Question: What is a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) Dissertation in Practice (DiP) and what does it entail? What research approaches does an EdD Dissertation in Practice use?
Answer: An EdD Dissertation in Practice features impact-focused research, with the goal of using scholarly inquiry to improve problems of practice in real academic and/or professional settings. Unlike traditional dissertations which may focus more on investigating and analyzing a problem or phenomena within education with the intent of broadening or deepening scholarly literature on said phenomena, the goal of a DiP is to directly change practice. As a result, many DiPs use applied research approaches, such as action research, improvement science, and evaluation. On the other hand, traditional dissertations may use methods such as appreciative inquiry, case study, ethnography, or grounded theory.
As a practitioner’s doctorate, the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) prepares educators to enact concrete changes in their place of work to improve education outcomes, using scholarly inquiry and rigorous research methodologies to identify, examine, and address barriers to success within their spheres of influence. The Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED), an organization that is dedicated to distinguishing the Ed.D. as a practice doctorate (as opposed to a Ph.D. in Education), advocates for the Dissertation in Practice (DiP), which is a scholarly research project that aims to identify and solve a concrete problem that the Ed.D. student has encountered in their place of work.
While many DiPs still take the form of a standard five-chapter dissertation, others may not follow this format. Depending on the Ed.D. program, students may be able to format their dissertation in a way that aligns better with the problem they are trying to solve. For example, a practitioner may want to incorporate a training module, alternative lesson plan, or other concrete deliverable into their DiP, along with collected data on and discussion of the impact of this deliverable and where the practitioner wishes to take their efforts in the future. Some Ed.D. programs allow or even encourage students to complete a group dissertation to collaboratively tackle a larger problem of practice; in such cases, students may submit a joint DiP or write their own DiP on their findings from the collaborative project. CPED emphasizes that the DiP is a continually evolving form of practitioner research and action, and as such it should have the flexibility to adapt to the changing needs and concerns of students and educators.
For the DiP, there are three primary scholarly approaches that focus on direct change and improvement of problems of practice: action research, improvement science, and evaluation. Below is an in-depth exploration of each of these approaches and their utility for educators and scholar-practitioners.
Applied Research Approaches
In their work to differentiate the Ed.D. from the Ph.D. in Education, CPED established a CPED Improvement Group (CIG) devoted to discussing and defining new research methods and paradigms specifically for Dissertations in Practice. According to CPED, a Dissertation in Practice should advance knowledge in the practitioner’s field of work, while also directly addressing a complex problem of practice. In contrast, a traditional dissertation such as the ones written in Ph.D. programs seek to expand the scholarly literature on a particular topic through methodologies that are more observational in nature and less oriented around enacting change in one’s place of work.
Action research, improvement science, and evaluation are three applied research approaches that CPED advocates for, as they are geared towards enacting change directly in one’s place of employment. While the CPED favors these approaches for EdD DiPs, it is important to note that not all EdD programs (even those that are members of the CPED consortium) or EdD students use one of these approaches for their dissertation. There are a number of traditional research approaches such as appreciative inquiry, case study, ethnography, grounded theory, etc. that students might use. However, this FAQ focuses on applied approaches that connect research insights to directly facilitating educational improvements.
Action research involves directly investigating and attempting to solve problems in one’s professional practice. It is a highly student-focused research approach wherein scholar-practitioners identify an area of concern or interest, evaluate its effects on their target population – whether that is a classroom of students, a team of fellow educators, or a department within an organization – and then develop and test potential solutions or optimizations that can help their target population. Action research is inherently iterative in that practitioners design and implement initiatives and then evaluate the efficacy of those initiatives as part of their research process. In doing so, action research combines action with scholarly inquiry, enabling educators to conduct rigorous studies that directly impact their work environment, while also providing strong evidence-based best practices for educators and leaders in other contexts.
Examples of actions research might include developing an interactive reading proficiency program that incorporates education technology into the classroom, and gathering qualitative and quantitative data on the impact of this program on student learning outcomes. Another example could be the design and subsequent assessment of a professional development program for teachers that provides certification opportunities or training on important topics such as supporting students with special needs or addressing systemic discrimination in the school system.
Improvement science is similar to action research in that it is focused on identifying and addressing real problems in one’s work environment. However, improvement science is more iterative in nature, involving rapid cycles of solutions development, implementation, and evaluation. It is a systems-oriented approach wherein practitioners implement small changes and evaluate the efficacy and overall impact of these changes in a continuous way. Enacting this cycle repeatedly allows educators to better understand the systems of learning that their students encounter, the challenges students face, and the optimal processes to achieve reform.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, one of the key components of improvement science is the “Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) inquiry cycle.” The PDSA cycle empowers educators to design and enact changes in their educational setting, record their observations of the results, and continually revise their implemented changes in order to work towards their goals for the population they wish to help. Improvement science is characterized by small-scale experiments or tests so that educators can move quickly. Rather than implementing a large project once and evaluating the results, improvement science breaks up the process into smaller cycles of change, observation, analysis, and further change.
An example of improvement science includes coordinating a writing skills development program for students wherein teachers continually assess students’ progress and use this data to further tailor lessons and activities to students’ needs. Another example could be testing a teacher support program where teachers get access to mentors and advisors and continually complete qualitative surveys on how this mentorship helps and how their needs evolve over time.
Evaluation research is a form of systematic inquiry that seeks to determine the feasibility, efficacy, and overall impact of a particular program, practice, and/or policy. It can be conducted prior, during, and after the implementation of an initiative, and plays an important role in helping practitioners determine whether a program should be enacted, continued, modified, or discontinued. Evaluation research incorporates both qualitative and quantitative methodologies, such as surveys, interviews, assessment scores, statistical modeling, and direct observation, and is used in the social, medical, and behavioral sciences, as well as in the education space. For example, in the medical field evaluation is used to assess the effectiveness of particular smoking cessation programs, STD prevention initiatives, and similar efforts.
In education, evaluation research is used to determine whether certain academic programs are returning on their required investments in terms of time and budget. Simply put, evaluation helps education leaders and stakeholders decide: 1) if a program is worth implementing, 2) the populations this program affects, and in what ways, and 3) what is working and not working for a program that has been implemented. Examples of evaluation research include student surveys asking about the aspects of learning that challenge them the most, teacher interviews to identify pain points with a particular education program or initiative, and analysis of standardized test scores to determine the efficacy of a math or reading proficiency program. Gathering and analyzing this relevant data empowers practitioners to then design or modify their educational programming to better serve their students and/or colleagues.
For more information on dissertations in practice and the kinds of research approaches and methodologies they use, please refer to our Ed.D. Dissertation Interview Series as well as our CPED Ed.D. Innovation Interview Series.
- Evolution of the Dissertation in Practice, Impacting Education, Journal on Transforming Professional Practice
- EdD Research Guide: Improvement Science, University of Pittsburgh
- Evaluation Research: An Overview, ScienceDirect
- Introduction to Improvement Science, Regional Educational Laboratory Program
- What is Action Research, Scribbr