Academic journal article Exceptional Children

The Use of Single-Subject Research to Identify Evidence-Based Practice in Special Education

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

The Use of Single-Subject Research to Identify Evidence-Based Practice in Special Education

Article excerpt

Single-subject research is a rigorous, scientific methodology used to define basic principles of behavior and establish evidence-based practices. A long and productive history exists in which single-subject research has provided useful information for the field of special education (Kennedy, in press; Odom & Strain, 2002; Tawney & Gast, 1984; Wolery & Dunlap, 2001). Since the methodology was first operationalized over 40 years ago (Sidman, 1960), single-subject research has proven particularly relevant for defining educational practices at the level of the individual learner. Educators building individualized educational and support plans have benefited from the systematic form of experimental analysis single-subject research permits (Dunlap & Kern, 1997). Of special value has been the ability of single-subject research methods to provide a level of experimental rigor beyond that found in traditional case studies. Because single-subject research documents experimental control, it is an approach, like randomized control-group designs (Shavelson & Towne, 2002), that may be used to establish evidence-based practices.

The systematic and detailed analysis of individuals that is provided through single-subject research methods has drawn researchers not only from special education, but also from a growing array of scholarly disciplines, with over 45 professional journals now reporting single-subject research (American Psychological Association, 2002; Anderson, 2001). Further, an array of effective interventions is now in use that emerged through single-subject research methods. Reinforcement theory or operant psychology has been the substantive area that has benefited most from single-case research methodology. In fact, operant principles of behavior have been empirically demonstrated and replicated within the context of single-subject experiments for more than 70 years. However, the close association between operant analysis of human behavior and single-subject experimental research is not exclusionary. That is, many procedures based on diverse theoretical approaches to human behavior can be evaluated within the confines of single-subject research. Interventions derived from social-learning theory, medicine, social psychology, social work, and communication disorders are but a sample of procedures that have been analyzed by single-subject designs and methods (cf., Hersen & Barlow, 1976; Jayarame & Levy, 1979; McReynolds & Kearns, 1983).

The specific goals of this article are to (a) present the defining features of single-subject research methodology, (b) clarify the relevance of single-subject research methods for special education, and (c) offer objective criteria for determining when single-subject research results are sufficient for documenting evidence-based practices. Excellent introductions to single-subject research exist (Hersen & Barlow, 1976; Kazdin, 1982; Kratochwill & Levin, 1992; Richard, Taylor, Ramasamy & Richards, 1999; Tawney & Gast, 1984), and our goal here is not to provide an introduction to the single-subject research, but to clarify how single-subject research is used to establish knowledge within special education and define the empirical support needed to document evidence-based practices.

SINGLE-SUBJECT RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

Single-subject research is experimental rather than correlational or descriptive, and its purpose is to document causal, or functional, relationships between independent and dependent variables. Single-subject research employs within- and between-subjects comparisons to control for major threats to internal validity and requires systematic replication to enhance external validity (Martella, Nelson, & Marchand-Martella, 1999). Several critical features define this methodology. Each feature is described in the following sections and organized later in a table of quality indicators that may be used to assess if an individual study is an acceptable exemplar of single-subject research. …

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