The use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in education research has increased over the last 15 years. However, the use of RCTs has also been subject to criticism, with four key criticisms being that it is not possible to carry out RCTs in education; the research design of RCTs ignores context and experience; RCTs tend to generate simplistic universal laws of “cause and effect”; and that they are descriptive and contribute little to theory.
To assess these four key criticisms, Paul Connolly and colleagues conducted a systematic review of RCTs in education research between 1980 and 2016 in order to consider the evidence in relation to the use of RCTs in education practice.
The systematic review found that:
- A total of 1,017 RCTs completed and reported between 1980 and 2016, of which just over three-quarters (78.6%) have been produced in the last 10 years.
- Just over half of all RCTs (53.4%) were conducted in North America and just under a third in Europe (29.3%).
- A little under half of the interventions (43.2%) focused on improving students’ physical health and well-being, as well as behavior and social well-being
This finding addresses the first criticism, and demonstrates that, overall, it is possible to conduct RCTs in education research.
While the researchers also find evidence to oppose the other key criticisms, the review suggests that some progress remains to be made. The article concludes by outlining some key challenges for researchers undertaking RCTs in education.
Source: Connolly, P., Keenan, C., & Urbanska, K. (2018). The trials of evidence-based practice in education: A systematic review of randomised controlled trials in education research 1980–2016. Educational Research. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/00131881.2018.1493353