Taking the First Step: Strategies for Effective Knowledge Mobilization

Blog 2 in a two-part series on knowledge mobilization

November 13, 2023 | By Elizabeth Farley-Ripple

In the first blog post of this two-part series, I highlighted lessons learned from two studies conducted with my colleague Samantha Shewchuk about the path from research to practice. I presented three key points:

Knowledge mobilization is a set of strategies that promote inclusive, two-way exchanges of ideas and knowledge among researchers and educators or policymakers that can help research projects be more impactful from the start.
  • Stops along the path to practice transform the research
  • Educators and policymakers go to trusted sources
  • Research must make sense within the local context

In this second blog post, I’ll focus on how you can develop your own knowledge mobilization strategy and discuss some concrete first steps you can take. I build from the three key lessons learned in the first blog post, adding what we’ve learned about effective knowledge mobilization practices from those in the field actually doing this work.

To learn about effective strategies, we conducted a national survey of education researchers. We identified those who we who were practicing engagement and dissemination that map closely onto what we know about evidence use in policy and practice, and we interviewed them to learn more about their approach.1

Authentically engage audiences and stakeholders throughout the research process

Researchers who are effective in getting their work taken up in practice engage with audiences and stakeholders throughout the research process. For example, they engage authentically with audiences – whether policymakers, teachers, parents, or others – when planning for the research. This can happen when defining the need or problem to be solved, developing research questions, and deciding on methods that are feasible and appropriate.

Effective knowledge mobilization also requires engaging with policymakers and practitioners or other stakeholders during the research process. This may mean systematically collecting feedback along the way, jointly interpreting early findings with key stakeholders, engaging in collaborative sensemaking before drawing conclusions about the data, or collecting additional data based on questions that partners and stakeholders have.

Of course, we are still concerned with dissemination after the research process. How do we get the word out? How do we ensure our findings reach the intended audience? Engaging with stakeholders, partners, policymakers and practitioners helps us identify and leverage trusted sources, develop products that are actually valued and useful to policymakers and practitioners, and build networks that can support uptake.

Partner with intermediary organizations to help bridge research and practice

Illustration of two people building a bridge with puzzle pieces

One strategy for engagement throughout the research process is to partner with intermediary organizations, whether local, regional, or national organizations. A number of studies have pointed out influential intermediary organizations that actually broker between research and practice communities. I mentioned professional associations in the first blog post. They are a great starting point – one of the few types of organizations that both researchers and practitioners point to as a resource for linking research and practice.

Partnerships with intermediaries are beneficial throughout the research process. They allow us to learn more about critically important, actionable issues for their constituencies. They help us gain access to and build relationships with constituents with commitments to those issues and engage them in the research process. And we can leverage the experience and capacity of intermediaries to disseminate findings or engage in additional development work.

Why does this work? Because partnering with intermediaries shortens and simplifies the path between research and practice. By partnering with trusted sources up front, we gain access to an audience that you would otherwise have to develop on your own, which takes times time, resources and expertise that most of us don’t have. Further, there are simply far more districts, policymakers, educators, and other stakeholders than there are education researchers, as many a number as we are. It takes a lot longer for us to develop trusting relationships or a trusting reputation with all of them than it does to build a long-standing relationship with a professional association, network, school district or state education agency.

Engaging with intermediaries throughout the research process creates input and feedback mechanisms that can help researchers to anticipate, articulate, or even address a range of implementation issues and contextual factors that might influence use, which in turn can reduce the burden of sensemaking for audiences.

Simply put, partnering with intermediaries helps us be more effective and efficient in achieving our goals for reach.

Concrete steps to start applying the lessons learned and key strategies

To achieve impact, we don’t need to be communications experts, product developers, or technical assistance providers. In fact, most of us don’t have the knowledge, time, resources, and credibility to be effective in those roles. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have agency in mobilizing our work. We must be more proactive in identifying, building, and leveraging partnerships within the existing educational ecosystem.

Based on the lessons and strategies we learned from our study, here are four steps to get you started in strengthening the path from research to practice.

  1. Map your ecosystem. Inventory the people or organizations that are already influential with communities or audiences to you seek to reach. Which ones share your values and goals? Which ones support research-informed policy or practice? Which ones have a history of collaboration and partnership?
  2. Build trusting relationships. Focus on shared commitments and opportunities for mutual benefit. How is or could your work be responsive to their goals? What does your work offer their constituents?
  3. Start early. Engaging with partners in the “last mile” of dissemination is likely too late. Engaging with audiences and stakeholders early and often reduces barriers to use by ensuring work is responsive to real needs and can be used in real educational contexts.
  4. Plan accordingly. Effective knowledge mobilization takes time and resources. Yet few research projects allocate resources to this aspect of the work, effectively reducing the effort we can dedicate to impact. Develop project plans, timelines, and budgets that explicitly account for this work.

Building stronger connections between research and practice isn’t simple nor easy, but it is necessary in order for our work to get in the hands of educators, students, and communities. If we really want to make a difference in the field, to what happens in schools, and to the lives of children and families, we simply have to take the first step.

About the Author

Photo of Elizabeth Farley-Ripple

Dr. Elizabeth N. Farley-Ripple is a professor in the School of Education and director of the Partnership for Public Education at the University of Delaware. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Education Policy and has been working in educational research for ten years. She has expertise in quantitative and mixed methods and applies a variety of methodological tools to research projects, including in regression, multi-level models, social-network analysis, surveys, and content analysis. Her research expertise is in policy analysis and evidence-based decision-making, and recent work includes studies of administrator mobility, school and teachers’ use of data, teacher quality and effects, and equity in student outcomes.

1 Farley-Ripple, E.N., Tilley, K., Mead, H., Van Horne, S., & Agboh, D. (2022). How is evidence use enacted in schools? A mixed methods multiple case study of “deep use” schools? Center for Research Use in Education, University of Delaware. http://www.research4schools.org/how-is-evidence-use-enacted-in-schools-a-mixed-methods-multiple-case-study-of-deep-use-schools/

Tags: Evidence-based Policymakers Research & Developers Research and evaluation