways and to stick with the storyline. Plus, for partnerships, shorter but more frequent reports that build and deepen understanding may better maintain interest among partners than a single large report requiring more time to produce.
5. Write plainly. There are no magic tricks here — just a whole lot of practice and commitment to improve. Writing plainly involves logical organization and clear and concise expression, using common words as much as possible. This is hard work, and editors can help.
6. Design the report layout to accommodate electronic reading. PERC's report format is designed to be read electronically or in hard copy. For web reading, our reports use a one-column format so that readers need to scroll in one direction only (a two-column format requires back and forth scrolling, which can be annoying). The report template also uses low-saturation color to conserve printer ink.
Research-practice partnerships offer both exciting opportunities and some real incentives to produce clear research reporting. Here are some resources we have found helpful:
This writing guide by the REL program, recommended in "An Ode to Clarity in Communicating the Written Word in Research"
Going Public: Writing About Research in Everyday Language, a guide by Mark Dynarski and Ellen Kisker which includes a set of tables with suggestions for writing in simpler ways about design, measurement, and analysis in causal inference studies