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Future Directions for Educational Research in Physical Therapy

Gwyer, Jan PT, PhD, FAPTA; Hack, Laurita M. PT, DPT, PhD, MBA, FAPTA; Jensen, Gail M. PT, PhD, FAPTA; Segal, Rick PT, PhD, FAPTA; Boissonnault, William PT, DPT, DHSc, FAAOMPT, FAPTA

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Journal of Physical Therapy Education: Volume 29 - Issue 4 - p 3-4
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The profession of physical therapy has long espoused the importance of science as the basis of practice. This has often been reflected in the American Physical Therapy Association's (APTA) Mary McMillan lectures. In 1975, Hislop called for the “production of scholars in pathokinesiology.”1(p1077) The evolution of basic and clinical research over the past 40 years reflects much success in meeting this goal. In 2012, Jette called for the development of the ability to use data to support necessary change in the systems of physical therapy care.2 As a result, the Foundation for Physical Therapy and APTA collaborated to develop funding for Centers of Excellence to improve health services research.

In 2011, Jensen made a strong case for the development of educational research that can bring evidence to bear on the central questions of how to best educate physical therapists (PTs) for practice.3 This goal remains much more elusive.

The profession of physical therapy relies on educational researchers to educate clinical PTs and create knowledge that will enhance the education of students and the practice of clinicians. The success of this challenge depends on preparing PTs who are engaged, committed, and motivated learners. Our science education colleagues share similar challenges, seeking “…broad theoretical conceptualizations of curriculum…”4(p264) and creating “…authentic science learning experiences…”4(p264) to develop students who will create new ideas to address global climate change and energy production. Pause and ask yourself if you are teaching physical therapy learners to survive and thrive in the health care system of the coming decades and to address societal needs? Can you access and contribute to important educational research?

The editors of JOPTE and our colleagues contributing to this editorial believe that the quantity and quality of educational research produced in physical therapy is not at the level needed to face the upcoming complexities of higher education and practice. When it comes to questioning what to do about educational research in our profession, we are not alone. This question continues to challenge many health professions, including the field of educational research. What we find in this company is that we share common issues and challenges. These challenges provide us with a roadmap for engaging in a reflective look at educational research in the physical therapy profession. Since we share common challenges with other health professions, we should learn from their experiences and collaborate in moving education research forward.

In a JOPTE editor session at the Combined Sections Meeting (CSM) in 2015, a group of educators participated in a brainstorming session on an educational research agenda.5 Though the discussion clarified challenges related to educational research, our way forward must move beyond. While reaching a consensus for investigation is important, there are additional internal and external factors affecting educational research and the development of a researcher community. For example, we intuitively know that teaching and learning is central to patient interactions, yet this aspect of practice often remains tacit. Human improvement, whether in the classroom, laboratory, or in the clinic with our patients, is complex and is not something that we fully control. We must demand an understanding of these challenging complexities.6 Our educational community needs to examine how these factors apply to our profession and recommend developmental strategies to enhance learning for our patients and our learners.

The American Council of Academic Physical Therapy (ACAPT) Education Task Force generated the following list of common issues found across education research as part of ongoing development of a future perspective paper. This working list provides a quality prelude in anticipation of the JOPTE editor session at CSM 2016 (Educational Research in Physical Therapy: The Good, the Bad, and the Future).

  • Limited funding: How much is spent on physical therapy education and what is invested in educational research to generate new knowledge and theories of what works and what does not work in educational programs?
  • Limited impact: Much of the educational research implemented in physical therapy pertains to single studies and dissertations that go no further than a single study in a given institution.
  • Lack of a career ladder: There is no formal career development or trajectory for PT educational researchers. Part of this is certainly due to the lack of national funding for educational research. Medical education researchers have found some measure of support, given the size and complexity of the curricula.
  • Wide variation of graduate programs in education: There is great variation across US doctoral programs in education. The strongest schools of education are those that have a diverse faculty, combining scholars with strong theoretical grounding in education and social sciences, including psychology, sociology, and anthropology. However, do PTs pursue degrees in education to become a competent educational researcher or to assume an administrative position? Do administrators in PT education have the resources to continue with a successful research career?
  • Challenges of educational research: Educational research is a field of study, not a discipline. Research in education is about understanding phenomena, events, institutions, people, and processes. Shulman argues that this is the “raw material” for educational research and that perspectives and processes of many disciplines can be brought to bear on the questions in education. Teaching and learning is contextual just as the human interactions are central in an environment that is difficult to control.7 Berliner argues, “We do our science under conditions that physical scientists find intolerable.”8(p18)
  • Dominant culture of research/funding and what counts: There continues to be a dominant culture of what counts, what matters, and how it is funded. In nursing, for example, the creation of the National Center of Nursing Research in the mid-1980s led to an increase in the development of the scientific basis for nursing practice, yet research in nursing education has languished.9
  • Lack of theory/knowledge creation: Educational research in medical education continues to be criticized for a lack of theory.10 As a science matures, there is the communal desire of scientists to share knowledge. Where are we in physical therapy when it comes to the robust use of theory, theory development, and theoretical/conceptual thinking in educational research?
  • Lack of networking with an educational research community: There are few PTs who have ever been connected or active in the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the national/international professional association for educational researchers across all fields. Division I (Education in the Professions) remains the division that brings together educational researchers in the professions. There, emphasis is on theory development, knowledge creation, and shared understandings regarding where educational research is headed.

We encourage you to join us at CSM for a discussion of the future of educational research in our profession. In this presentation, the editors of the Journal of Physical Therapy Education will be joined by experienced researchers for a discussion on the current barriers that impede the growth of educational research in physical therapy. We will then share recommendations and potential strategies to support the future development of educational research. This is a time of great opportunity for all of us, as we need to engage in critical reflection of our future. We invite your ideas to improve the training of researchers and to strengthen the commitment to fostering educational research in every venue.


1. Hislop H. The not-so-impossible dream. Phys Ther. 1975; 55(10):1069-1080.
2. Jette AM. 43rd Mary McMillan Lecture: Face into the storm. Phys Ther. 2012;92(9):1221-1229.
3. Jensen GM. 42nd Mary McMillan Lecture: Learning: what matters most. Phys Ther. 2011;91:1674-1689.
4. Abd-El Khalick F, Zeidler DL. New horizons for the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 2015;52(3):263-267.
5. Gwyer J, Hack L. A challenge. J Phys Ther Educ. 2015;29(2):4.
6. Cohen DK. Professions of Human Improvement: Predicaments of teaching. In M Nisan and O Schremer (eds). Educational Deliberations. Jerusalem, Keter Pub. 2005;278-294.
7. Shulman L. Disciplines of Inquiry in Education: A New Overview. In Shulman L. The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Pub. 2004;273-307.
8. Berliner DC. Educational research: the hardest science of all. Educ Researcher. 2002; 31(8):18.
9. Broom ME, Ironside PM, McNelis AM. Research in nursing education: state of the science. J Nurs Educ. 2012;51,(9):521-534.
10. Norman G. Sample Sizes, Scoops and Educational Science. Adv in Health Sci Educ. 2010;15:621-624.
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