BY: DON BUCHANAN

One of the major objectives of mobilizing knowledge is to make an explicit bridge between evidence and practice. At the Knowledge Network for Student Well-Being, one of our main tools for building that bridge are our “Research in Brief” knowledge summaries.

A Research in Brief is a one-page (front and back) summary of a recent systematic review. Systematic reviews are considered one of the strongest types of evidence, as they summarize the results of a number of other studies, usually randomized-control trials (RCTs).

There are a number of tools that can be used to measure the quality of a systematic review, but they all tend to look at similar characteristics, such as the search strategy used to identify trials, the quality of the trial design, and the applicability of the findings. We’ve found the validity tool– developed by HealthEvidence.org– to be helpful, and because they are appraising “public health” interventions, many of their evidence reviews are useful for improving student well-being.

One recent example is their review of a systematic review on the question Do Later School Start Times Benefit the Education, Health, and Well-Being of High School Students? The original systematic review was conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration, which is an international collaboration to produce systematic reviews of the highest quality. The folks at HealthEvidence.org rated the quality of this systematic review as “strong” (9 of 10 points), and we certainly felt it was an article of interest to summarize for educators.

bigstock Tired Student Sleeping In A Cl 197606461So what is our struggle with this? Despite the strong quality of the systematic review, the evidence that was the subject of the review is weak. In other words, we now know that we don’t have enough evidence to decide whether later school times might impact the education, health, and well-being of high-school students. You can take a look at our Research in Brief to learn more about why the reviewers felt the evidence was weak.

We’re not always sure what to do with results like this. For the front-line teacher or administrators who want an answer to their question about whether to adjust their school start times, this result is frustrating, and they may consider reading our Research in Brief a waste of their time. But it is still valuable to know that at this time there isn't enough evidence to support changing school times and there may be other areas where changes are more likely to have positive results.

The acknowledgement that we don’t have definite answers to some pretty big questions in our field should help us to reflect on what we don’t know, and question the strength of some of the “truths” that we accept. To quote the first-century philosopher Epictetus, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he already thinks he knows”.

Our decision has obviously been to share this systematic review through a Research in Brief. We now have more than 20 of these briefs in the KNAER Knowledge Hub, as well as the Ontario Education Research Exchange.

Not all systematic reviews come up with conclusive answers. Good systematic reviews provide enough detail about how they were conducted that other researchers can replicate the review 5, or 10, or 15 years later, as the evidence grows and changes in the field. We should probably stop talking about “best evidence” as though it is a fixed measure, and start talking about “the best evidence we have now”.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Don Buchanan is the Network Facilitator for the KNAER Knowledge Network for Student Well-Being. Before taking on this challenge, he was the Knowledge Translation Officer at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and the Knowledge Translation Officer at the McMaster Child Health Research Institute.