Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Doing Research That Makes a Difference

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Doing Research That Makes a Difference

Article excerpt

Over the past several years, the chasms between research and practice as well as research and policy have been the topic of commentaries (Keller, 1985; Layzell, 1990) of several addresses given by presidents of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (e.g., Terenzini, 1996; Conrad, 1989; Nettles, 1995), and books (Kezar & Eckel, 2000). A prevalent theme in these publications is the disconnect between higher education research and policymakers and practitioners. The solutions that have been offered to close these gaps include writing in a more user-friendly style, publishing research results in outlets that are practitioner-oriented, presenting research results at practitioner-oriented meetings, and studying problems that are high on policy-makers' and practitioners' lists of priorities. Essentially, solutions for closing the gap between research and practice involve two issues. These are the need to study problems that are of greater relevance to policy-makers and practitioners (whoever they are) and the need to broaden the ways in which research findings are disseminated.

We do not believe that the gap between research and practice will be closed by researchers choosing more relevant and/or bigger problems to study nor by their developing more user-friendly forms of dissemination. Instead, we believe that the problem lies in the traditional methodology of knowledge production. As members of the educational research community we have been socialized to believe that the purpose of research is to produce scientific-like knowledge that practitioners can apply at the local level to improve educational outcomes, student success, leadership, and so on.

In this article we describe an alternative methodology for conducting research that is intended to bring about institutional change. This process involves developing deeper awareness among faculty members, administrators, or counselors, of a problem that exists in their local context. In some instances these individuals may be unaware that the problem exists; in others, they may be aware of the problem but not of its magnitude; or they may perceive its broad outline but not the details.

To differentiate between this alternative methodology and the traditional way of conducting research, we call the former the "practitioner-as-researcher" model. The principal distinction between the two models is in their approach to knowledge production. In the traditional model the individual identified as the researcher controls the production of knowledge; in the practitioner-as-researcher model, stakeholders produce knowledge within a local context in order to identify local problems and take action to solve them.

This article contains four parts that serve to delineate the distinctiveness and utility of the practioner-as-researcher model. In the first section we contrast the traditional model of research with the practitioner-as-researcher model. Second, we provide details about a project in which we have utilized the practitioner-as-researcher approach, the Diversity Scorecard project. Next, we discuss the outcomes that the practitioners who engaged in research experienced. Finally, we provide our concluding thoughts and reflections on the process.

Part I: The Methodologies of the Traditional and the Practitioner-as-Researcher Model

The Traditional Model

The traditional model of research production calls for a division of labor between the manufacturers of research findings (researcher) and the consumers of those findings (practitioner). In the traditional research model, the researcher defines the problem to be studied, selects the appropriate methods, collects the data, interprets them, and reports the findings. The role of the research subject is to provide the information the researcher is seeking. The researcher is the expert on the problem to be studied, which gives him or her the authority to provide solutions. …

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