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Connecting Research and Practice

Connecting Research and Practice

A look at what is known about research utilization and what NCSALL does in that regard

by Barbara Garner, Beth Bingman, John Comings, Karen Rowe, & Cristine Smith
"Is the role of research to provide information or to produce change?" writes K. Patricia Cross, a scholar known for her research on adult learning (p. 63). It is both. Research findings that are not shared with practitioners in ways that foster application are ineffective. Unfortunately, traditional models of research to practice assume that the transfer of knowledge can take as long as 50 years. First, scholars conduct the research, then they publish findings in academic journals, then the academic articles form the basis for similar research and at the same time make their way into the syllabi of preservice academic training for teachers, and slowly the knowledge makes its way into classroom practice.

Educational research has moved beyond that linear model. The relationship between researchers and practitioners is now recognized as important. Current models of research to practice show an interaction: researchers work with practitioners to develop research agendas; practitioners work with researchers in conducting research; researchers and practitioners engage together in deriving meaning from the research findings; and researchers and practitioners participate in the dissemination process. Sometimes an intermediary institution is involved, such as a lab school, to provide a place where new methods can be tested and refined before they are shared widely. In this model, researchers and practitioners are all working for educational improvement.

Teachers and policymakers do learn from research (Turnbull, 1992, p. 21), but not in a linear way. Teachers scan the environment for new ways of thinking and are most apt to apply those ways if they have the chance to "work on increasing their professional competence in settings of collaboration and mutual support" (ibid.). Collaboration must be close to home. Teachers seek approval from each other, particularly from colleagues  they consider more experienced.

In this article, we provide a brief overview of the research on educational research dissemination and utilization. We then describe the ways in which the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) attempts to foster interaction between research and practice.

Sustained Interactivity

Collaboration between researchers and practitioners increases the chances that research findings will be translated into practice. Michael Huberman (1992) conducted a number of studies showing that "sustained interactivity" among researchers and practitioners is more likely to lead to research utilization than is limited interaction. In sustained interactivity, practitioners are seen as partners or actors rather than targets. An implicit assumption of sustained interactivity is that the meaning and validity of the study are negotiated by practitioner and researcher. Researchers and potential users of the information interact repeatedly at different points during the course of the research: not just after, but prior to and during. For example, a few practitioner representatives may serve on an advisory board to a study, identifying which elements of the study are of most interest to practitioners. They may provide insight into how the findings challenge local norms, and help conceptualize the ways in which research results can best be conveyed to practitioners.

In his work on research utilization, Huberman (1985) explored the impact of sustained interactivity on the researchers. Not surprisingly, virtually all of the researchers said that their interaction with practitioners improved their conceptual mastery of the field they were studying (p. 25). Huberman suggests that researchers and their research benefit from engaging in dialogue, over time, with practitioners who have experience with the phenomena in which the researcher is interested and who challenge the researcher. Huberman encourages educational researchers to consider interactive dissemination as a powerful way in which to "empower or refine the conceptual tools with which we researchers ply our trade." (p. 29).

An important finding in Huberman's research is that not only is sustained interactivity useful in ensuring that research is translated into practice but the role of the researcher in that interactivity is paramount. "What researchers do or don't do, along with the investment they make, counts more than do the features of the practitioner environment they engage with" (p. 24). More than the packaging of the findings, the engagement of the researcher in disseminating findings has an impact on whether those findings are acknowledged and considered by potential users (Huberman, 1992; Kaestle, 1993).

Truth and Utility

In deciding what research to believe, teachers and policymakers apply tests of truth and utility. Policymakers look to research that demonstrates high technical quality and findings that fit with their understanding of the issue. At the same time, the research must provide explicit direction for policy. According to Weiss (1989), if the findings challenge convention, all the better. A study that says "more of the same" is not as exciting to policymakers as one that forges a new path. "Keep doing what you're doing" does not provide a framework for legislation.

Teachers likewise seek out truth and utility. They look for research findings that fit with their experience, and, better still,
are vouched for by trusted colleagues. On the utility side, teachers look for research findings that can help them improve their current practice. If they can easily implement suggestions and then quickly see results with their current students, they are more likely to continue to implement the new approach or idea (Huberman, 1985).


In a constructivist approach to research utilization, the practitioner constructs meaning out of the research, taking into account the context of her setting and her prior knowledge (Furhman, 1992). Thefield of adult basic education is experiencing a growing trend toward such an approach. The focus has shifted from considering "information as a brick to be tossed from the system to [a] person . . . [to one that sees information as] . . . clay to be molded and shaped by the perceiver" (Dervin, 1983). Providing research information to practitioners in an accessible form is only the beginning: providing venues for exploration, reflection, implementation, and more reflection are necessary for educational change and improvement to occur. 

NCSALL's Efforts

The characteristics of ABE, with its huge cadre of part-time and volunteer teachers, the geographic isolation of many instructors, and the limited opportunities for collegial sharing and professional development have been well documented (see articles on pages 1 and 25). Despite these obstacles, research centers that focus on adult basic education try to work closely with practitioners in developing and disseminating their work. We at NCSALL strive to ensure that the Center's research and dissemination activities contribute to the construction of new knowledge on the part of practitioners, policymakers, and ourselves as researchers as well. We use a variety of methods to do so, including:

Integrating Practitioners

NCSALL has been integrating practitioners into its research process via the Practitioner Dissemination and Research Network (PDRN), comprised of practitioner leaders who are adult education teachers and administrators in 13 states. The practitioner leaders work with their state ABE and literacy resource center staff to connect practitioners in their states with research and researchers with practice. One of the practitioner leaders' tasks has been to collaborate with NCSALL researchers. Several practitioner leaders provided assistance to researchers by helping to identify sites for data collection and participating in and recruiting other practitioners to help collect data. NCSALL researchers shared findings with practitioners who were involved in their studies, engaging their help in interpreting findings. NCSALL researcher Rima Rudd, for example, mailed first drafts of findings to all practitioners who participated in her health literacy research and solicited their interpretation of the data.

In 1997, the practitioner leaders conducted focus groups with teachers in nine states. The focus groups were designed to identify the issues of concern to practitioners that could be addressed by research. The participants expressed that, to be useful to them, research results should address issues of concern, have clear implications for practice, and be reported in "user-friendly" language.

Producing Publications 

Focus on Basics is one of NCSALL's publications that report research results to members of the field of ABE in formats that are user friendly. Each NCSALL research project was described in Focus on Basics, often in the column "Focus on Research." As research activities come to an end, each researcher works with us to write what we hope is a jargon-free article on his or her findings and their implications for practice. Wherever possible, these articles are coupled with articles written by practitioners who have tested some of these findings in practitioner research activities of their own. This provides validity. In Volume 4 A, for example, John Comings, Andrea Perrella, and Lisa Soricone reported findings of their work on learner motivation, which showed that setting and working towards concrete goals helps learner retention. In the same issue, Pam Meader reported on the results of a practitioner research study she had done that implemented that concept with her math students.

Study circle guides are an approach to providing user-friendly research findings for teachers in publication formats that emphasize reflection, a hallmark of constructivism. NCSALL staff produce study circle guides on particular NCSALL research projects that can be used to lead professional development activities. The guides include step-by-step instructions on how to lead the study circles, a variety of activities to use, and the material participants need to read to prepare for the sessions. Sue Barton, a practitioner leader from Virginia, said that talking about what was going on in adult education research brought administrators and teachers closer in the circle she facilitated. The participants in her study circle described the experience as permitting them to reflect on their classroom in light of best practices revealed through research - then move forward, designing a model to improve their own practice (Sue Barton, PDRN electronic discussion list).

The development of  "Beyond the GED: Making Conscious Choices about Your Future," a set of materials for GED classes, represents another approach to collaboration between researchers and practitioners that led to reflection and change in both. Teacher Sara Fass wrote the materials to bring the findings of GED research into the classroom to be considered by learners. Researchers John Tyler and Kathy Boudett, who both work on NCSALL GED impact studies, agreed that discussing the issues with learners and providing input during the development of the learning materials allowed for a better understanding of the mechanisms that may be at play in areas of research interest.

Supporting Practitioner Research

One of the most direct ways NCSALL establishes settings of collaboration and reflection for practitioners interested in exploring and applying research findings is by supporting and collaborating in practitioner research. NCSALL-supported practitioner research always includes training and support to practitioners as they identify questions from their own practice and conduct research to address them. The questions are all broadly connected to a NCSALL research topic, and in many instances the practitioner researcher makes a direct connection with an academic researcher working on the same general question.

Delivering Presentations

NCSALL researchers make every effort to meet in person with those who are interested to discuss their research as it is being conducted and when findings emerge. Researchers want to know how their findings are interpreted by practitioners. Researcher team members frequently participate in local workshops and national level conferences. In addition, representatives from the NCSALL dissemination team are present at all major ABE conferences. NCSALL also sponsors policy briefings in which researchers share research findings and discuss implications of findings with state and local program directors.

Despite these efforts, face-to-face contact between NCSALL researchers and practitioners is understandably limited. The FoBasics electronic discussion list could serve as a place of "virtual" sustained interactivity through which NCSALL researchers could pose questions to practitioners and vice versa.

New Methods

Beginning next year, NCSALL will launch two new initiatives aimed at creating more opportunities for sustained interactivity and reflection: two lab sites and a research in practice initiative. The lab sites, one in Portland, OR, and one in New Brunswick, NJ, will provide venues in which researchers and practitioners can work together to test and evaluate applications of research to practice as well as ensure stable sites for ongoing research. The research in practice initiative will connect state professional development providers, literacy resource centers, state adult basic education directors, and a variety of researchers and research centers (NCSALL included) to foster greater interactivity throughout the research to practice cycle.


A strong literacy program here in Boston is known as WAITT House, which stands for "We're All In This Together." The same can be said for researchers and practitioners. We're interdependent in our efforts to improve the educational experiences of adult learners. We know that working together benefits all of us. At NCSALL, as at other research centers, we try constantly to incorporate the expertise of practitioners as we develop research questions, gather and analyze data, consider the policy and practice implications of research findings, and develop mechanisms for dissemination of research findings. We look forward to hearing from you about ways in which we can improve or extend these efforts.


Cross, K.P (2000). "The educational role of researchers." In A. Kezar & P. Eckel (eds.), Moving Beyond the Gap Between Research and Practice in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dervin, B. (1983). "Information as a user construct: The relevance of perceived information needs to synthesis and interpretation." In S. Ward & L. Reed (eds.), Knowledge Structure and Use: Implications for Synthesis and Reconstruction. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Fuhrman, S.H. (1992). "Uniting Producers and Consumers: Challenges in Creating and Utilizing Educational Research and Development. (Draft)." Washington, DC: Paper presented at the International Seminar on Educational Research and Development.

Huberman, M. (1985). "What knowledge is of most worth to teachers? A knowledge-use perspective." Teaching & Teacher Education, 1 (3), 252-262.

Huberman, M. (1992). "Linking the Practitioner and Researcher Communities for School Improvement." Victoria, British Columbia: Keynote Address, International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement.

Kaestle, C. (1993). "The awful reputation of education research." Educational Researcher 23-31.

Kezar, A. (2000). "Understanding the research-to-practice gap: A national study of researchers' and practitioners' perspectives." In  A. Kezar, & P. Eckel (eds.), Moving Beyond the Gap Between Research and Practice in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Turnbull, B. J. (1992) "Research knowledge and school improvement: Can this marriage be saved?" San Francisco: Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Tushnet, N.C. (1992). "Synthesis and Translation: Will It Be Easier for Users to Discover Meaning, Truth, and Utility in Research?" San Francisco: Paper presented at Annual Meeting of American Educational Research Association.

Weiss, C. (1989) "Congressional committees as users of analysis." Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 8(3) 411-431.

About the Authors

Barbara Garner, World Education, is director of publications for NCSALL and editor of Focus on Basics.

Beth Bingman, The University of Tennessee, is regional director of the NCSALL Practitioner Dissemination and Research Network.

John Comings, Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy and principal investigator of the NCSALL Persistence Study. 

Karen Rowe, World Education, is director of dissemination for NCSALL.

Cristine Smith, World Education, is associate director of NCSALL, national coordinator of the Practitioner Dissemination and Research Network, and principal investigator for the NCSALL Staff Development Study.