Evidence into policy: are we any closer?


The journey that research takes before it is noticed and converted into policy and practice always seems to be long and difficult; for higher education focussed research it seems even more tortuous. If for example, we take a concept like active learning, on which there are countless publications demonstrating its successful application and beneficial outcomes on learning, we could not help but be struck by the extent to which this concept and practice has failed to penetrate higher education policy and practice. We still for instance, build most of our classrooms as temples to didactic teaching.

This edition of BeJLT contains a range of articles representing contributions to the 2014 UK and Ireland Higher Education Institutional Research network conference held at Oxford Brookes. These articles characterise much of current institutional research. It spans from work describing methodologies to work challenging institutional research to move on. The articles range from those that showcase small-scale studies of classroom practice to those examining how subjects exist.

The work of van der Sluis and May, which examines whether an institution-wide policy has had an impact on pedagogic practice and student engagement, is important, particularly to help determine contextual constraints on the application of pedagogic theory.

At the other end of the scale, Ridley looks at teaching practice and the impact on student learning when practice is changed. Small scale studies such have this have proliferated, particularly since the advent of postgraduate certificates in HE learning and teaching which have encouraged more rigorous examination of what tutors do. We should take care that such studies do not divert research attention into the continuous testing of what we already know. Yet such studies do have a part to play, particularly as we start to consider applying the methodology of systematic review to collections of such studies, thus it is important that they are published.

In Pavlechko et al’s study we can see a particular and specific intervention being tested across a range of subjects and tutors. This study also highlights the emergence of standardised testing tools, in relation to the learning environment and its influence on both staff and learners.

Currant’s research represents an example of an in-depth descriptive study, providing insight into the complex and diverse experiences of Black Minority and Ethnic students. Such studies remind us that institutional context is vital in trying to unravel how the environments we help create generate particular learning behaviours and emotions within our student bodies. The question of course is how do institutions use these data to generate effective policy?

Brown and Jones challenge policy makers, HE researchers and institutional researchers to become better informed by each other. Their call suggests that HE researchers should work to foresee the needs of policy makers more, and that policy makers should need to use the evidence base better. Certainly the fact that recently the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) feels the need to launch its own research projects when it is formulating policy indicates that there is credibility in Brown and Jones’s argument.   There are however signs that institutional research is maturing: Freeman et al. (2014) recently published a systematic review of active learning; their study based on the many small studies that have gone before them. The systematic review is seen as highly credible evidence by policy makers in many areas and this approach should give greater traction on policy than hitherto.

Institutional research should also look to the national approach to enhancement used in Scottish Higher Education. Whilst imperfect, the Scottish Equality Enhancement Framework (SEEF) has a clear emphasis on evidence and its use to enhance and develop policy.


Freeman, S. Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M. Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H. and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America111 (23)   8410–8415, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111.

Ian Scott

I am currently Associate Dean for Student Experience in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at Oxford Brookes University. I have worked in Higher Education for over 25 years and have embraced research, teaching, management and leadership. My education research work has a focus on experiential learning and I have an interest in the relationship between evidence and policy formation. I was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2011.

Posted in Editorial

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