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Journey Toward Excellence
A Systemic Change Effort in the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township
Indianapolis, Indiana
Facilitated by Indiana University


Formative research is a research method that holds much promise for generating the kind of knowledge that is most useful to educators-guidelines for practice, which help us decide how best to accomplish our goals, as opposed to descriptive knowledge, which helps us understand "what is." Formative research is a kind of developmental research or action research that is intended to improve guidance for educational practices.

Formative evaluation (sometimes called field testing or usability testing) is a methodology for improving educational practices. It entails asking such questions as "What is working?", "What needs to be improved?", and "How can it be improved?". Using it as the basis for developmental or "action" research for improving guidelines for educational practices is a natural evolution from its use to improve particular educational practices. Educational practices include such diverse areas as teaching, curriculum development, counseling, administration, finance, and governance.

The underlying logic of formative research is that, if you create an accurate application of guidelines, then any weaknesses that are found in the application may reflect weaknesses in the guidelines, and any improvements identified for the application may reflect ways to improve the guidelines, at least for some subset of the situations for which the guidelines were intended. There are notable similarities to the logic of experimental design, in which one creates an instance of each parameter of an independent variable, one collects data on the instances, and one generalizes back to the independent-variable concepts. Replication with diverse students, content, and settings is necessary in both cases. However, for formative research the guiding questions are, "What methods worked well?" "What did not work well?" and "What improvements can be made to the theory?"

In the formative research methodology, an instance (or application) of some guidelines is created or identified. The design instance is based as exclusively as possible on the guidelines. For example, a course might be developed based solely on a set of instructional guidelines, using as little intuition as possible. The application (the course in this case) is then formatively evaluated using one-to-one, small-group, and/or field-trial formative evaluation techniques. The data are analyzed for ways to improve the course, and generalizations are hypothesized for improving the set of guidelines.
For more information about the formative research methodology, see:

  Reigeluth, C.M., & Frick, T.W. (1999). Formative research: A methodology for improving design theories. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. (Volume II). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

Follow this link to read a chapter from Formative research: A methodology for improving design theories (94 kb .pdf)

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©2006 by Charles Reigeluth
Last updated: June 21, 2006
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