Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The 20,000 Article Problem: How a Structured Abstract Can Help Practitioners Sort out Educational Research

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The 20,000 Article Problem: How a Structured Abstract Can Help Practitioners Sort out Educational Research

Article excerpt

Structured Abstract

Background: Today over 1,000 education journals publish more than 20,000 articles in the English language each year. No systematic tool is available at present to get the research findings from these tens of thousands of articles to the millions of education practitioners in the United States who might use them.

Purpose: To help practitioners sort out findings from education research, we propose that education journals consider adopting a structured abstract, an innovation that focuses on the article format itself. The structured abstract would take the place of the paragraph- style narrative summary that appears at the beginning of most articles.

Intervention: A structured abstract is a formal and compact summary of an article's main features and findings. Like a table or figure, it has a predictable structure that compresses information into a small space and can be read independently from the main body of the article. The structured abstract is longer and more detailed than the standard paragraph-style narrative summary. On the printed page, the structured abstract appears between the title and the main body of the article. It includes basic elements that apply to all articles (background, purpose, research design, and conclusions) and several additional elements that apply to some articles but not to others (e.g., setting, population, intervention, data collection and analysis, and findings).

Research Design: Analytic essay.

Conclusions: The structured abstract offers a robust vehicle to help practitioners systematically access, assess, and communicate education studies and research findings.

ONE RECENT Saturday, Beth, a fourth-grade teacher in a large midwestern city, was talking on the phone with her sister Louise, who teaches fifth grade in a mid-size city in the Southeast. Louise was telling Beth about a state conference for educators that she had attended a few weeks earlier.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference had extolled the virtues of peer tutoring in reading for elementary students and had claimed that the research showed that this strategy benefited both the student being tutored and the student doing the tutoring. As Louise was talking, Beth was scanning a mental image of her own classroom, identifying students who might benefit from such tutoring. Beth thought she might try the idea, but when she asked for more details about how to set up the peer- tutoring process, Louise said that the speaker, a professor from the local teachers college, had not provided any such details in his talk, nor had he provided any references to specific articles that teachers could refer to for more information. "Well," Beth thought, "I'll just drive downtown to the university library and use their computers to find some articles on peer tutoring. How hard can that be? I learned how to do that in my graduate classes years ago."

When Beth arrived at the library, she sat down at one of the computers in the reference section, pulled up the ERIC database, and typed in the key words "peer tutoring." Undaunted by the response that ERIC was prepared to display hundreds of articles that had something to say about peer tutoring, Beth began to scan systematically the titles and abstracts of the articles listed. She quickly found that she couldn't readily tell which of the articles might be the best source for the information she wanted. When she did find an article that seemed promising from its abstract, as often as not it turned out that this university library did not subscribe to the journal in which it had been published.

Several hours later, after scanning a dozen or so articles that the library did have on its shelves, Beth had photocopied three that had information that would help her set up her own peer-tutoring program in reading. But as she drove home, she kept thinking that there must be a better way, a more efficient way, to get information from relevant educational research into the hands of practitioners like her. …

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