Research School Network: Using Research Evidence: Communicating Uncertainty How can we communicate the nuance of evidence, while still sign-posting helpful approaches?


Using Research Evidence: Communicating Uncertainty

How can we communicate the nuance of evidence, while still sign-posting helpful approaches?

by Bradford Research School
on the

Mark Miller is Director of Bradford Research School

One of the biggest challenges we have as a Research School is being authoritative on the evidence while acknowledging that it’s complicated. Trying to offer useful approaches, while being realistic about uncertainty.

Choosing and using language

Language choices can help to navigate this area. We do find the phrase best bets’ helpful to suggest that there are things that are more likely to be successful, while not being guarantees. And we can also use tentative language’ to support this. Here’s an example of this from the EEF’s Teaching and Learning toolkit:

When implementing homework, the evidence suggests a wide variation in impact. Therefore, schools should consider the ‘active’ ingredients to the approach, which may include...

We also noticed in the Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom evidence summary that the word​‘suggest’ is used 23 times,​‘may’ 46 times, and​‘might’ 41.​‘Must’ only appears 5 times. 

We don’t want uncertainty or ambiguity creeping in everywhere, so we can invest in getting our definitions clear. From metacognition to differentiation, knowledge organisers to feedback, there are as many different definitions as people reading this blog. Without clarity in how we define our terms, they are pretty much useless and potentially harmful. Think about ensuring clarity in defining the following:

  • Clearly defined concepts where there may now be misunderstanding or mutation
  • Concepts from research such as cognitive science
  • Concepts with a general sense but lack of agreed definition.

Digging deeper

The EEF’s Using Research Evidence Guide recommends the following approaches to engage with evidence.

  • Building a rich evidence picture
  • Look for variation in findings
  • Focus on the how as well as the what
  • Maintain criticality
  • Integrate research evidence with professional judgement

When we dig deeper, we explore the nuance a little more. We think it’s particularly important to do this for the EEF publications, such as guidance reports, that we often use or refer to. A good example might be something like this from the recently updated implementation guidance report:

Implementation Graphic

We know the process, expertise, rigour and challenge that has taken place before this graphic gets printed. We have the benefit of being able to ask the writers. We obviously have the context of the whole guidance report to read around this. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about the 444 page count!) there is a comprehensive review of the evidence from teams at Cardiff, Plymouth and Exeter Universities. We’ll read this and it will inform how we understand and talk about the graphic. We won’t always be able to do this, but we can always dig a little deeper and we will always be better informed as a result.

Narrating the journey from research to practice

Once we move from research into practice, we move further from the evidence. Sometimes we have to generalise from the research, or imagine what something looks like in our own context. If we only ever used evidence generated in our exact context, we would have very little to choose from.

Our approach when writing Working Memory: Research into Practice was to share the research evidence, then use this to outline broad principles in line with this evidence. We could then suggest concrete examples informed by the principles. We know that we cannot say that x approach will definitely work, but narrating the journey to that recommendation helps us to understand the steps to something more concrete when we cannot be certain.

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