Design-Based Research – A Vehicle for Pedagogic Change

‘The twin assumptions that all ‘theory’ is non-practical and all ‘practice’ is non-theoretical are, therefore, entirely misguided….. ‘Theories’ are not bodies of knowledge that can be generated out of a practical vacuum and teaching is not some kind of robot-like mechanical performance that is devoid of any theoretical reflection. Both are practical undertakings whose guiding theory consists of the reflective consciousness of their respective practitioners.’

Carr and Kemmis (1986, p.113)

This quote from Carr and Kemmis is one way of understanding the concept of ‘praxis’. Here they argue that any attempt to separate out theory and practice is doomed to failure; they see them as intimately related. In our practice we generate generalisations (or theories), and in developing our practice we draw, however generally, on theory. This quote comes from their book Becoming Critical: education, knowledge and action research which sets out a philosophical case for the use of action research.

This is a very useful starting point for the development of curricula, the development of resources or the embedding of technology in pedagogy, and is also one of the starting points for the use of design-based research (DBR). DBR is a relatively new, but rapidly expanding, approach to research and change (Anderson and Shattuck, 2012) and can be best described as a method which aims to improve practice through cycles of diagnosis/analysis, design, development and implementation. The method makes use of teachers and researchers working together to create learning designs which are context sensitive. The development of technological innovations is particularly prevalent in the use of DBR (Wang and Hannafin, 2005), but any project which focuses on developing a curriculum design (Plomp & Nieveen, 2007), or resources would be a great focus for using this approach.

The DBR cycle

The DBR cycle starts by identifying an issue, such as an area of learning, or a decision that the current approach/resource base in an area of the curriculum is old and outdated. Having decided on the problem/issue which the group faces, a proposal is developed which aims to solve the deficit or improve the area of interest. This can be developed through internal discussion within the group, but in good quality DBR should evolve from an engagement with relevant research literature so that there is a strong theoretical foundation to the planned design.

Having sketched out a proposal for development based on engagement with research and theory, the next stage is for the group to create a tentative design. This stage focuses on deciding the technology, resources or curriculum design which would help transform the area of interest. At this point, the group might sketch out loose ideas on paper, and discuss the outline of the proposed changes/developments. The principle here is to bring together the ideas learned from the research undertaken in the first stage and the group’s professional knowledge and creativity to develop a design.

Next, the group, or an associated researcher, create artefact(s), be this a scheme of work, a technologically based development such as a website, or activity resources. These artefacts are then used in a learning context, and their success is measured. This might be through the use of interviews or questionnaires with students to gain their perceptions of the design change, and/or it might be based on test scores or a consideration of the work students have produced. This stage is important as it is the ‘test’ of the utility and success of the designed intervention. The results are then used as a way of considering whether the design needs to be further developed, or whether the group can move on to another area of innovation.

As we begin to develop a new approach to a master’s degree by repositioning study skills and research methods to become a central component in student learning, there are a number of areas that we need to consider. What does research suggest is the best way of encouraging learning in:

–        Study skills

–        Research methods

But also approaches to independent student learning including exploration of:

–        Blended learning approaches

–        Problem-based learning

Ultimately, how can all of these elements be embedded in authentic and meaningful ways into the other modules of the master’s degree? One initial represent of a possible conceptual design is given below but will no doubt change (possibly quite radically) as we develop our thinking and dig deeper into relevant research.

DBR masters outline

The DBR will create a ‘meta-level’ framework for developing the curriculum, teaching and learning approaches and blended learning technologies. It will also allow us to identify elements of the framework which we wish to investigate through a number of smaller, more detailed evaluative and action research projects. At the end of the first year of the new course we can then bring these different projects together to act as an evaluation of the DBR framework. In addition, given the nature of the development, we might even be able to involve students in their own evaluative research about the course.


Anderson, T. & Shattuck, J. (2012) ‘Design-Based Research: A Decade of Progress in Education Research?’ Educational Researcher 41(1), 16-25.

Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical: education, knowledge and action research. Lewes, Falmer.

Plomp, T. & Nieveen, N. (2007) Introduction to educational design research. Proceedings of the seminar conducted at the East China Normal University, Shanghai (PR China), November 23-26, 2007

Wang, F. & Hannafin, M.J. (2005) ‘Design-Based Research and Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments.’  Educational Technology Research and Development 53(4), 5-23.


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