Educational Psychology Review

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 1–18 | Cite as

How to Support Prescriptive Statements by Empirical Research: Some Missing Parts



This paper continues a discussion started in a special issue about the acceptability of prescriptive statements in educational research articles. In light of some ambiguities concerning what counts as a prescriptive statement, and the special issue’s focus on causal relations as a requirement for the justification of prescriptive statements, a more detailed characterization of prescriptive statements and the structure of a complete argumentation for them is offered. This reveals two major obstacles to valid justifications of prescriptive statements that have received little attention before: the problem of normativity and the problem of generality. The proposed solution to the problem of normativity—that is, the impossibility to support prescriptive statements by empirical research alone—is to take into account that arguments for prescriptive statements target an audience that may agree on the values of many educational goals. The proposed solution to the problem of generality—that is, the necessity of well-established general causal regularities for the justification of prescriptive statements—requires appropriate designs for testing the generality of claims. Methodological suggestions include nested designs with quasi-representative samples of treatments as well as standard procedures for determining the cost and side effects on an agreed-upon set of relevant outcome dimensions for both current practice and any new intervention. If such steps are undertaken, prescriptive statements are no less justified in discussion sections than general descriptive claims as long as the final decision about them is suspended if the available normative and empirical arguments are not yet conclusive.


Prescriptive statements Normativity External validity Generality Representative design 



I would like to thank Andreas Hetmanek and Anna Wecker-Delatrée for helpful comments on the first draft of this article.


  1. Anscombe, G. E. M. (1963). Intention (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Anscombe, E. (1989). Von Wright on practical inference. In P. A. Schilpp & L. E. Hahn (Eds.), The philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright (pp. 377–404). La Salle, IL: Open Court.Google Scholar
  3. Austin, J. L. (1952–53/1979). How to talk: Some simple ways. In J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Black, M. (1989). Some remarks about ‘practical reasoning’. In P. A. Schilpp & L. E. Hahn (Eds.), The philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright (pp. 405–416). La Salle, IL: Open Court.Google Scholar
  5. Bracht, G. H., & Glass, G. V. (1968). The external validity of experiments. American Educational Research Journal, 5(4), 437–474.Google Scholar
  6. Brashers, D. E., & Jackson, S. (1999). Changing conceptions of ‘message effects’: A 24-year overview. Human Communication Research, 25, 457–477.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brown, N. J. S., & Wilson, M. (2011). A model of cognition: The missing cornerstone of assessment. Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 221–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brunswik, E. (1955). Representative design and probabilistic theory in a functional psychology. Psychological Review, 62(3), 193–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brunswik, E. (1956). Perception and the representative design of psychological experiments. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  10. Burkhardt, H., & Schoenfeld, A. H. (2003). Improving educational research: Toward a more useful, more influential, and better-funded enterprise. Educational Researcher, 32(9), 3–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Call for papers. (2009). Educational Psychology Review, 21, 91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Campbell, D. T. (1957). Factors relevant to the validity of experiments in social settings. Psychological Bulletin, 54(4), 297–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Campbell, D. T., & Stanley, J. C. (1966). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for research. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  14. Cantrell, S. C., Almasi, J. F., Carter, J. C., Rintamaa, M., & Madden, A. (2010). The impact of a strategy-based intervention on the comprehension and strategy use of struggling adolescent readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 257–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cook, T. D. (1993). A quasi-sampling theory of the generalization of causal relationships. In L. Sechrest & A. G. Scott (Eds.), New directions for program evaluation: Understanding causes and generalizing about them (pp. 39–82). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  16. Cook, T. D. (2000). Toward a practical theory of external validity. In L. Bickman (Ed.), Validity & social experimentation: Donald Campbell’s legacy (Vol. 1, pp. 3–43). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  17. Cook, T. D. (2002). Generalization: Conceptions in the social sciences. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (Vol. 9, pp. 6037–6043). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  18. Cook, T. D. (2004). Causal generalization: How Campbell and Cronbach influenced my theoretical thinking on this topic. In M. C. Alkin (Ed.), Evaluation roots: Tracing theorists’ views and influences (pp. 88–113). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  19. Cornfield, J., & Tukey, J. W. (1956). Average values of mean squares in factorials. Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 27(4), 907–949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cronbach, L. J., & Shapiro, K. (1982). Designing evaluations of educational and social programs. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  21. Cronbach, L. J., Rajaratnam, N., & Gleser, G. C. (1963). Theory of generalizability: A liberalization of reliability theory. British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 16, 137–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Cronbach, L. J., Gleser, G. C., Nanda, H., & Rajaratnam, N. (1972). The dependability of behavioral measurements: Theory of generalizability for scores and profiles. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  23. Edwards, P. (1955). The logic of moral discourse. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  24. Falk, W. D. (1953). Goading and guiding. Mind, 62, 145–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Fisher, R. A. (1925/2003). Statistical methods for research workers. In R. A. Fisher, Statistical methods, experimental design and scientific inference: A re-issue of statistical methods for research workers, the design of experiments, and statistical methods and scientific inference. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Fisher, R. A. (1935/2003). The design of experiments. In R. A. Fisher, Statistical methods, experimental design and scientific inference: A re-issue of statistical methods for research workers, the design of experiments, and statistical methods and scientific inference. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Fontenelle, G. A., Phillips, A. P., & Lane, D. M. (1985). Generalizing across stimuli as well as subjects: A neglected aspect of external validity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 70(1), 101–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Glüer, K., & Wikforss, Å. (2009). The normativity of meaning and content. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University. Retrieved from Scholar
  29. Graesser, A. C., & Hu, X. (2011). Commentary on causal prescriptive statements. Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 279–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hare, R. M. (1952). The language of morals. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  31. Harris, K. R., & Pressley, M. (1994). Increasing the quality of educational intervention research. Educational Psychology Review, 6(3), 191–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hedges, L. V. (1994). Statistical considerations. In H. Cooper & L. V. Hedges (Eds.), The handbook of research synthesis (pp. 29–38). New York: Sage.Google Scholar
  33. Hulleman, C. S., & Harckiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326, 1410–1412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hulleman, C. S., Godes, O., Hendricks, B. L., & Harckiewicz, J. M. (2010). Enhancing interest and performance with a utility value information. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 880–895.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hume, D. (1739–40/1978). A treatise of human nature (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  36. Jeffrey, R. C. (1965). The logic of decision. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  37. Kant, I. (1785/1956). Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten [Foundations of the metaphysics of morals]. In I. Kant, Werke in sechs Bänden. Bd. 4: Schriften zur Ethik und Religionsphilosophie (reprinted 1998; pp. 7–102). Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.Google Scholar
  38. Kenny, A. (1975). Will, freedom and power. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  39. Kulikowich, J. M. & Sperling, R. A. (2010, April/May). Or so you claim! What claims do our methodologies allow? A town meeting. Symposium conducted at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association “Understanding Complex Ecologies in a Changing World”, Denver, 30th April to 4th May 2010.Google Scholar
  40. Kulikowich, J. M., & Sperling, R. A. (2011). Prescriptive statements: Philosophical, theoretical, and methodological considerations: Introduction to the special issue. Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 189–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Levin, J. R. (2004). Random thoughts on the (in)credibility of educational-psychological intervention research. Educational Psychologist, 39(3), 173–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Levin, J. R., & O’Donnell, A. M. (1999). What to do about educational psychology’s credibility gaps? Issues in Education, 5, 177–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Luce, R. D., & Raiffa, H. (1957). Games and decisions: Introduction and critical survey. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  44. Marley, S. C., & Levin, J. R. (2011). When are prescriptive statements in educational research justified? Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 197–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Martin, A. J. (2011). Prescriptive statements and educational practice: What can structural equation modeling (SEM) offer? Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 235–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Matt, G. E., & Cook, T. D. (1994). Threats to the validity of research syntheses. In H. Cooper & L. V. Hedges (Eds.), The handbook of research synthesis (pp. 503–520). New York: Sage.Google Scholar
  47. McDonald, S. K., Keesler, V. A., Kauffman, N. J., & Schneider, B. (2006). Scaling-up exemplary interventions. Educational Researcher, 35(3), 15–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Nolen, A., & Talbert, T. (2011). Qualitative assertions as prescriptive statements. Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 263–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. O’Connell, A. A., & Gray, D. L. (2011). Cause and event: Supporting causal claims through logistic models. Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 245–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Robinson, D. H. (2006). Editorial. Educational Psychology Review, 18, 115–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Robinson, D. (2011). Editor’s note. Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 293–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Rosenshine, B. (1994). The conduct and reporting of intervention studies. Educational Psychology Review, 6(3), 245–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Rosenthal, R., & DiMatteo, M. R. (2001). Meta-analysis: Recent developments in quantitative methods for literature reviews. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 59–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Rumelhart, D. E., & Norman, D. A. (1978). Accretion, tuning, and restructuring: Three modes of learning. In J. W. Cotton & R. L. Klatzky (Eds.), Semantic factors in cognition (pp. 37–53). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  55. Savage, L. J. (1954). The foundations of statistics. New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  56. Searle, J. R. (1979). Expression and meaning: Studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Serlin, R. C., Wampold, B. E., & Levin, J. R. (2003). Should providers of treatment be regarded as a random factor? If it ain’t broke, don’t ‘fix’ it: Comment on Siemer and Joormann (2003). Psychological Methods, 8, 524–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Shaw, S. M., Walls, S. M., Dacy, B. S., Levin, J. R., & Robinson, D. H. (2010). A follow-up note on prescriptive statements in nonintervention research studies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(4), 982–988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Snow, R. E. (1974). Representative and quasi-representative designs for research on teaching. Review of Educational Research, 44, 265–293.Google Scholar
  60. Sun, S., & Pan, W. (2011). The philosophical foundations of prescriptive statements and statistical inference. Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 207–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Taylor, P. W. (1962). Prescribing and evaluating. Mind, 71, 213–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. von Wright, G. H. (1963). Norm and action: A logical enquiry. London, UK: Routledge.Google Scholar
  63. von Wright, G. H. (1972). On so-called practical inference. Acta Sociologica, 15(1), 39–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Weber, M. (1904/1988). Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis [‘Objectivity’ in social science and social policy]. In M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (pp. 146–214). Tübingen, Germany: Mohr.Google Scholar
  65. Weber, M. (1917/1988). Der Sinn der ’Wertfreiheit’ der soziologischen und ökonomischen Wissenschaften [The meaning of ‘ethical neutrality’ in sociology and economics]. In M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (pp. 489–540). Tübingen, Germany: Mohr.Google Scholar
  66. Winer, B. J. (1962). Statistical principles in experimental design. New York: McGraw-Hill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Yussen, S. R. (2011). When is it acceptable to make prescriptive statements in educational research articles? Commentary on the special issue papers. Educational Psychology Review, 23(2), 287–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Empirische Pädagogik und Pädagogische PsychologieLudwig-Maximilians-Universität MünchenMunichGermany

Personalised recommendations