The Research Base for Learn Through Research

A basic understanding of what it means to learn through research allows us to see its usefulness to adults not only in their roles as students but also as workers, citizens, and family members. Employers want their workers to be able to find and use the information they need to solve problems and make sound decisions on the job. Citizens need to know how to access the information and resources they need in order to exercise their rights and responsibilities in their communities and nationally. Given the wide range of issues and concerns faced by a typical family, the ability to find and effectively use new information to meet a specific need is also a significant strength. It is increasingly understood by those who teach others to engage in research that they are guiding learners not only to acquire new information but also to develop curiosity about their world, to observe it critically, to think about it logically, to solve problems and make decisions in a variety of contexts, and to apply their learning to new questions. The ability to learn through research is, therefore, a crucial skill for lifelong learning.

The descriptions of performance at each level of the Learn Through Research Performance Continuum are anchored in analysis of data on adult learner performance collected by teacher researchers working with adult learners in adult basic education programs (including adult literacy, adult ESOL, family literacy, and adult secondary education). Teachers in five field research states developed performance tasks and measured learner performance on the tasks as part of a rigorous three-year field development process. The aim was to generate rich descriptions of adult performance on the standards that grew out of adult learners' expressed needs and goals related to learning through research. This evidence of learner performance on the standard went through extensive analysis by research staff and was reviewed and amended by a panel of content experts. At each step in this process research and theory on the inquiry process was used to guide and refine the definition of performance criteria. Our job of developing a Performance Continuum for the standard that will support valid and reliable assessment of individual ability to learn through research has been a challenging one and our understanding of competent adult performance in learning through research continues to evolve.

A number of sources have guided our understanding of proficiency in learning through research including definitions and conceptions of scientific inquiry, particularly those outlined by the 1995 National Science Education Standards from the National Research Council. Specifically, this approach calls for the:

  • Ability to articulate a purpose for research adn to pose a research question;
  • Ability to identify sources of known information, to design and execute investigations/experiments as needed to unearth new information, and to gather data from them;
  • Ability to evaluate the relevance of gathered information to the research question, to organize, analyze, and interpret relevant information, and to integrate it with prior knowledge
  • Ability to monitor the effectiveness of this process in addressing the research question, and to flexibly adjust the approach if warranted;
  • Ability to communicate findings.

This approached is shaped by the general definitions of scientific research or inquiry that is widely accepted and practiced across physical, social, and behavioral science. We also considered contributions from experts in the field of cognitive science that stress that learning through research is enhanced by employing modes of inquiry that allow for interaction with others; for connecting prior knowledge to new learning; for applying content to new questions; and for problem-solving, planning, decision-making, and group discussion. Students need direct instruction in modes of inquiry, rules of evidence, ways to formulate questions, and ways to propose explanations. Further, students need to know how to monitor their ways of knowing and learning by engaging in development of empirical criteria, in logical argument, and in skeptical review. And, they needed opportunities to apply and practice what they learned. The contributions of cognitive science helped us to further the argument that the deep understanding and proficient practice of "scientific inquiry" is at the very heart of the EFF conception of learning through research as an active/interactive, critically reflective, problem-solving oriented, lifelong learning process.

(The Learn Through Research Resources section of the EFF Assessment Resource Collection library contains a more detailed description of this research and a bibliography).

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