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Design-Based Research

Sponsoring innovation in education

It is clear that creating knowledge that addresses learning, teaching and leadership issues and challenges cannot be addressed by laboratory research alone. Increasingly, educators are demanding that educational research addresses the theory-practice gap by producing knowledge that directly informs or arises from complex problems of practice. This article describes how design-based research – a collection of methodological principles and approaches to studying innovative educational interventions in complex, real-world settings – bridges the theory-practice gap.

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As the issues and problems that define contemporary education become increasingly complex, our collective need for new knowledge and innovative solutions for practice in diverse educational contexts increases. Yet classroom teachers and school leaders often struggle to see any meaningful connection between educational research conducted in universities and their real-world, complex and contextually rich experiences of teaching, learning and leading in schools.

It is clear that creating knowledge that addresses learning, teaching and leadership issues and challenges cannot be addressed by laboratory research alone. Increasingly, educators are demanding that educational research addresses the theory-practice gap by producing knowledge that directly informs or arises from complex problems of practice. This article describes how design-based research – a collection of methodological principles and approaches to studying innovative educational interventions in complex, real-world settings – bridges the theory-practice gap.

Design-based research (DBR) was developed by educators as a response to the gap between basic and applied research practices,1 and to the lack of meaningful impact of educational research in educational systems. The reality is that innovation in education tends to be sporadic and discontinuous.2 The majority of experimental and correlational research in education fails to generate, sponsor or sustain innovation in practice. Sustained innovation is the goal of design-based research.

 What makes design-based research different?

Ann Brown pioneered design-based research with her rigorous real-life experiments in early childhood classrooms. As president of the American Educational Research Association, Brown3 argued that research on learning should be undertaken in real classrooms with real students and real teachers who are provided with technology and professional learning support. In the past 25 years, Ann Brown’s methodological approaches have provided a foundation and paved the way for the development and spread of design-based research throughout academic disciplines.

Design-based research (DBR) and action research both fall within the diverse continuum of participatory educational research methodologies. These methodologies are informed by a theory of knowledge that holds that meaning emerges and is enacted through the co-participation of researchers, practitioners and participants in social, cultural and political contexts. DBR has its roots in educational technology research and is also related to design research approaches in engineering, computer science and architecture.

One principle that sets design-based research apart from other forms of educational research is the commitment of researchers to develop solutions to educational problems in collaboration with practitioners. Researchers and teachers collaboratively design research-informed learning experiences for students and then study the impact of these designs on learning. DBR is intentionally interventionist and researchers work closely with educators on understanding complex problems of practice, and on the collaborative design, development, implementation and evaluation of research-informed innovations in authentic learning contexts.4 Informed by theory and aiming to contribute to theory (as well as to educational innovation), DBR goes beyond merely developing and testing particular interventions.

Drawing upon contemporary learning theory, design-based researchers acknowledge that learning, cognition, and knowing are irreducibly co-constructed and cannot be treated as isolated entities or processes. Teachers matter. Learners matter. Context matters. Learning is understood to be a collective endeavor distributed across the knower, the environment and the activity in which the learner participates, rather than an entity located only within the individual thinker.5

Key principles that differentiate design-based research from other forms of participatory research, like action research, are:

  • the requirement for a well-defined problem with a research-informed design solution; 
  • the testing of theory in real-world contexts; and 
  • the contribution to theory and practice in addition to local impact.

How design-based research unfolds

McKenney and Reeves6 outline three phases to the design-based research process:

  1. analysis and exploration; 
  2. design and construction; 
  3. evaluation and reflection.

Analysis and exploration: The research team focuses on problem identification and diagnosis. In one study that a doctoral student and I am involved with, we engaged with classroom teachers to work collaboratively with them to solve a problem – in this case, the problem was low student engagement and the solution proposed was to engage students in the design of digital games.

Analysis included a review of the research literature on student engagement, situated learning and digital game-based learning to gain insights into the problem and identify what is known about solutions for increasing student engagement and sponsoring learning.

In the exploration phase, we collaborated with the practitioners in the school to better understand the educational problem to be addressed, the school and classroom context and the needs of stakeholders, such as teachers, learners, parents, community partners and school leaders. Part of the analysis stage includes the identification of short- and long-term goals for the design solution, such as student teams designing digital games as part of engaged learning experiences and the teachers developing new pedagogical practices and competencies.

Design and construction: The research team considers available knowledge about the problem and potential solutions in order to design the solution to be tested, as well as a coherent process for implementation and evaluation.

In response to the problem of low student engagement, the proposed design solution was to provide students with opportunities for discipline-based inquiry in technology-enabled learning environments – in this case, designing and building digital games. During the design and construction phase, we worked together to articulate the core ideas underpinning the design solution and develop guidelines for actually building the solution.

The construction phase takes the design idea and actually develops and begins to implement the solution, often through an iterative prototyping approach in the classroom with feedback cycles to continually refine and improve the solution. In the study example, the research team worked with the two teachers to develop a problem-based inquiry approach for students to design and build digital games within core academic subjects. Students were supported in forming design teams, choosing specific ideas and content for the games, learning design and storyboarding approaches, learning the software to develop the games, and in building the digital games in teams, as well as in developing and testing the digital games with student peers during the development stage.

Evaluation and reflection: In this stage, the research team gathers data about the impact of the innovation as it is implemented through iterative cycles of the design in order to determine local impact. The researchers and teachers work together to develop the data collection and analysis methods and timelines, both for evaluation and for the implementation. In our example, we worked with the teachers to identify the different phases of the project and to implement the digital game development with students during the school year. The outcomes and lessons learned during the project can inform a second cycle of implementation with students in subsequent semesters. The evaluation cycle began with the initial planning of the design solution, and carried through with each phase of the implementation. Multiple forms of data, including observations, surveys, interviews, and examples of student designs, prototypes and completed games, were collected during the project.

The evaluation cycle includes gathering data based on short- and long-term goals for the design solution, and uses the data to inform ongoing modifications and improvements of the design solution in practice. In our example, the research team used initial findings – on user experience, student engagement and effectiveness for learning – to provide feedback that informed daily and weekly teaching practices and plans. While data is used for summative reporting, DBR also uses data in a formative manner to inform the next steps in instruction, next steps in design and next steps in research. During this phase, the research team focused on impacting practice locally, and also on making contributions to theory more broadly through publication and knowledge mobilization. With regards to building digital games, the evidence sought to demonstrate changes in student engagement, as the students built and tested their digital games, as well as to produce reliable knowledge that contributes to theory on student engagement and situated learning in technology-enabled learning environments more broadly.

In some design research projects, the aspiration may be to achieve large-scale implementation of an educational innovation across a school, a school jurisdiction or a province. In many design-based research projects, the goal is to develop design propositions or theories that can inform the development of innovative interventions by others.

Design-based research arose out of the need for educational research to better meet the needs of educators, to impact practice, to be intentionally interventionist, and to focus on interactions and their effect in real-world contexts. In contrast to case study research that focuses on “what is” in education, the best DBR is driven by a vision of “what can be.” Guided by a vision of yet-to-be-realized possibilities, DBR is characterized by emergent goals for learning – goals that arise and evolve in the iterative cycle of design and research that focuses on the continual improvement of learning in today’s classrooms, with real learners and with real teachers.


Design-based Research Principles

Design-based research:

  • Involves iterative cycles of design, enactment, analysis and redesign 
  • Involves disruptive, innovative design solutions and/or interventions in practice 
  • Relies on collaboration between researchers and participants in real-world contexts 
  • Aspires to solve real-world, complex learning problems by studying learning in complex, naturalistic settings 
  • Is oriented toward sustained educational innovation 
  • Focuses on continual improvement in the process of designing and adapting an innovation for learning 
  • Studies the interactions between learners, content, criteria and context 
  • Is informed by research and aims to inform research with sharable theories and design principles 
  • Utilizes multiple methodologies and mixed methods 
  • Uses data in both summative reporting and in a formative manner to inform the next steps in instruction, design and research 

EN BREF - La création de savoirs liés aux questions et défis d’apprentissage, d’enseignement et de leadership ne peut provenir uniquement de recherches en laboratoire. De plus en plus, les éducateurs exigent que la recherche en éducation aborde l’écart entre la théorie et la pratique et génère des connaissances éclairant des problèmes complexes de pratique ou en découlant. L’article décrit comment la recherche-design – un ensemble de principes et d’approches méthodologiques destiné àétudier les interventions dans des cadres réels complexes – comble l’écart entre la théorie et la pratique.

Photo: Courtesy Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

First published in Education Canada, November 2014 


1 While basic and applied research approaches are both important in education, each has a different purpose. The goal of basic research is to develop generalized knowledge and theory, often using experimental or correlational designs in controlled or “laboratory” settings. Applied research focuses on pragmatic needs and issues in education and is carried out in authentic “field” settings and contexts, often using mixed methods and qualitative designs.

2 C. Bereiter, “Design Research for Sustained Innovation,” Cognitive Studies, Bulletin of the Japanese Cognitive Science Society 9, no. 3 (2002): 321-327. http://ikit.org/fulltext/2002Design_Research.pdf

3 A. L. Brown, “Design Experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings,” The Journal of the Learning Sciences 2, no. 2 (1992): 141-178.

4 S. Barab, A. Arici and C. Jackson, “Eat Your Vegetables and Do Your Homework: A design-based investigation of enjoyment and meaning in learning,” Educational Technology 45, no. 1 (2005):15-21. http://sashabarab.com/publications.html

5 S. A. Barab and K. Squire, “Design-based Research: Putting a stake in the ground,” The Journal of the Learning Sciences 13, no. 1 (2004): 1–14.

6 S. McKenney and T. C. Reeves, Conducting Educational Design Research (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012).