A lot of people have told to me at my workshops that they wish to start reading research but they don’t know where to start. I usually respond by recommending popular books, such as How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice and How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now, which I just read this month. These provide teachers with easily digestible explanations of important research from the science of learning that have serious implications for the classroom.
Some teachers, however, wish to go further and actually read the original studies that are presented in these books. The authors of the aforementioned books, Kirschner/Hendrick, and Dehaene, seem to wish for this as well, because they go to great lengths to point readers towards the articles from which they base their conclusions so that we may read them and make up our own minds.
The trouble is, many peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals are not available for free online (i.e. there is a paywall $$$). Unless you have access to a research database, which you likely obtained through your university, it can be a challenge to engage with the educational research literature beyond just reading a bunch of abstracts.
I think this is a shame. Luckily there are a few steps you can take to work around these restrictions so that you may start developing your skills as a reader of research. Keep in mind that becoming a researcher is very, very hard. I’ve been working at it as a PhD student for 2 and a half years, and all the time I don’t know what to search for or how to make heads or tails of what I am reading. There is no shortcut to becoming a researcher; It takes years of training and effort to build the necessary knowledge and skills to research like an expert. But, as we all have to start somewhere, this post is for teachers who are new to the researching process.
Step 1: Start using Google Scholar
Google Scholar is the easiest place to start because we’re all familiar with how to use Google. Google Scholar is simply a free tool that allows you to search for research articles. I will not go much here into the pros and cons of Google Scholar, other than to just say that it isn’t what I use for researching articles. I use my university’s journal and database locator because it is a paid service that allows me to avoid the paywalls. While using Google Scholar will not help you avoid the paywalls, some articles are free, so all you have to do is download them and save them to your reference management system. Don’t have a reference management system? That’s Step 2!
Step 2: Download a free reference management system
A reference management system is an application for your computer that lets you save, read, and annotate research articles from scholarly journals. Articles mostly come in the form of PDFs, so the main advantage of a reference management system over your typical PDF reader is the ease at which you can manage the citations for each file and integrate them into a bibliography when you are writing a paper. I use Mendeley for my reference management system, but other options include Refworks, Zotero, and Endnote. For more on Mendeley and other research tools, I would check out this page my friend made. Once you’ve downloaded some articles, start organizing them into a folder system based on the topics and constructs in the research.
Step 3: Seek free access to research databases
So far, you have Google Scholar for downloading articles, and you have a reference management system on your computer for reading and storing articles. But the paywall ($$$) problem has yet to be solved.
The first place I would try is your local library. I’m from Tacoma, a mid-sized town in Washington State that cheeky people from Seattle make fun of. All you have to do as a library card holder of Tacoma Public Libraries is input your library ID into the right place on their website and you have access to quite a large range of research articles – no paywalls!
The second place I would look is at your school. Unbeknownst to many at my current school, we had been paying for a subscription to EBSCO Host for many years, a database which includes plenty of educational journals and articles for teachers to use to build their knowledge. If your school doesn’t have a research database subscription, it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
Step 4: Mine popular books for research
I started this post by saying that there are plenty of popular books out there that can help teachers understand the research, but that it really pays to dig into the research yourself to verify the substance of these authors’ claims. This is where bibliography mining comes in. If the book you’re reading is based on evidence, it will have a rich bibliography, often after each chapter. What I do is type the title of each of the peer-reviewed articles that are of interest to me into my research database (use Google Scholar if that’s all you have). When I find the article, I download the PDF, and save it to my reference management system, Mendeley, where I organize it into my developing filing system, and read it. This is such an efficient way to research because the article has just been summarized by the author of the book – they’ve done 95 percent of the work already – and now all I have to do quickly verify that the substance of the research was honored by checking it out myself.
Step 5: Start a research club/reading group
The final way you can move towards becoming a reader of educational research is to start or join a research reading group. This could be at your school or on social media, and they can be run much like a book club. Reading research articles with other educators is not only extremely enjoyable and professionally fulfilling, but it gives you access to the resources and recommendations of others. By leveraging strength in numbers, more possibilities become available to you. For example, asking your school to subscribe to a research database now looks a lot more appealing to the cash-strapped powers that be, and if you really want a paywalled article, simply e-mailing the author directly to ask for a PDF copy for your reading group is probably all you need to do.
Thanks for reading. As always, I received no financial support for any of the links that I provided in this post. These were just tips and recommendations that have helped me to become a reader of research. I hope you enjoyed it!
Zach Groshell @mrzachg