Book by Arlene Fink
Review by Jason P. Browning
Systems Analyst, Office of Undergraduate Advising Practice
University of Louisville
Research skills are a necessary component of doctoral programs in higher education and are becoming an increasingly important skill for the student affairs practitioner. In the volume, Practicing Research: Discovering Evidence That Matters, Arlene Fink attempts to provide an introductory survey of research practices. Fink operates under the concept of the reader as a “research consumer” charged with discovering evidence that matters. The author defines the research consumer as one who either practices research or uses research as a basis for his or her decision-making.
Fink bases her work on the framework of evidence-based practice, leaning strongly on the methodology of evidence-based medicine. Throughout the volume, examples are readily provided, but they are generally drawn from the medical profession and often unclear. (Fink is a professor of medicine and public health at the University of California, Los Angeles.)
Fink addresses the concepts of program databases and the literature review, and introduces screening criteria for journal articles, primarily considering basics such as research design, program characteristics, and outcomes measures. Little guidance, however is provided, regarding the synthesis the results of a literature review. The discussion is primarily conceptual in nature, and provides only elementary practical guidance.
A particular strength of the work is chapter four, which discusses the importance of research design, considering concepts such as randomized controlled trials, quasi-experimental, and observational designs. Fink excels in this introduction to research design and includes a useful discussion on threats to internal and external validity. A discussion of commonly used instruments and measures ensues in chapter five to complement this design introduction.
While the author provides an accessible introduction to various types of reliability and validity, little is discussed regarding quantitative reliability statistics. The reader is not cautioned, for example, of the limitations of the popular but imprecise measure of percent agreement, which has historically been prevalent practice in program evaluations throughout higher education. A more thorough treatment of reliability and validity measures is needed for an effective research consumer to understand these essential concepts.
What Practicing Research fails to accomplish is to adequately educate the reader in research methods. While it attempts to serve as a high-level survey of various issues and concerns to considering in evaluating research evidence, it addresses topics unevenly and glosses over several important concepts. Actual statistical methodologies go largely unmentioned. Summarily, Fink generally does not present the concepts discussed in sufficient detail as to be actionable by research practitioners.
As NACADA and the advising community continues its movement toward advising as a discipline, it is important to transition from theory and conceptual framework to practice and tangible results. A necessary place for this catalyst to begin is in the area of research methods. In addition, as practitioners more actively consider research-based programs and interventions, it is important that they operate from a firm understanding of fundamental research concepts. The appropriate selection and assessment of research is a necessary skill to ensuring that he or she does indeed select evidence that matters.
While Fink endeavors to fulfill this goal, her volume is an insufficient introduction. For an overview of accessing and interpreting the literature, one is encouraged to turn to a more robust introduction, such as Reading and Understanding Research by Locke, Silverman, and Spirduso. This volume explores issues of choosing appropriate research, interpreting its trustworthiness, and provides a reasonable summary of both quantitative and qualitative methods. The more statistically inclined reader may benefit from Spicer’s cursory review of the increasingly common multivariate techniques offered in his accessible work, Making Sense of Multivariate Data Analysis.
Fink, A. (2008). Practicing research: Discovering evidence that matters. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Locke, L., Silverman, S., & Spirduso, W. (2004). Reading and understanding research, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Spicer, J. (2005). Making sense of multivariate data analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Practicing research: Discovering evidence that matters (2008). Book by Arlene Fink. Review by Jason P. Browning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 373 pp. Price $44.95 ISBN # 978-1-4129-3770-2