Understanding School Engagement in Research (USER) Project

Understanding School Engagement in Research: adding rigour to a hunch.


‘Effective schools keep up with developments in research and professional knowledge’ (Australian Council for Educational Research, The ACER Professional Community Framework).


That’s sometimes the way, isn’t it? We think we know something to be true based on anecdotal feedback or a ‘hunch’, but we do not often test our hunches with any real rigour.


Our problem was that, every month, schools were getting research requests and applications from universities all over Australia. This added up to hundreds of research engagements per year.


Apart from some ad hoc comments from school leaders, we had little idea what responses the researchers were getting from our schools. We realised it was necessary to ask schools what determined their decision to accept or decline research requests.


This led to what is now known as the Understanding School Engagement in Research (USER) project, which aimed to better understand how schools engage:

  • in academic research projects
  • with academic research evidence


The USER project involved 67 Melbourne Catholic schools in a quantitative and qualitative online survey, as well as focus groups and semi-structured interviews (refer to the USER Project Summary for high-level findings).


The results went beyond confirming our hunch. Many of our schools said ‘no’ to research requests from universities, with one ‘yes’ for every five requests at best.


Disappointingly, we also discovered that schools participating in university research often did not receive the results.


So what was the missing link between researchers and schools?


Our schools are encouraged to engage with research findings and to be ‘evidence-informed’. But whether and how these recommendations are followed were simply not well understood.


We then conducted further research in partnership with Monash University and our findings, as presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, were:

  • schools only value research that’s relevant and applicable to their needs and concerns
  • researchers need to appreciate school context and follow up with their findings
  • schools should be enabled to translate those findings into practice.


The USER project was also re-analysed from the perspective of a wider literature review. This resulted in the identification of five themes:

  • Schools are selective about their research involvement.
  • Schools are discerning about what the research is on and how it is conducted.
  • Schools access research in indirect and informal ways.
  • Schools value research more than they use it.
  • Schools need much more than access to research evidence.


These themes are expanded on in the Understanding School Engagement in and with Research report.


There was such interest in the USER project findings that Catholic Education Melbourne brought school leaders and researchers together for a ‘World Café’. This workshop explored how schools can meaningfully engage in academic research projects to maximise their value and impact.


All agreed that the best research projects are designed to provide a win-win situation for schools and researchers. However, more communication between researchers and school staff is needed to achieve best-case outcomes for both sides.


Insights from all the research and analysis were the inspiration for The Insiders’ Guide, which aims to help schools and researchers ‘get the most out of working together’. The guide articulates how to engage schools throughout the four phases of a research project: Design; Recruit; Conduct; and Share.


The feedback from schools is that the resources developed are hugely appreciated.


For us personally, the USER project was an eye-opener in that it tested assumptions about school research engagement. As we discovered, one of the missing links was an appreciation of schools’ and researchers’ mutual desire for collaborating together and improving outcomes for young people and their communities.

The Insiders' Guide Cover-image