University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education researcher Robin Parks Ennis, Ph.D., has won a grant of nearly $395,000 from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) for a study on how to motivate youngsters suffering from learning and behavioral disorders.

Ennis, an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Curriculum and Instruction, won an IES Early Career Development and Mentoring grant; the IES grant is a competitive award that supports faculty members who are just starting their careers.

Dr. Robin Ennis

IES is a division of the U.S. Department of Education, which promotes research studies that aim to improve academics.

“It was a huge honor because I won it the first time I applied for it, so that was definitely a surprise,” says Ennis, who teaches an introductory course on learners with exceptionalities. “This will allow me to conduct a small-scale study as an early career researcher.”

As a condition of the grant, Ennis will work with two mentors, UAB School of Education Professor James Ernest, Ph.D., and University of Kansas Professor Kathleen Lane, Ph.D.

Testing Instructional Choice

For her research project, Ennis will use a professional development model to test the effectiveness of an existing intervention known as instructional choice. She says it is a low-intensity strategy because educators can use it regardless of the subject area or students’ age level.

With instructional choice, students can choose between two tasks or decide which assignments to tackle first. For example, a teacher who assigns a book report can let students choose between writing an essay and creating a PowerPoint presentation.

“Previous research has shown that instructional choice increases student engagement,” says Ennis, “and the reason we focus on student engagement, and why we think that’s such an important variable to measure, is because if we want students to learn the academic content we’re presenting, the first step is getting them engaged in the lesson at hand. So, if a student isn’t engaged, we know they’re not learning.”

Research has also shown that instructional choice improves academic outcomes in terms of accuracy and work completion, she says.

“It’s giving them a little autonomy in the class,” says Ennis, “and what we’ve found is that it really increases engagement and motivates them to work harder because they have a little bit of control over what’s happening to them in the classroom.”

For this experiment, Ennis and her team will work with teachers and students at local public schools over the next three academic years. All of the children will be students in regular classroom settings. While some may receive special education services, it will not be a requirement for the study, she says.

Closing the Research-to-Practice Gap

The team will train the teachers to not only implement the intervention during reading class, but also to collect the data on how well their students engage in what is happening in class.

“One thing we know,” says Ennis, “is that there is a gap between what we as researchers know is effective and the [strategies] teachers use in class. It’s called the ‘research-to-practice gap.’ The intent of this project is to not just go in and do research in the classroom, but to go in and teach the teachers how to implement the strategy and how to collect data on students’ progress in the hopes that this will bridge the gap.”

As a condition of the IES grant, in the final year of the project, Ennis says she will submit a larger grant proposal to include more schools in the study.

“We hope that by teaching teachers through a professional development model to implement instructional choice, it will become a practice that they’ll use long term in the classroom to support the students they currently teach and the ones they’ll instruct in the future.”