A few years ago, the Federal Government introduced a new entity in the Department of Education called the Institute of Education Sciences. A significant motivating force behind the founding of the Institute was the idea that educational practice should be informed by experimental research. The reference to science in the title of the Institute calls for educational practice based on scientific evidence rather than philosophical argument. The “gold standard” for experimental research calls for the development and testing of hypotheses through experiments in which research participants (e.g., students) are assigned at random to experimental and control conditions. The great advantage of the experimental approach is that it affords a sound basis for making causal inferences leading to the determination of factors affecting learning.
Unfortunately, the educational research community has not responded adequately to the call for experimental studies. Indeed, the number of experimental studies conducted in education in United States has been declining for some time. Professor Joel Levin of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Arizona is one of a number of scholars who have played an important role in providing evidence that the decline is real. Moreover, he and others have been effective in pointing out the damaging effects of the decline on the potential impact of educational research on educational interventions designed to improve learning.
There are many possible reasons for the decline. One obvious reason is that the conduct of experimental research in schools can be very expensive. Expense is particularly problematic in experiments taking place over an extended time span involving large numbers of students and teachers. Many university professors, particularly young scholars, do not have access to the funding resources needed to conduct experimental studies of this kind.
Fortunately there is much to be gained from short experiments, which are inexpensive to conduct. Much of our knowledge regarding student learning, memory, cognition, and motivation has come from studies that generally require less than an hour of time from each of a small number of research subjects. Thus, while it may be beneficial to assess the effects of an entire curriculum on learning over the course of the school year, it may also be useful to assess the effects of experimental variables implemented in a single lesson or small number of lessons.
Focusing research on short experimental interventions provides much needed flexibility in implementing school-based interventions in the dynamic world of the 21st century. The educational landscape of the 21st century is in a constant state of flux. Standards change, curriculums change, and assessment practices change rapidly in the current educational environment. Schools have to be able to adjust intervention practices quickly to achieve their goals. Short experiments provide the flexibility needed to support rapid change in educational practice. I think we need more of them. In fact I think we need thousands of them coming from researchers across the nation. We now have the technology to manage the massive amounts of information that large numbers of short experiments can provide. The task ahead is to apply that technology in ways that support the continuing efforts of the educational community to promote student learning.