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The Role of Theory and Research in Practice

Learn about the interrelationships among theory, research, and practice and how these impact NATRI's activities. Obtain an explanation of the importance of conceptual models and their role in conducting assistive technology research and influencing assistive technology practices.

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Interrelationships among Theory, Research, and Practice

A major goal of the National Assistive Technology Research Institute (NATRI) is to conduct research and disseminate information that can be used to improve practices in the delivery of assistive technology services to students in our nation’s schools. The NATRI activities to meet this goal are predicated on the concept that there are strong interrelationships among theory, research and practice, as illustrated in the diagram that follows in Figure 1.

Figure 1 is a graphic with three circles, labeled theory, research, and practice. The theory and research circles are parallel and are connected by a double headed arrow. The practice circle is centered above the theory and research circles and is connected to each with double headed arrows. Explanation of the interrelationships follows in the narrative.

Figure 1. Model illustrating the relationships among theory, research, and practice.

In the simplest definition, theories are speculations and principles that can be used to explain or predict phenomena. Good special education teachers, for example, use techniques based upon theories of learning and theories of instruction when teaching their students.

A theory also can be used to generate hypotheses that can be tested by research. The results of such research may provide evidence that supports the theory, which, in turn strengthens the theory. On the other hand, research may produce results that causes the theory to be revised, or rejected. Thus, there is a strong interrelationship between theory and research, as illustrated by the double headed arrow between those two circles in Figure 1.

Considerable research is conducted in laboratory settings where researchers can exert control over the variables that they want to study. It is easier to manipulate variables in the psychology lab or educational clinic than it is in the classroom. However, it is critical that theories be tested in the classroom to see whether or not they work.

Theory and research, then, serve as the foundation for classroom practices. In return, the results of research conducted in labs and in classrooms can have an impact on the development and revision of theories of learning and instruction. Those relationships are illustrated by the double headed arrows linking the practice circle with the theory and research circles in Figure 1.

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An Example

Here is an example of that relationship. There is a theory that students progress through a series of stages when they learn:

  1. They learn new knowledge or skills during the acquisition stage of learning;
  2. After initial learning takes place, they move to the proficiency stage where they improve their speed or fluency in responding;
  3. In the generalization stage they apply what they have learned in other contexts;
  4. Retention and memory are addressed in the maintenance stage; and
  5. Adaptation of what they have learned to new circumstances occurs in the application stage (Haring, Lovitt, Eaton, & Hansen, 1978).

Let’s suppose that a special education teacher, Ima Wonder, is interested in applying the theory about stages of learning to the selection of computer software for instructing students in math. She selects tutorial software for her students who are in the acquisition stage of learning. She uses drill and practice software in the proficiency stage. Educational games are used as her students move into the generalization stage. She applies testing software in the maintenance stage; and problem solving software is used in the application stage.

If Ms. Wonder’s students perform successfully at each stage, she has obtained data that support the theory about stages of learning. She also develops stronger faith in the validity of the theory and is more likely to apply it again when teaching math and the other subjects that she teaches.

Additionally, the application of theory can reduce the possibility of making incorrect instructional decisions. For example, one of the most frequent mistakes teachers make when integrating computer software into the curriculum is to use inappropriate software for the stage of learning of their students. The biggest culprit is the use of drill and practice, instead of tutorial, software when the student is in the early acquisition stage of learning. Attention to theories of learning and theories of instruction can help to reduce such errors and result in more effective instruction.

The above example is an illustration of an action research project. Teachers are encouraged to conduct such research within their classrooms because they can contribute to the evaluation of theories and provide data that can support their instructional efforts.

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The Role of Conceptual Models

Sometimes, theories are used to generate conceptual models, which are often represented as graphical figures that display variables and their interrelationships.Conceptual models have many practical implications for practitioners. Among these are the following:

  • Models can serve as the conceptual underpinning for a given set of activities.
  • They provide a graphic representation of the variables associated with the topic of interest and their interrelationships.
  • They facilitate communication among staff who use them and are helpful in communicating information about the topic of interest to others.
  • They can be used to identify elements of an activity that require evaluation.

Many of NATRI’s activities are based on conceptual models. You have just learned about the one illustrated in Figure 1 that serves as the general basis for our research activities.

You will learn about other models NATRI is using as additional reports are posted on this Web site. One of these models that is very important, both to our research and to assistive technology practice, is described in the report titled A Functional Approach to the Delivery of Assistive Technology Services, which appears on the Assistive Technology Report Menu. As you learn about the various models, reflect on the above points to see how they relate to the applications of concepts represented by the models that are guiding assistive technology research and practice.

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Implications and an Invitation

All of NATRI’s assistive technology research projects have strong theoretical bases that guide the planning, implementation, data analysis, and conclusions of the studies that are being conducted. In addition, conclusions will be drawn from the research that will have direct implications for revising existing theories or developing new ones. Of particular importance to practitioners is that interpretations also will be drawn from the NATRI research projects that will have direct implications for improving the delivery of assistive technology services.

Without the participation of assistive technology practitioners, important research cannot be conducted nor can theories be tested. Consequently, NATRI staff invite your participation in its research efforts. A number of opportunities to collaborate are described in the Participation and Interaction section of this Web site.

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Reference

Haring, N. G., Lovitt, T. C., Eaton, M. D., & Hansen, C. L. (1978). The fourth R: Research in the classroom. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

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Credits and Disclaimers

The Role of Theory and Research in Practice (© 2001) was prepared for the National Assistive Technology Research Institute by A. Edward Blackhurst, Professor Emeritus, Deparatment of Special Education and Rehabilitation Counseling, University of Kentucky. It may be duplicated and circulated for non-commercial purposed, provided this credit is included.

Support for the preparation of this report was provided by the University of Kentucky and the Research to Practice Division of the Office of Special Education Programs in the U. S. Department of Education under Cooperative Agreement #H327G000004 . The information and conclusions presented in this report do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the funding agencies.

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