Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction

Supporting Discipline-Based Education Research


Universities are founded on the twin missions of research and teaching: research to generate new knowledge and teaching to impart knowledge to learners. They have, however, paid little attention to research on teaching itself; by and large, university faculty and administrators base decisions about courses and curricula on common sense and tradition. 

Meanwhile, the roles and structures of universities are transforming, driven by advances in technology and by evolving needs of society, having to relinquish long-held expectations for what a college education should accomplish and by what means. With computers handling routine calculations ever more quickly and reliably, and specialized information constantly available, there is not the same need for graduates’ efficiency in computation or simple retention; high quality lectures, once a privilege of matriculation, are now freely available online.  

Higher education must adapt, to prepare students to reason and synthesize, innovate and question, invent and assess. It must also adapt to support students from groups that remain underrepresented, and this too means developing approaches to instruction that go beyond lectures. Educators must learn to attend, understand, and respond to students’ thinking, to the wide variety of their intellectual and cultural resources.

The Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI) reflects Tufts University’s recognition of the need for fundamental study of education. It will work across departments and schools to introduce and sustain research and scholarship on learning and instruction, as part of and to support the transformations happening at Tufts.

IRLI is made possible by a generous gift from the James S. McDonnell Family Foundation.


IRLI is launching in Fall, 2018. It will establish a community of scholars dedicated to education research, integrated into the teaching and learning that take place in Tufts schools, departments, and programs. 

The community will include faculty whose research focuses entirely in STEM education, and who serve as faculty in STEM departments. Several faculty at Tufts University hold such positions now and serve as the IRLI steering committee: David Hammer, Director, Julia Gouvea, Andrew Izsák, and Kristen Wendell. The James S. McDonnell Family Foundation's gift supports searches for three more, first for a senior scholar to hold the McDonnell Family Endowed Bridge Professorship, across the Schools of Engineering and Arts & Sciences, followed by searches for assistant professors, one in each School.

IRLI will also include faculty whose primary roles are as instructors in their disciplines, but who are interested to participate in education research connected to their teaching. There are already a number of such faculty at Tufts; IRLI will provide institutional structure and resources to support their efforts. Other faculty will participate as collaborating instructors, allowing research to take place in their classes, attending talks, hearing about findings, and drawing ideas for their teaching. Finally, the community will include students: doctoral and masters students doing research on learning and instruction at college levels, graduate students in STEM disciplines interested to be aware of this research, as well as undergraduate students with scholarly interest in education.

Ultimately, we will support a continuum of practices of inquiry into learning and instruction: the inquiry of researchers, the inquiry of instructors, and everything in between. In this, the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO) and other existing groups will be essential IRLI collaborators who together will strengthen the learning community for all students, faculty and staff at Tufts.

IRLI is beginning with STEM, but in years to come we will be working to raise funds for IRLI to expand to arts and humanities, social sciences and professional schools.

Why an Institute?

Education research has mostly taken place in schools of education, which evolved from “normal schools” with the purpose of K-12 teacher preparation. Schools of education are separate structures from the schools that house academic disciplines, and their focus has mostly remained at K-12 levels.

Recently, however, discipline departments have begun their own efforts, in a movement known as “discipline-based education research” (DBER). That movement has made significant progress, but it is limited by its own divisions. Many individual DBER scholars have found ways to work across institutional lines to collaborate across disciplines and with schools of education; these arrangements are generally difficult.

The core need we are looking to address is to support scholarship in education itself, and not as a separate enterprise but as integrated with the educational practices of the university. That means a different kind of institutional structure, one that works across academic units.