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Dr Drew Miller explains what Randomised Control Trials involve and how they can benefit both the school and educational research communities.    

Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) are a widely-used research design where the results obtained are able to indicate whether an intervention has made an impact. Dr Drew Miller from the University of Newcastle explains how they can benefit schools and researchers.

What is an RCT?

It is the standard definition given to a study in which some form of intervention (e.g. a professional development program) is evaluated against some other form of practice which is defined as a control condition (e.g. another common PD practice that is widely used). The idea, with the examples used, is to ascertain if the new practice produces more effective results than the common practice currently in place for some key measure (e.g. student performance or some form of teaching practice we consider to be important).

What are the benefits of RCTs in schools for the research community?

Well-designed RCTs that are run as part of a broader scheme of research offer persuasive evidence and opportunities for program refinement. Evidence from an RCT is persuasive because the program being tested doesn’t just have to demonstrate a change in outcomes, but a change relative to the outcomes currently being achieved. This means for some key measure, the program designers are able to say it is worth the change, and those looking to use the program can make judgements as to whether it is worth changing based on the outcomes in relation to other aspects (e.g. need to retrain, costs, time). The RCT process, especially mixed-method trials in real world settings (effectiveness trials) offer great insight into how programs can be delivered more effectively within schools. This means that programs, and/or the way they are implemented in schools, can be modified to ensure that the best possible results are obtained if a program is going to be scaled up across a group of schools, or across a state system, for example. 

What are the benefits for schools?

For schools, it becomes about being able to make decisions based on evidence of high quality. RCTs are not the be-all and end-all of evidence, as the broader consequences of interventions or practices within complex social environments cannot be distilled into the effect size of a single primary outcome, and schools still need to consider a broad range of evidence. However, much decision making in education has been made on cross-sectional evidence (e.g. higher levels of some teaching practice are associated with higher academic achievement). Associations of this nature often don’t hold up when interventions to try and increase these teaching behaviours are tested using experimental research involving control conditions.

Schools having access to (RCT evidence) enables them to make clearer decisions about how they will spend their money and time creating environments in which children can better achieve a range of outcomes that are valued by the school community.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit www.teachermagazine.com.au.