Educational research methods are generally lumped into two categories: quantitative and qualitative. A quantitative teaching experiment might compare learning between students in one course and students in a comparison/control course (A vs. B). A qualitative research project might involve observing classes and interviewing students to get a richer picture of what is going on.
However, neither of those forms of research are ideal or useful for most instructors. A quantitative experiment usually requires many students and multiple classes, you can only vary one thing at a time, and often you will find no significant difference or only a small significant difference between students. A typical educational psychology study might pull students out of the class into a lab, but then the results often don’t translate back into classroom practice or the real world. Qualitative research requires extensive time for observations, analyzing videos or transcripts, and the results don’t easily generalize beyond that single context of study.
Design-based research is
a systematic but flexible methodology aimed to improve educational practices through iterative analysis, design, development, and implementation, based on collaboration among researchers and practitioners in real-world settings, and leading to contextually-sensitive design principles and theories (Wang & Hannfin, 2005, as cited in the PEER Tutorial for Design-based Research).
This methodology is a pragmatic approach to tackling the problem of improving education from the perspective of an engineer or other designer. The research is done in the messy context of the classroom, and just like other design fields, it involves iteratively improving upon the educational intervention and possibly trying multiple things at the same time, instead of only one thing at a time like with traditional experiments. DBR is still is a rigorous method, involving extensive measurements and data, and this data and research inform the development of not only practical educational interventions but also better theories of what is happening in the classroom.
Here is an example study done with a design-based research approach: Peer-Assisted Reflection: A Design-Based Intervention for Improving Success in Calculus.
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