Researcher training

How do people learn how to do education research?


Eleanor C Sayre


January 1, 2023

Research is a process of generating new knowledge; education research focuses on problems of teaching and learning. I am particularly interested in how people learn how to do education research, either as their primary research activity or as a scholarly activity focused on improving the learning of their students or the educational programs in their unit.

Generally, people learn how to do education research as students, postdocs, or faculty members. Most newcomers to the field start with a mentoring relationship with another researcher, though it’s also possible to get started by participating in a field school, workshop, or conference. We call these scholars “emerging education researchers”. Because most of them are situated in disciplinary departments, we also call them “emerging discipline-based education researchers”, or EDBERs.

Researcher professional development activities

Research on researcher development

Community Roles for Supporting Emerging Education Researchers

Navigating a new research field is a complicated, and often intimidating task. For STEM researchers from other disciplines, entering discipline-based education research (DBER) can be particularly challenging. Having support from people already involved in DBER is very important for emerging education researchers (whether they are new researchers training in DBER, or highly experienced researchers from other fields). The PEER program focuses on helping attendees build not only skill sets, but connections to other emerging and senior education researchers. As part of our work to improve the program we interviewed 27 emerging education researchers to learn more about their needs, and how we could best support them as they learn to participate in DBER.

During our interviews we quickly noticed a strong theme around community support. Our new and emerging education researchers often worked at institutions where they had few or no DBER collaborators. In reviewing data from the interviews we learned that participants were very interested in having mentors and peers to work with. They were particularly interested in having people to fulfill 3 roles. Subject matter experts, mentors who have a deep understanding of the subfield our participants are interested in. Peers, other emerging education researchers who our participants can relate to, talk to, share information and ideas with, and possibly even collaborate with. Project managers, senior education researchers who are willing to take new and emerging education researchers onto their own projects so that they have a chance to focus on learning the subject matter as opposed to spending their focus arranging deadlines, applications, and overhead.

Early analysis was published in PERC 2021, and an expanded version is in preparation.

How do STEM faculty gain agency during the process of engaging in a new research field?

This case study examines the ways in which three emerging STEM education researchers’ agency developed. These STEM faculty (one math and two physics) participated in a professional development program (PEER) while they were chairing their first disciplined-based education research (DBER) project because they wanted to improve their teaching in their discipline in their particular instructional setting. We interviewed the faculty pre and post participation to see how their participation affected their sense of agency.

Using Bandura’s agency theory of development, adaptation and change, which says that agency is an individual’s ability to make choices and take action based on intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness (Bandura, 2001), we identified the elements of the professional development program (PEER) that were most transformative in our case study subjects’ trajectory in DBER by analyzing changes in each component of agency. As our case study participants reflected on the structure, content and interactions of this professional development experience, they articulated refinement in their interest in doing DBER and refinement in their research design in their respective projects. They also expressed an increase in their self-efficacy in engaging in this new research field. This work may be of interest to the community because researchers have not examined the mechanisms of agency development for STEM faculty transitioning into a new field of research without extensive training.

Fear and Gatekeeping in DBER

It’s common for participants in our interviews to discuss feeling left out, excluded, or forgotten but the active DBER communities. Anecdotally, we also have many discussions with new and emerging DBERs around the challenges of becoming involved, and finding your voice in a new (to you) research community.

This project uses Barzilai-Nahon’s Theory of Network Gatekeeping as a lens to investigate the perceived gatekeeping faced by new and emerging education researchers. They perceive gatekeeping when trying to gain access to collaborations, trying to publish papers, trying to get grants, and sometimes even trying to access space at conferences and gatherings. In this project we provided evidence of the gatekeeping faced by emerging education researchers, and discussed the importance of positive community interactions in helping emerging education researchers overcome this gatekeeping.

Emerging education researchers struggle with theory

If you do education research, or have spent time reading or hearing about education research, then you probably have heard about theoretical frameworks, theories, theoretical perspectives, and/or a bunch of other terms involving “theory”. You might even have wondered (as I have frequently): what exactly do these terms mean? It turns out that this is a pretty common question! During a series of interviews with new and emerging education researchers we learned that a lot of people who are new to education research struggle with “theory”. It wasn’t just new researchers either, lots of researchers who had extensive experience in other disciplines weren’t sure what “theory” was all about when it came to education research.

This project identified 3 ways in particular that emerging education researchers struggle with theory. First, appropriate theory is hard to find, especially if you don’t already know roughly what you’re looking for. There’s a lot of existing ed research literature, and frankly it’s hard to sift through it all and understand what best suits your research if you’re new. Second, it can be hard to understand what “theory” and all of the other terminology around it means. What is a theory? What is the difference between a theory, theoretical framework, and theoretical perspective? What should go into your paper? What do people mean when they talk about each of these things? Our emerging education researchers find that a lot of these things are commonly understood by education researchers, without ever being clearly defined. Third, emerging education researchers often struggle to understand the role and purpose of theory in research. This was the most surprising discovery, as one PEER participant memorably wrote, “Why do you even need a theory?”

Preliminary version at RUME 2022

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