IES funded the Expanding the Evidence Base for Career and Technical Education (CTE) Research Network (CTERN) in FY 2018 in order to increase the quality and rigor of CTE research, specifically by (1) coordinating IES-funded researchers studying CTE using causal designs and (2) training new researchers in causal methods to address CTE-related research questions. In this guest blog, the Network Lead’s PI, Katherine Hughes, and Training Lead, Jill Walston, from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), discuss the evolution of the institute across four years of training supported by the grant and what they learned about the components of effective training, in the hopes of sharing lessons learned for future IES-funded trainings.
About the Summer Training Institute
Each summer since 2020, CTERN has held summer training institute on causal research methods in CTE. Across four summers, we had 81 trainees, including junior faculty, researchers in state or university research offices or institutes, doctoral students, and researchers in non-profit organizations. During the institutes, we had expert CTE researchers and national and state CTE leaders deliver presentations about CTE history, policies, theories, and recent research.
The major focus of the training was on research designs and statistical methods for conducting research that evaluates the causal impact of CTE policies and practices on student outcomes. The participants learned about conducting randomized controlled trials—considered the gold standard for causal research—as well as two quasi-experimental approaches, regression discontinuity and comparative interrupted time series designs. After presentations about the approaches, students worked with data in small groups to complete data analysis assignments designed to provide practical experience with the kinds of data and analyses common in CTE research. The small groups had dedicated time to meet with one of the instructors to discuss their analyses and interpret findings together. The combination of presentations and practical applications of data analysis with real data, and time in small groups for troubleshooting and discussion with CTE researchers, made for a rich experience that students found engaging and effective. The students received an IES certificate of course completion to mark their accomplishment.
Making Continuous Improvements Based on Lessons Learned
We had a continuous improvement mindset for our summer institute. After each week-long session was completed, the CTE research network director, training coordinator, and instructors met to review their perceptions of the training and most importantly the feedback students provided at the end of the week. We applied the lessons learned to make improvements to the agenda, communications, and student grouping approaches to the plans for the following summer.
Over the course of the four years of the summer institute training, we made a number of adjustments in response to feedback.
- We continued to offer the institute virtually. The institute was originally intended to be held in person; an earlier blog describes our necessary pivot to the online format. While we could have safely changed to an in-person institute in 2022 and 2023, feedback from our students showed that the virtual institute was more accessible to a geographically diverse group. Many trainees said they would not have even applied to the institute if they would have had to travel, even with a stipend to help cover those costs.
- We added more time for the students to get to know one another with virtual happy hours. Compared to in-person trainings, virtual trainings lack those natural opportunities for informal communications between students and with instructors that can foster engagement, trust, and joint purpose. While we couldn’t replicate in-person networking opportunities, we were able to improve the experience for the students by being intentional with informal gatherings.
- We expanded the time for the small groups to meet with their instructors. Students reported that this office hour time was very valuable for their understanding of the material and in interpreting the output of the analyses they ran. We extended this time to optimize opportunities for discussion and problem solving around their data analysis assignments.
- We made improvements to the data assignment guidance documents. In the first year, students reported that they spent more time on figuring out initial tasks with the data which left less time for running analyses and interpreting their output. We modified our guidance documents that accompanied the assignments to spell out more explicitly some of the initial steps to shorten the time students spent on set-up and maximize their time doing the important work of coding for the analyses and examining output. We also provided links to resources about the statistical packages used by the students for those that needed time to brush up on their skills before the training began.
- We doubled down on efforts to stay connected with the trainees and supported ways to have them stay connected to each other. For example, we let them know when CTERN’s researchers are presenting at conferences and invite them to connect with us and each other at these conferences. We’re now organizing a LinkedIn group to try to develop a community for our training alumni.
Our summer training institutes were a great success. We look forward to continuing this opportunity for researchers into the future, with a new version to be offered in the summer of 2025 by the CTE Research Network 2.0.
Jill Walston, Ph.D., is a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research with more than 20 years of experience conducting quantitative research, developing assessments and surveys, and providing technical support to researchers and practitioners to apply rigorous research and measurement practices. Dr. Walston is the lead for training initiatives for the IES-funded Career and Technical Education Research Network.
Katherine Hughes, Ph.D., is a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research and the principal investigator and director of the CTE Research Network and CTE Research Network 2.0. Dr. Hughes’ work focuses on career and technical education in high schools and community colleges, college readiness, and the high school-to-college transition.
This blog was produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), a Program Officer in the National Center for Education Research (NCER).