The Use and Misuse of Language in Educational Research.doc

The Use and Misuse of Language in Educational Research.doc...

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The Use and Misuse of Language in Educational Research An Essay Stephen D. Lapan MaryLynn T. Quartaroli Northern Arizona University October 23, 2005 In the field of educational research as with other areas of investigation, there is a distinct advantage in using technical language, conveying essentially the same meaning to those listening. In many instances, the language of education does not reach this level of specificity. Terms such as “cooperative learning” or “team teaching,” for example, can be defined in so many ways that understanding is difficult unless the terminology is laden with specific operational definitions, definitions that might change depending upon the source. While complete agreement about terms in educational research cannot be guaranteed, the use of more precise language increases the likelihood of consistent comprehension. At least within a given context, terms such as “statistical significance” or “predictive validity” have specific definitions that convey explicit meanings. While the use of technical language makes a powerful contribution to both learning and communication, debate continues about some terminology. This is particularly the case in the use of the words “qualitative” and “quantitative” to mean research informed by interpretive (as well as critical theoretical) or traditional positivist paradigms, respectively. Experienced researchers too often use these terms as a shorthand proxy for more complex notions of methodology, or possibly to depict an entire way of thinking about truth (philosophical lens or paradigm). Even if these old hands know what they mean, it remains problematic whether or not others comprehend the complex nature of research communicated using these words. Educational Research From The Ground Up The goal of most research is to find the answer to some question and translate that answer into findings or reports that may lead to practical decisions of one kind or another. Not all research sets out to do this, especially theoretical studies that more often attempt to inform thinking, encourage discourse, and further the quest for broader or more refined understanding. In the case of applied research, though, the expectation is to find some useful, practical result. Findings from these kinds of studies might be presented in the form of words and/or numbers. Numbers are usually presented using descriptive or inferential statistics: descriptive to summarize large data sets as in means and standard deviations , such as those obtained from ordinal scales on questionnaires; and, inferential when statistical 1
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findings from samples are used to predict to larger presumably similar populations. Inferential statistics are derived from formulas that produce numerical statements and are in turn translated into statements of probability (e.g., significant beyond the .05 or .01 level).
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