A closer look at efficacy within education

A closer look at efficacy within education

The word efficacy is normally associated with science – you design something to help people achieve a certain outcome. For instance, a scientific team might be tasked with designing a medicine to prevent headaches. Their first step is to conduct research into what will most...


The word efficacy is normally associated with science – you design something to help people achieve a certain outcome. For instance, a scientific team might be tasked with designing a medicine to prevent headaches. Their first step is to conduct research into what will most likely stop headaches and then to build the medicine based on this research. Once the medicine is being used in trials, they then conduct thorough investigations to make sure that it is actually preventing people from having headaches. 

It’s all about starting with the end point in mind.

It’s the same in education – you define the outcome you want learners to achieve (for example, you want learners to be motivated to learn, you want them to develop critical thinking skills, and/or you want them to master specific concepts). Then you figure out how to build the learning experience or product that will maximise the potential of all learners achieving these outcomes based on evidence. Finally, once learners are actually using the product or experiencing the learning in the way you designed, you ensure the product is actually working and helping them achieve these outcomes.

This is efficacy at work in education. 

Research insights to help teachers and learners

And that’s where I come in! Before joining Pearson, I was a primary school teacher. Now as Director in Pearson’s Efficacy & Learning Research team, my role is to take all the incredible research that my colleagues do on how to improve teaching and learning and translate it into insights that will help teachers and learners. 

Most of the Efficacy & Learning team at Pearson are researchers – specialists in either designing the best learning experiences or measuring that those learning experiences are actually helping learners achieve the best possible outcomes.

My role is to understand the issues that learners and educators are facing all over the world. I then find the best evidence from the research produced by my colleagues and share this with our customers so that we can help solve the problems they’re facing.

An example: sharing what we know works in digital learning

A topic on everyone’s minds at the moment is how to quickly and effectively transition to digital learning. When schools are being forced to close their doors, this is oftentimes the only option. If a teacher is not used to teaching online or even using digital in their classroom, this can be completely overwhelming.

So at Pearson, we are doing our best to share what we know works in digital learning. For example, Beyond the hype: digital learning based on learning science is one of many resources we’ve provided to support schools and teachers transition to digital teaching and learning. There are some really interesting evidence-based tips in it such as this one:

When searching for digital resources, make sure they align with the key principles of learning, i.e. that they:

  • focus on clearly defined knowledge and skills (e.g. have learning objectives and minimise distractions)
  • construct meaning and demonstrate relevance (e.g. move beyond passive learning)
  • provide timely, actionable feedback (e.g. description of how to improve)
  • align with how memory works (e.g. avoid cognitive overload).

What other topics do teachers and learners care about?

Globally, learners are united in worrying that they will not be able to find well-paid, fulfilling jobs after education. They want to develop not only the knowledge, but also the skills that will help them become employed; skills like critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. This is why Pearson has done a lot of research into the skills that make us employable, and we use this research to develop our resources.

Another important area of research is staff and student wellbeing. Teachers are under immense pressure to ensure their students achieve at a certain standard academically, which can be at odds with having a well-balanced curriculum and fostering a positive, creative learning experience. On top of this, it’s also essential that teachers look after the students’ overall wellbeing. How can teachers be expected to do all of this? Again, this is why Pearson has done a lot of research into staff and pupil wellbeing.

There are many more topics that come to mind, but these are certainly two of the top issues teachers and learners all around the world tell us they’re worrying about.

Using research to help with decision making 

Of course looking for research will never be the top priority for educators, but if there’s a big decision you’re facing or a problem you must solve, I’d encourage you to think first about your ideal outcome. For example, if you’re struggling with the amount of time you spend every day grading and planning, think about what your ideal situation would be. Then conduct research into what you could do to achieve this ‘ideal’, taking in a range of research and sources. You could look at some respected publications to see what research has been done into this topic, or skim through reputable teacher blogs to see what other teachers are doing, and/or read articles by well-known educators sharing their recommended approaches. 

And of course, if you’re talking to an education company (like Pearson), make sure they are backing up the claims they’re making. If they’re telling you that one of their resources will make your life easier, ask them to give you some examples.

And finally

Education is a high-stakes sector, not unlike medicine. I’m a mom and I know the education my two boys receive is important to the paths their lives take. The decisions we make every day in the Efficacy and Learning Research team at Pearson impact lives, so it’s important that we make the right ones.  

If there is any research you feel is needed to help you make better decisions for your teaching or your learners, please get in touch either with your local Pearson consultant or with me directly at rebecca.spanos@pearson.com.

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