The Power of Evidence-Based Problem-Solving to Improve Student Outcomes

Educators serve many roles within schools, and that includes supporting student well-being.

Luckily, there are many resources available to help educators in this area. Organizations like Character Lab, which ERB partnered with to develop the Check-In Survey on student well-being, exist to connect educators with research to inform their decision-making and advance scientific insights that help students thrive in the school community. (While Character Lab will sunset this summer, its resources will remain available, and the team will help guide educators to other supports.)

We spoke with Dave Hersh, CEO of Character Lab, about how educators can take an evidenced-based approach to improving student outcomes. Historically, Hersh says, the traditional “research-to-practice pipeline” has served as the educator’s problem-solving model: a group of researchers generates insights, another group translates those insights into practices, and then these practices are passed off to practitioners who implement them in schools and classrooms. 

“The field is now more focused on trying to create a closed loop where insights are systematically informing potential solutions to problems identified by practitioners—a virtuous cycle where the raw insights are constantly being used and tested and then generating further information for the researcher to analyze,” Hersh says. 

5 Steps for Evidence-Based Problem-Solving as an Educator

Hersh recommends educators use the five steps below to collect evidence for problem-solving and ultimately improving student outcomes.

1. Name the challenge.

It may seem obvious, but the first step in problem-solving using an evidence-based approach is to identify the problem. If you ask an educator, “What is the biggest problem you are facing in your classroom?” you should get some useful answers. The key here is to engage stakeholders in a process designed to prioritize and clarify the problem you will try to address. Everyone must be on the same page. While most recognize this, it’s very common to move too quickly through this stage.

As an example of a challenge, Hersh points to a school facing chronic absenteeism—students simply aren’t coming to class enough. As simple as this statement sounds, it is likely not specific enough to support problem-solving. Some team members might interpret this statement as referring to all chronically absent students. Others might think specifically of high school students. And others might assume the challenge that needs to be addressed includes the students with the most absences.

A good problem statement requires no guessing.

It contains:

  • A well-defined population
  • A well-defined outcome
  • A data point that represents the problem with the outcome
  • No inferences

Thus, “The ninth-grade chronic absence rate is 37%” is a much better starting point than “A lot of students miss too much school because of transportation.” Once you have settled on a solid problem statement, the next step is to do further digging; it’s almost impossible to go straight from identifying the problem to finding the perfect solution.

2. Generate hypotheses about the causes of the challenge.

Once you’ve identified the problem, the next step is to determine what’s causing the problem. When it comes to student well-being at school, there can be many factors at play, such as a lack of academic engagement or low emotional well-being in the classroom. Tools like Character Lab’s Thriving Index can be used to determine how students are feeling at school, which helps lead educators to the source of a problem, but the best way to understand a problem is to engage stakeholders directly. They are the experts in their experience.

Returning to Hersh’s example of chronic absenteeism, educators might ask: “Why aren’t students coming to school?” Gathering data – whether through a survey tool or simply via conversations with students or other means – helps educators generate strong hypotheses. If students are self-reporting a low sense of belonging at school, that could be why they aren’t coming to class, which can form the basis of your hypothesis.

“The field is now more focused on trying to create a closed loop where insights are systematically informing potential solutions to problems identified by practitioners.”

Dave Hersh, CEO, Character Lab

3. Form a hypothesis about what might address the challenge.

So you have gathered evidence and can make an educated guess about what’s causing the problem you have identified. Maybe you found that absenteeism is possibly due to students not experiencing a sense of belonging in the classroom. Educators can hypothesize that improving students’ sense of belonging will decrease the rate of absenteeism. 

This evidence-based approach helps narrow your focus: rather than looking for solutions to absenteeism in general,  educators can look to existing research and science around student belonging for inspiration, including Character Lab’s research-based tips.

For example, there is evidence that students who feel that they have commonalities with their teachers and peers will be more motivated to participate in class. In 2016, researchers at the Journal of Educational Psychology administered a survey to a group of ninth-grade teachers and students, asking simple questions about their interests, such as “What’s your favorite sport?”, to identify commonalities between the two groups. The researchers grouped common answers and showed the teachers and students what they had in common.

When students learned that they had these simple, small commonalities with their teachers, they felt a greater connection, and their grades subsequently improved! While one intervention will not fit every scenario, this is promising evidence that an improved sense of belonging can improve student outcomes.

4. Conduct a pilot.

Note that if a solution works in one situation, it won’t necessarily work in all situations, no matter how similar. Educators always need to consider how their school environment combined with solid evidence will impact outcomes, and piloting a solution—delivering a smaller-scale version of the solution before rolling it out to everyone—is the safest way to learn about how an intervention will be experienced in a particular context.

Throughout this process, it’s important to collect as much evidence as possible. This includes collecting data on the outcomes your proposed solution is designed to improve along with data about individual experiences with the intervention and its implementation. Data can be both quantitative (such as attendance rates and self-reported measures of belonging) and qualitative (such as interviews with teachers and students who were involved in the pilot).

From the pilot, you can decide whether to implement it at scale, tweak it, and try again, or drop it and devote the resources to another possible solution.

5. Continue iterating.

It’s called continuous improvement for a reason. There is no “last step” as the process is a cycle. Problem-solvers should continuously collect, analyze, and use information to refine how educators interact with students and solve student problems. Even successful interventions can be improved; they often need to be as implementation fidelity fades or effects otherwise taper off over time. Likewise, no one intervention is a panacea. Humans are complex. So are schools. Problem-solving needs to be continuous and agile to account for that.

ERB and Student Well-Being

This approach to evidence-based problem-solving as a cycle provides a systematic way for educators to tackle in-school problems while furthering their collective understanding of what makes students thrive. 

The Student Thriving Index, Character Lab’s tool to assess student social, emotional, academic, and physical well-being, is one example of how schools can gather evidence for determining the right approach to addressing student issues. ERB has a similar goal of assessing the factors that can impact student growth—including student well-being and belonging—which led us to partner with Character Lab to create our Check-In Survey in 2022. 

“We partner with folks like ERB who are positioned to take the content that we create, the content that scientists help us create, and ensure it gets in the hands of the people who can use it to help kids,” says Hersh. 

The Check-In Survey provides a quick and easy way to assess student well-being in just 15 questions. Thanks to this partnership, all Check-In Survey users also have access to Character Lab’s resources and playbooks. For both Character Lab and ERB, this is an opportunity to continue to get scientifically rigorous evidence that helps students thrive.

Learn more about how the ERB Check-In Survey enables schools to quickly evaluate student attitudes about their emotional well-being, academic engagement, and fairness and belonging in their school community

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