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Evidence-based education simply refers to pedagogical methods which have scientific evidence supporting there efficacy. However, this term can be more easily misinterpreted than it would seem. When we look at education studies, often times, there will be multiple studies on the same topic with vastly different results. This same problem does not only exist within the field of education research but many other fields, such as nutrition. Most people will have likely heard something to the effect of one study says eggs are good for you; one study says eggs are bad for you. Who knows what the truth is? We hear the same type of arguments play out in education all the time. However, as Dr. Mike Isratel points out, it is not what any one specific study tells us that creates the scientific consensus of the literature. If we have ten studies showing us that Student Driven Learning promotes greater success in the classroom and thirty five studies showing that it does not, we could argue that the evidence supporting Student Driven Learning is much weaker. This is why quantitative Meta-Studies are the gold standard of evidence for efficacy, because they take the results of all studies on a subject and average out the results to create a much larger sample size. 

The Importance of Comparative Quantitative Evidence in Education

While one meta study might tell us whether or not a pedagogical factor or method is effective, that information is almost useless without context. As Dr. Mike Zuros once pointed out, a single study does not show us if something is optimal, but rather whether one specific strategy is better than another specific strategy. In fact, a study could show us one strategy works better than another, but that strategy could still be the second worst strategy in existence. Within the field of education, most studies do not compare specific contrasting educational strategies, but rather one strategy to no strategy, and, as John Hattie points out, these studies almost always show a positive impact for the strategy group, with an average effect size of .40 (or a moderate increase in learning). This is why meta-studies like John Hattie’s are so incredibly valuable to the evidence-based education movement. His study looks at all meta studies on hundreds of educational factors, averages out their results, and then compares their impact size. This allows us to see which educational factors create the biggest increases in student learning and which educational factors create the smallest increases in student learning. 

The Limitation of Meta Studies

Despite their usefulness, meta studies do not tell us why a teaching method works, only whether or not a teaching method does work. Qualitative research can add much needed context for understanding the validity of a teaching methodology.  For example, John Hattie’s quantitative research shows us that Direct Instruction is a far more powerful tool than Inquiry Based Learning for promoting student learning. However, this data does not mean that we should never use Inquiry Based Learning. Qualitative research shows that both Direct Instruction and Inquiry Based Learning require different important learning skills. Direct Instruction implicitly teaches students how to sit still, listen,  and absorb information. Inquiry Based Learning implicitly teaches students how to learn independently.  Both skills are important and need to be developed. Furthermore, qualitative research shows us that Direct Instruction is better at teaching students important facts and processes while Inquiry Based Learning is better at making students more capable of learning independently. Realistically, this difference is about specificity, the methods we use to teach implicitly impact the skills students develop. Both Inquiry Based Learning and Direct Instruction are necessary components of a balanced teaching approach. If we just rely on meta studies alone, we can miss important evidence for improving the field of education. Ultimately, as evidence-based practitioners, we should be using both qualitative and quantitative evidence. 

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Written by: Nate Joseph

Last Edited: 6/14/2019


J, Hattie. (2018). Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Visible Learning. Retrieved from <> .

Lazonder, Ard W and R Hamesen. (2018).  “Meta-Analysis of Inquiry Based Learning.” Review of Education Research. 86.3

S Freisen. (2013). Inquiry-Based Learning: A review of Research Literature. Galileo Education Network, University of Calgary. Retrieved from <>.

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