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Exceptional Children

Vol. 79, No. 2, pp. 163-180.

2013 Councilfor Exceptional Children.

Moving Research Into

Practice: Can We Make
Dissemination Stick?
University of Hawaii
University of Louisville


Although researchers in special education have made significant advances in defining

and identifying evidence-based practices, scholars often constitute an insular ^oup that disseminates research findings primarily through outlets and venues targeting like-minded researchers
using traditional approaches. Thus, despite tangible results in determining what works, using dissemination approaches that fail to resonate with or influence practitioners represents an important
but ofien overlooked contributor to the ongoing research-to-practice gap in special education. The
authors argue that empirical and theoretical literature outside of special education may offer insight into how ideas take hold, which may be especially relevant to the effective dissemination of
evidence-based practices. Drawing on Heath and Heath's (2008) model, the authors describe 6
characteristics of messages that are likely to "stick": (a) simple, (b) unexpected, (c) concrete, (d)
credible, (e) emotional, and (f) stories. The authors consider each in terms of implications for dissemination of special education researchfindings,and urge special education researchers to consider
researching, refining, and applying dissemination strategies that can make special education
research matter on a broader scale.

n his 1993 Academy of Management

Presidential address, Hambrick (1994)
opined that academics

seem to have a minimalist ethos: . . . minimal innovation, minimal visibility, minimal

impact. Each August, we come to talk to
each other [at the Academy of Management's
annual meeting]; during the rest of the year

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we read each others' papers in our journals

and write our own papers so that we may, in
turn, have an audience the following August:
an incestuous, closed loop. Colleagues, if we
believe highly in what we do, if we believe in
the significance of advanced thinking and research on management, then it is time we
showed it. . . . It is time for us to break out
of our closed loop. It is time for us to matter,
(p. 13)


Following From the applied nature oFthe majority oF their work, researchers in special education and related fields have long been concerned
about communicating their findings to teachers,
parents, and other stakeholders in meaningFul and
useFul ways (e.g.. Hood, 2002; National Center
For the Dissemination oF Disability Research
[NCDDR], 1996; ShonkoFF& Bales, 2011; Winton, 2006; Winton & TurnbuU, 1982). Yet Hambrick's advice to management scholars in 1993
continues to resonate For special education scholars, who For the most part continue to disseminate their findings primarily in traditional ways
(e.g., journal articles, conFerence presentations,
didactic trainings) that do not readily Facilitate
meaningFul change among practitioners and other
special education stakeholders (see Winton,
2006). In this article, we explore how the special
education research community might Further its
pursuit oF mattering more by thinking and acting
differently about the dissemination oFits work.
The first decade oFthe 21st century has been
marked by considerable eFForts toward making
research matter more in education by defining
and identifying evidence-based practices (EBPs;
e.g., Odom et ai., 2005; Slavin, 2008). The argument is simple: by researchers clearly identifying
practices shown by trustworthy bodies oF research
to be eFFective, practitioners can know and implement what really works, thereby improving student outcomes. However, without addressing the
"continuing, stubborn problem" oF disseminating
research in ways that are useFul to practitioners
(Hiebert, Gallimore, & Stigler, 2002, p. 3), the
EBP movement is likely to have limited impact
on teaching practice and student outcomes (Winton, 2006). AFter all, as ShonkoFF and Bales
(2011) noted, science does not speak For itselF
In this article, we define dissemination as
"planned, systematic eFForts designed to make a
program or innovation more widely available"
(Owen, Glanz, Sallis, & Kelder, 2006, p. S35)
what Dearing and Kreuter (2010) called active
dissemination and what has also been reFerred to
as diFFusion, knowledge utilization, and technology transfer (Winton, 2006). In contrast,
researchers have traditionally engaged in passive
dissemination oF their work, merely making inFormation available For potential users to locate and
interpret (Dearing & Kreuter, 2010). Although


effective dissemination is clearly not a sufficient

condition For implementation and diFFusion oF
EBPs, dissemination plays an important role in
the formation of educators' initial attitudes and
beliefs about EBPs and therefore appears to be an
important element in bridging the gap between
research and practice.
Unfortunately, "university faculty seldom
have the skill sets (e.g., social marketing strategies)
needed for them to be successful in disseminating
programs" (McKenzie, Sallis, & Rosengard, 2009,
p. 114). Although scholars have conducted important, preliminary work providing models and
examples of appropriate dissemination (e.g.,
NCDDR, 1996; Shonkoff & Bales, 2011; Winton, 2006), few empirically validated or theoretically based guidelines for effectively disseminating
research in special education exist. In this article,
we propose a framework for improving the dissemination of research findings and EBPs in special education with recommendations gleaned
from the empirical and theoretical literature from
related fields.









Some messages have incredible staying power, including many without evidence to support them
as credible. Urban legends, by definition untrue
or at least based on gross exaggerations oFfact, become stuck in the popular mindset. For example,
the notion that children become easily "hypedup" on sugar is widespread and commonly accepted, despite evidence that this is not the case
(Rojas & Chan, 2005). IF researchers could disseminate inFormation on EBPs so that they stuck
with teachers and other stakeholders halF as
strongly as the notion that sugar causes hyperactivity and other myths, the research-to-practice
gap in special education would be reduced considerably.
Heath and Heath (2008) presented a model
For why some messages "stick"that is, are understood, remembered, and have a lasting impact
on opinions and behaviorand others quickly
Fade away. In their analysis, Heath and Heath
"pored over hundreds of sticky ideas" and "saw.

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over and over, the same six principles at work" (p.

16): simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and storieswhich can be remembered
with the acronym SUCCESs. Althotigh these
characteristics may seem intuitive, in our experience practitioners typically do not perceive reports of research as simple, unexpected, concrete,
credible, emotional, or telling a story. Our core
message is that special education scholars can
heighten their impact on practice by making their
research findings stick. We discuss each of the
SUCCESS elements in the following sections, and
provide theory- and research-based recommendations on how dissemination of EBPs in special education might capitalize on them.

service, baggage handling, and flight scheduling.

Thus, simple but evocative core messages can be
more effective than the detailed laundry lists of
steps often provided to teachers in PD or in articles on EBPs. Our core message in this article is
that special education scholars can make their
ideas stick and heighten their impact on practice
by incorporating effective dissemination strategies

(e.g., SUCCESS).

Of course, in addition to being concise,

effective core messages must resonate with their
audience (e.g., special education practitioners).
Dearing and Kreuter (2010) suggested that typical dissemination efforts rely too strongly on push
forces, which refer to efforts for making a product
or practice more appealing to consumers. AesthetSIMPLE
ically appealing PowerPoints, web sites, and "how
Special education scholars can make their ideas to" articles as well as the catchy slogans of marstick and heighten their impact on practice by keters are examples of push strategies used for inmaking dissemination simple. Detailed, pro- structional approaches. The impact of push
tracted messages are difficult to remember or to marketing, however, is limited by consumer need
apply. When dissemination lacks a clear message and demand; that is, if consumers don't want or
and gets bogged down in details, it becomes easy need it, a product won't sell well no matter how
to miss the forest for the trees (Heath & Heath, attractive the advertising or packaging. In con2008). Special educators, whose jobs require trast, pull strategies boost demand for a product
quick decision-making in multiple contexts, need or innovation. One way to elicit pull is to identify
simple, pithy messages they can use to guide their the needs (Dearing & Kreuter, 2010) or "cognibehavior in a variety of situations. Yet reports of tive holes" (Shonkoff & Bales, 2011, p. 21) of
research and professional development (PD) one's target audience in order to give consumers
trainings often are detailed and convoluted, lack- what they want.
ing an identifiable and consistent message or
Shonkoff and Bales (2011) described the
theme. Consequently, practitioners, who typically work of the National Scientific Council on the
are not facile with the terminology and structure Developing Child in generating core messages
of research reports, may spend considerable effort aimed at effectively disseminating research findand time reading journal articles and attending ings to nonscientists. They first conducted qualiPD, yet never discern how the information could tative research to identify key cognitive holes in
guide and improve their instruction. We review common beliefs around child development. Peotwo approaches for disseminating EBPs simply ple commonly believe that child development is
and effectively: (a) generating core messages using influenced by a mysterious combination of
"pull" marketing strategies, and (b) limiting the factorssuch as genes, parenting, environment,
amount of information disseminated.
and fateover which they exert little control.
Core Messages and Pull Marketing Strategies.Shonkoff and Bales recommended using analogies
Flexible and pithy core messages are easy to recall to craft powerftil core messages to better inform
and can provide guidance in even the most unset- policy makers and the public (see also Heath &
tled and unexpected circumstances. For example, Heath, 2008). To clearly and concisely elucidate
as Heath and Heath (2008) noted. Southwest how interactive experiences literally shape the arAirline's core message of being "the low-fare air- chitecture of children's developing brains, they
line" pervaded not only their advertising, but also used the analogy of serve and return as a key feadrove decisions concerning food, fuel, customer ture in one of their core messages:
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The active ingredient in what we refer to as

experience is the "serve and return" nature of
the relationships that children have with
their patents and other caregivers in their
family or community. Like the process of
serve and return in games such as tennis and
volleyball, very young children naturally
reach out for interaction through vocalizing,
facial expressions, and gestures. If adults do
not respond by getting in sync and engaging
in tesponsive, complementary behaviors, the
child's learning proces.s is disrupted and there
can be negative implications for later development, (p. 26)

Before being disseminated, this core message

was shown to be comprehensible and communicable through qualitative persistence trials that
tested the faithful communication of the message
from one nonscientist to another, and later
through quantitative investigations of its effects
on policy preferences. We recommend that dissemination of EBPs in special education incorporate ascertainment of target audience needs (e.g.,
cognitive holes, self-identified areas of need) and
development of simple core messages, ideally involving analogies, to explain how targeted practices work.
Limiting the Amount of Information Disseminated. Less can be more when reporting information on EBPs (Zikmund-Fisher, Fagerlin, & Ubel,
2010). When people are faced with more information than they can readily process, they often
take short-cuts and either focus on only one particular facet of that information (e.g., ease of implementation, availability of materials) or fail to
make a choice at all, instead defaulting to the status quo (Hibbard & Peters, 2003). Consistent
with the tenets of cognitive load theory, which
posit that "human working memory simply is not
able to process many elements" (van Merrienboer
& Sweller, 2005, p. 149), it appears that limiting
the amount of information presented in dissemination can enhance the meaning of that information for research consumers. Chewning and
Harrell (1990) suggested that an inverse-U represents the relationship between information load
and quality of decision-making, with very low
and very high quantities of information resulting
in low-quality decisions.

In the field of medicine, Zikmund-Fisher,

Fagerlin, and Ubel (2008) investigated the effects
of presenting randomly assigned participants with
graphical displays of the effects of two or four
treatments for an individual who had just been
diagnosed with breast cancer. Participants' comprehension of survival rates, speed in responding
to questions, and ratings of how much they liked
the graphs were significantly higher for the twograph condition. Note that this study also examined the effects of pictographs versus bar graphs
and that subsequent experimental research (Zikmund-Fisher et al., 2010) replicated the findings
of Zikmund-Fisher et al. (2008). However, we
chose not to discuss these results in detail to make
our point as simply as possible. Disseminators of
information on EBPs in special education may
similarly wish to present only the most critical
and convincing information and evidence regarding a given practice.

Special education scholars can make their ideas

stick by incorporating unexpected elements into
their dissemination. Information that conforms
strictly to one's expectations can be predictable
and even boring; it does not capture one's attention, it is not memorable, and it does not lead to
meaningful change (Heath & Heath, 2008). Unfortunately, typical dissemination of research findings is often just thatpredictable and boring.
Consequently, practitioners may quit reading research reports before finishing them or find other
things to occupy their time (e.g., grading papers
in their laps) during PD presentations featuring
heavy doses of research. In contrast, few things
grab our attention the way surprises doimagine
the reaction elicited by whispering "I've got a surprise for you" to an audience. We review two
promising approaches for utilizing unexpected information to heighten the impact of dissemination: (a) introducing surprising stimuli, and (b)
using unexpected questions and perspectives to
create curiosity.
Introducing Unexpected Stimuli. Surprises
appear to trigger what psychologists call flashbulb
memories, in which events are recollected accurately and vividly over time (Kvavilashvili, Mirani,
Schlagman, Foley, & Kornbrot, 2009). For exam-

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pie, most of us can recall what we were doing more accurate than those in the control group in
when we first heard about the 9/11 attacks, a sur- remembering the word in the alternate format
prising and emotional event, with great clarity and reporting the position of the dot. Special eduand detail despite the passage of more than a cation scholars might, then, get creative about
decade. Heightened brain functioning in response presenting key information in surprising (but not
to unexpected stimuli is consistent with findings distracdng) ways (e.g., adding an auditory effect
from neuroscience. In their review of research, to PD presentations; italicizing or otherwise highRanganath and Rainer (2003) summarized, "the lighting key text in written reports; using differoccurrence of a novel stimulus elicits a cascade of ent materials, colors, or styles to create contrasts
neural responses that results in enhanced atten- that highlight key concepts).
tion and memory" (p. 200). In effect, it appears
that surprises "short-circuit" the memory storage
Special education scholars might,
process, transferring short-term memories of
then, get creative about presenting
events directly preceding and following the surprise Instantly into long-term memory (Kock,
key information in surprising (but
Chatelain-Jardon, & Carmona, 2009, p. 360).
not distracting) ways (e.g., adding an
Kock et al. (2009) investigated how unexauditory effect to PD presentations;
pected stimuli impact learning. University stuitalicizing or otherwise highlighting key
dents viewed six short, web-based learning
modules. Afier viewing the modules, participants
text in written reports; using different
took a test containing three multiple-choice quesmaterials, colors, or styles to create
tions related to each module. In the experimental
contrasts that highlight key concepts).
group, a hissing, striking snake was shown unexpectedly on the computer screen for 10s between
modules 3 and 4. The control and experimental
Creating Curiosity. Scholars may believe that
grotips scored similarly on items for modules 1, 2, the importance of their topic and the significance
5, and 6. However, participants who were sur- of their findings are stifficient to make a presentaprised by the snake scored significantly higher on tion or research report compelling. Yet we (the
test items related to module 3 (just before the three authors) have all taught classes and given
snake) and module 4 (just afier the snake).
presentations in which the information was imThe effects of surprise can also be garnered portant and valid, but our audiences seemed unthrotigh less dramatic surprises. For example, interested even when we presented the material
Meyer, Niepel, Rudolph, and Schtzwohl (1991) through hands-on activities and interactive forpresented two words at a time on a computer mats. WTiat we failed to do was create a sense of
screen, one on top of the other, for 3 s per pair to curiosity among our audience, compelling them
participants. During that time a dot was flashed to want to find out more. Practitioners typically
either above or below the words for 0.1 s. Partici- do not find research findings inherently interestpants were asked to indicate the position of the ing, which raises the question: Can a researcher
dot. In the control group, for the first 29 trials engender genuine curiosity in a potentially indifone word in each pair was presented as black let- ferent audience? (Indeed, we wonder if the preters on a white background, whereas one word ceding sentences pique any curiosity in our
was presented as white letters on a black back- attdience, compelling them to read on.)
ground. In the experimental group, all words for
Introducing surprising or unexpected inforthe first 29 trials consisted of black letters and mation exposes gaps in one's understanding,
white backgrounds. On the 30th trial, both which creates what Berlyne (1954) referred to as
groups were presented with one word in each for- epistemic curiosity. Epistemic curiosity is the demat; which was a surprise for the experimental sire for new Information and understanding that
group, but not for the control group. Consistent motivates exploratory thinking in order to close
with the surprise-attention hypothesis, partici- the knowledge gap (Litman, Hutchins, & Russon,
pants in the experimental group were significantly 2005). As Schtzwohl and Reisenzein (1999)
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explained, "The feeling of surprise is assumed to

signal to the individual the occurrence of an
input-schema discrepancy and to motivate processes aimed at the removal of this discrepancy"
(p. 39, italics in original).
Surprising or provocative information should
be familiar and relevant to pique epistemic curiosity. For example, college students reported significantly greater curiosity in questions to which the
answers were on the tips of their tongues than for
questions to which they reported not knowing the
answer (Litman et al., 2005). Similarly, Kang et
al. (2009) documented an inverted U-shaped relationship between confidence level and curiosity
among university students. When participants
were not at all confident or very confident about
their answer to a question, they were not very curious about the answer; the highest levels of curiosity occurred when participants were somewhat
confident but not sure of their answer. Using
functional magnetic resonance imaging, Kang et
al. also found that (a) when answers to questions
were provided, "activations in areas linked to
learning and memory were much stronger if the
subject's prior guess had been incorrect, rather
than correct" (p. 966); and (b) memory of content after 2 weeks was significantly associated
with reported curiosity level.
Disseminators of information on EBPs in
special education might, then, provide surprising
but familiar and relevant information in their
reports of research and PD to pique consumers'
curiosity. For example, when presenting on the
topic of EBPs, we often show a video clip in which
many viewers fail to see a gorilla in the middle of
the screen (Simons & Chabris, 1999; http:// to
demonstrate that people cannot always trust their
perceptions, including what appears to work and
not work in the classroom. Knowing that they
just failed to perceive a gorilla in the middle of a
video clip surprises the audience, shaking their
confidence in their own perceptions and creating
a curiosity to find out how to more reliably determine what works in education.

Special education scholars can make their ideas

stick and heighten their impact on practice by

making dissemination concrete. Abstract, vague

messages (e.g., "it is important to provide clear directions") do not impact recipients in the same
way that concrete and specific messages do. Heath
and Heath (2008) noted that the "curse of knowledge" often impedes effective dissemination. That
is, researchers frequently use terms, abbreviations,
and levels of abstraction with which they are very
familiar, not realizing that many of the practitioners whom they are trying to reach will struggle
with the content presented due to the lack of concreteness. We present two approaches for making
dissemination concrete and combating the curse
of knowledge: vividness and presentation of statistical information.
Vividness. Nisbett and Ross (1980) suggested
that vivid information (i.e., emotionally interesting, image-provoking, or proximate) can hold
consumers' attention and excite their imaginations. Theoretically, making a message come alive
with concrete and vivid details enhances its persuasiveness by garnering attention; making the
message salient, memorable, and emotional; and
by facilitating information processing through
relating information to existing knowledge (Guadagno, Rhoads, & Sagarin, 2011). Although
some studies have confirmed the expected vividness effect, many others have not. Some studies
even found that vivid messages were less persuasive than pallid ones, leading researchers to conclude that the vividness effect is either elusive or
nonexistent (e.g., Taylor & Thompson, 1982).
Frey and Eagley (1993) suggested that the vividness effect may be obscured when vivid details are
peripheral. That is, the attention-grabbing power
of vivid descriptions might be counterproductive
if they draw the consumer's attention away from
the issue at hand (i.e., the core message) and toward superfiuous details. Imagine, for example, a
memorable television commercial for which no
one can remember the product advertised.
Smith and Shaffer (2000) empirically examined whether congruency between the theme of a
message and a message's vivid elements affected
memory of the message. Participants who read
the vivid congruent message (in which details pertinent to theme of the message were vivid) recalled a significantly higher number of relevant
points than those who read the pallid or vivid incongruent (in which details not pertinent to

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theme of the message were vivid) messages. Similarly, Guadagno et al. (2011) reported that messages with relevant vivid details resulted in
significantly higher levels of attending, comprehension, agreement, and attitudes than messages
with vivid details that were (a) irrelevant to the
message, or (b) both relevant and irrelevant to the
Thus, it appears that vivid content can enhance the persuasiveness of a message. However,
when vivified content is not congruent with the
intended message, vividness may obFuscate or
even undermine the intended message. Special
educators disseminating inFormation on EBPs
might, then, consider vivifying highly salient elements regarding how a practice works and is implemented. For example, Santangelo, Harris, and
Graham (2008) described teacher-modeling in
SelF-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) in
writing by Focusing on what the teacher does,
rather than on unimportant details (e.g., the
physical layout oFthe classroom):

advanced training in statistical analyses and find

statistical inFormation diFficult to interpret and
apply. Moreover, a surprising number oF intelligent, educated individuals are innumeratethe
numerical equivalent oF illiteracy (Paulos,
1989)rendering them unable to interpret even
seemingly straightForward quantitative inFormation. Presenting quantitative inFormation concretely may Facilitate tinderstanding oF research
findings For practitioners.
Lipkus and Hollands (1999) suggested that
graphical displays improve the communication oF
quantitative inFormation; "unlike numbers,
graphs can attract and hold people's attention because they display inFormation in concrete, visual
terms" (p. 149). In particular, the use oF pictographsgrids oF icons or figures (e.g., a 10 X
10 grid of 100 faces), a portion of which are
shaded or colored to show the effect of treatment
or risk within a populationsignificantly reduced
the infltience of misleading anecdotal information
(Fagerlin, Wang, & Udel, 2005) and resulted in
faster and more accurate processing of risk inforTo emphasize the importance oF allowing a
mation in comparison with bar graphs (Zikstory to evolve and to improve it with new
mund-Fisher, Fagerlin, & Ubel, 2008). The
ideas, Barbara purposeFully made several
benefits of presenting quantitative information
changes to her plan as she wrote. She also
through pictographs have been shown for high
used a variety ot selF-statements to help her
and low numeracy individuals, and for young
use the strategy, including the Following:
and old research consumers (Galesic, Garcia"What do I need to do For this assignment?"
Retamero, &L Gigerenzer, 2007).
(Problem definition), "Eirst, I need to think
oF ideas For my story." (Planning), "Let my
Even when presented in pictographs, research
mind he Free and take my time; good ideas
findings can be difficult to interpret without some
will come to me." (Brainstorming), "Does
barometer of how strong the effects are. In a series
this idea make sense?" (SelF-evaluation),
of studies, Peters et al. (2009) found that adding
"What a great ending!" (Self-reinForcement),
visual boundary lines and corresponding evalua"I can do this!" (Coping). (Santangelo, pp.
tive category labels (e.g., poor = 0-60, fair =
61-70, good = 71-80, excellent = 81-100) to
Presenters oF PD may wish to have practicing horizontal bar graphs increased the meaning of
teacherswhether in print, video clip, or in per- the data for research consumers. Similarly, Ziksonwho have implemented the targeted prac- mund-Fisher, Fagerlin, Keeton, and Ubel (2007)
tice in their own classrooms describe how they reported that women were more accurately aware
implemented the practice in vivid detail. Al- of the risks for chromosomal problems of a hypothough the opportunities For researchers to offer thetical fetus when interpretive labels (e.g., posivivid descriptions oF practices are limited in tradi- tive and negative) accompanied amniocentesis
tional research reports, what may be needed are results. Special education researchers might, then,
alternativeand vividreports that are available consider using pictographs (e.g., comparing the
through other outlets (e.g., practitioner journals, effectiveness of two practices by shading in 96 of
web sites).
100 icons for Practice A and 74 of 100 icons for
Presentation of Statistical Information. Most Practice B to represent the proportion of children
special education practitioners do not have who made socially valid improvements with each

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Example of Pictograph Comparing Effects of Two Practices

Practice A (an EBP): 96% of students

reaching criteria
I I = student who met criteria

Practice B (not an EBP): 74% of students

reaching criteria
= student who did not meet criteria

Note. EBP = evidence-based practices.

practice; see Figure 1) and evaluative categories
(e.g., boundary lines marking small, medium, and
large effect sizes on bar graphs; see Figure 2) when
disseminating research findings to practitioners.

Special education scholars can make their ideas

stick by making dissemination credible (Heath &
Heath, 2008). Without special education
researchers convincing practitioners that EBPs are
trustworthy, EBPs have little chance of being implemented (Carnine, 1997). Unfortunately, teachers have expressed little trust in research or
researchers (Nelson, Leffler, & Hansen, 2009).
For example, one special educator noted, "You
can make research basically show whatever you
want it to," and another asked, "How much credence do you lend to research and . . . to the
numbers that can be manipulated any way you
want to maniptilate them?" (Boardman,
Arguelles, Vaughn, Hughes, & Klingner, 2005, p.

176). Two issues that can be targeted to increase

the credibility of research findings are (a) the
sotirces of evidence and opinion leaders, and (b)
reporting attributes of practices beyond efficacy.
Sources of Evidence and Opinion Leaders.
Considerable research has established that source
expertise and trustworthiness are positively related
to persuasiveness (NCDDR, 1996; Pornpitakpan,
2004). Accordingly, it might seem that special education practitioners would view dissemination
from academic researchers as highly credible and
persuasive. However, Heath and Heath (2008)
noted that academic degrees do not always translate into trust; at times an "anti-authority" can
convey considerable credibility. For example,
someone who actually contracted emphysema
might communicate a more credible and persuasive message regarding the dangers of smoking
than a medical doctor or even the Surgeon General. The credibility of anti-authorities may be
particularly powerful in education. When making
decisions about whether to apply instructional

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Example Bar Graphs With Evaluative Categories Comparing Effects of Two Practices



Practice A
Practice B
recommendations, educators often rely on people
with whom they have personal relationships and
who "speak from experience, not in research settings, but in what are considered to be 'real-life'
situations and contexts" (Nelson et al., 2009, p.
49). Thus, credibility among special education
practitioners may not be derived from advanced
degrees, but instead may flow from experience
and expertise in classroom instruction.

ers' use and promotion of the practice as an important source of credible information that others
will follow through imitation (Dearing, Maibach,
& Bullet, 2006).
Atkins et al. (2008) demonstrated that using
opinion leaders to disseminate information can be
effective in schools. In their study, mental health
providers delivered training and support for the
implementation of recommended practices for
students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in 10 low-income elementary schools. In each
Credibility among special
of the six treatment schools, two teacher opinion
education practitioners may not
leaders (identified through peer nomination as
the teachers from whom colleagues most frebe derivedfrom advanced degrees,
sought advice) also provided training and
but instead may flow from experience
support. Teachers in the treatment schools reand expertise in classroom instruction.
ported significantly greater implementation of the
targeted interventions than teachers in schools
Educators' trust in other teachers might be that used only external mental health providers in
applied when disseminating information on EBPs PD. Thus, involving credible special education
in at least two ways. First, when writing reports of practitioners within schools and districts may faresearch for practitioner audiences, researchers cilitate the successful dissemination and diffusion
can include as co-authors practitioners who have of EBPs.
implemented the practice (see Cook, Smith, &
Reporting Attributes of Practices Beyond EffiRichards-Tutor, 2010), thereby lending the credi- cacy. Although measures of effect such as statistibility of teachers' experiences to research findings. cal significance and effect size are important, for
Second, Rogers' (1995) diffusion theory (i.e., an many direct service providers efficacy is only one
influential theory of how ideas become imple- of a host of characteristics considered when determented and spread, or diffused) suggests that mining whether to trust and implement a pracopinion leaders are critical for spreading innova- tice. Diffusion theory posits that the spread and
tions within a social system (Dearing, 2008). adoption of innovations can be predicted by five
Thus, when seeking to spread the adoption of an core perceived attributes of the new idea: relative
EBP, policy makers and administrators can focus advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability,
efforts and resources on a small number of influ- and observability (Rogers, 1995; see Table 1 for a
ential and trusted teachers, utilizing these teach- summary of these attributes).

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Description ofEive Core Attributes of Innovations Erom Classical Marketing Theory



Relative advantage

Practices that are superior to previous/current practices are more likely to be

adopted. Relative advantage is not confined to effect size, but refers to other
attributes (e.g., complexity) as well.


Practices that are compatible with individual and cultural values and experiences are more likely to be adopted.


Practices that are straightforward and easy to implement are more likely to be


Practices that can be implemented on a trial basis (i.e., without fiiU

commitment to long-term implementation) are more likely to be adopted.


Practices resulting in improved outcomes that are clearly visible to observers

are more likely to be adopted.

Although much of the literature on the core

perceived attributes of innovations has been conducted outside of education, they appear to apply
conceptually to schools and teachers. Indeed, the
dissemination of a number of school-based health
programs (i.e., CATCH, Planet Health, and NotOn-Tobacco) have been organized successfttlly
around these core perceived attributes (Franks et
al., 2007). Rather than focusing on the effect sizes
of these programs, effective dissemination efforts
highlighted how they are better than current practice, are compatible with cttrrent instruction, are
simple to implement, do not require an irreversible commitment, and result in clear improvement in important student outcomes.

Special education scholars can make their ideas

stick and heighten their impact on practice by
conveying emotion in their dissemination (Heath
& Heath, 2008). Traditionally, much of the literature on decision-making has assumed that people
could and should arrive at decisions through rational analysis (Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2007). However, emotions and a personal
connection are often the real basis for decisions:
We sometimes delude ourselves that we proceed in a rational manner and weigh all the
pros and cons of various alternatives. But this
is probably seldom the actual case. Quite
often "I decided in favor of X" is no more
than "I liked X." (Zajonc, 1980, p. 154)


As such, rather than the typically "austere, decontextualized" presentations of research, "a positive
emotional connection with . . . practitioners has
to happen somewhere if researchers' contributions
are to take hold in practice" (Bartunek, 2007, p.
1327). We briefly discuss two ideas that might
facilitate an emotional connection between
research and practitioners: (a) the affect heuristic,
and (b) framing.
The Affect Heuristic. Imagine how it feels to
strive to succeed in something that you are devoted
to, but fail at it despite your best efforts. A third-year
special education teacher, Mary (a pseudonym),
came to the first classes of the semester of her master's
program in tears because she could not manage the
inappropriate behaviors of the students in her new
classroom, which prevented her fiom providing effective instruction and prevented her students fiom accomplishing much learning. Eortunately, she was
enrolled in a course on classroom management and
learned about a variety of research-based approaches,
such as reinforcement, precision requests, behavioral
momentum, time-out, response cost, group contingencies, and self-monitoring (see Landrum, Tankersley, &Kauffinan, 2003). She credits these techniques
with making her a better teacher and helping her to
enjoy teaching again.
One way scholars can remediate the researchto-practice gap is to improve their dissemination
of EBPs by capitalizing on the affect heuristic.
Heuristics are adaptive rules-of-thumb or mental
shortcuts used to efficiently make the quick decisions d e m a n d e d of us in a complex world

Winter 2013

(Gigerenzer & Brighton, 2009). By not utilizing

all of the available information to make a decision, which would be inefficient at best and overwhelming at worst, heuristics take a less-is-more
approach that can often be as accurate as when
more information and greater processing is involved. Gigerenzer and Brighton described a
number of heuristics, including satisficing (i.e.,
select the first option that exceeds one's criteria),
the default heuristic (i.e., when possible, do not
make a change), and the equality heuristic (i.e.,
allocating equal resources to multiple alternatives). The affect heuristic represents another
common basis for decision-making (Slovic et al.,
In their review of the research literature,
Slovic et al. (2007) indicated that considerable evidence suggests that affect, or the feeling of goodness or badness associated with stimuli, strongly
infiuences judgment and decision-making. For
example, Hsee and Kunreuther (2000) reported
that participants were willing to spend significantly more time to claim $100 in insurance
compensation for a damaged painting that they
loved in comparison to a $100 insurance claim
for a painting that they were not crazy about.
Economically, this difference does not make
sensethe effort and money are the same in both
cases; but affective attachment infiuenced participants' decisions. Similarly, LaFrance and Hecht
(1995) demonstrated that people accused of academic transgressions were judged more leniently,
but not less guilty, when pictured smilingpresumably because of the positive affect engendered.
It appears that focusing on an individual produces a greater affective attachment than a focus
on the group; or, as Mother Teresa stated, "If I
look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the
one, I will" (cited in Small, Loewenstein, &
Slovic, 2007, p. 143.) Participants who saw a picture of a hungry little girl in Africa and read
about her specific situation donated more {M =
$2.38) of $5 given to them by the researchers to a
Save the Children fund than did participants who
read a factual description of the problem of starvation in Africa {M = $1.14; Small et al, 2007).
Further, in a separate study reported in the same
article, the authors found that participants who
were primed to think affectivelythey were asked
questions such as "When you hear the word

Exceptional Children

'baby' what do you feel?"before being presented

with a picture and information about a hungry
girl donated almost twice as much money than
participants given the same materials but who
were primed to think analyticallyby being
asked questions such as "If an object travels at five
feet per minute, then by your calculations how
many feet will it travel in 360 seconds?" Thus,
special education researchers may wish to facilitate affective attachment among practitioners for
an EBP by discussing its posicive impact on a particular individual rather than on a group, and by
priming their audience to think affectivelyas we
attempted to do in the first paragraph of this section.
Framing. Because tbe benefits of using EBPs are
clear and substantial, special education researchers
sbould use effective dissemination techniques, such as
fiaming, to heighten the impact ofitbeir research and
increase the implementation of EBPs. Eor example,
fiaming a training or a research report on SRSD by
emphasizing its benefits (e.g., acrossfivegroup comparison studies. Baker, Chard, Ketterlin-Geller,
Apichatabutra, and Doabler [2009] reported an efifiect size ofi +1.22 fior SRSD; Mason and Sbriner
[2008] reported how SRSD has made a real difference in students with disabilities becoming competent writers and passing state proficiency testsfiorthe
fitrst time) can help increase tbe rate at which the
practice is adopted.

Framing is one strategy scholars can use in

their dissemination efforts to promote the adoption of EBPs such as SRSD. Framing can prime
consumers to interact with research through a
particular affective lens, which can heighten the
impact of that information. For example, peoples'
opinions of a Ku Klux Klan rally differ depending
on whether it is framed as a freedom of speech
issue or a public safety issue (Druckman, 2001).
Banks et al. (1995) theorized that people tend to
avoid risk and choose the more certain option
when presented with different positive consequences of their behavior (i.e., gain framing). In
contrast, when choosing among different negative
consequences of their behavior (i.e., loss framing),
people tend to be risk takers. Banks et al. reported
that women who watched a loss-framed video
emphasizing the negative consequences of not
getting a mammogram were significantly more
likely to have obtained a mammogram within 12


months in comparison to women who viewed a

positively Framed video (see also Meyerowitz &
Chaiken, 1987). These results are consistent with
theory-based predictions because engaging in
screenings, such as mammograms, that may uncover unwanted inFormation, such as cancer, is
considered risky behavior. In contrast, gainFtamed messages have been shown to encourage
preventive behaviors, such as weight reduction
and wearing a seat belt, associated with minimizing health risks (Rothman, Bartels, Wlaschin, &
Salovey, 2006).
When promoting behavior that risks uncovering negative outcomes, such as screening students For academic and behavioral difficulties,
special education practitioners may be particularly
receptive to loss-framed messages that emphasize
the negative repercussions of not engaging in the
behavior. In contrast, promoting practices that
minimize the risk of school failure, such as EBPs,
might be aided by gain-framing (i.e., emphasizing
the benefits of using EBPs). The first paragraph in
this section is an attempt to positively frame our
discussion of framing.

Special education scholars can make their ideas

stick and heighten their impact on practice by
using stories in their dissemination (Heath &
Heath, 2008). Story-telling is a fundamental
mode of human commtinication, the power of
which can be harnessed for disseminating research
Findings (Kreuter et al., 2007). As Shermer
(2007) noted, "IF you cannot tell a good story
about your data and theory . . . then your science
is incomplete" (p. 46). Reviews oF the empirical
literature have been equivocal regarding whether
narratives are more persuasive than other modes
oF inFormation (e.g., statistics), although it is important to note that the length, definition, and
quality of narratives in these studies varied considerably (Hinyard & Kreuter, 2007). It appears
that narrative stories may be especially persuasive
for groups that are least likely to be persuaded by
traditional modes of didactic information. For example, Kreuter et al. (2010) found that narrative
videos with stories from breast cancer survivors
resulted in significantly higher rates of mammography use than informational videos For African


American women who did not have a friend or

family member with breast cancer, and who had
low levels of trust of traditional sources of cancer
information. Thus, stories might be particularly
useful for educators who are typically resistant to
traditional educational research (Gersten, 2001).
We consider two issues related to effectively disseminating research findings through narratives:
identification with people in stories and using
representative stories.

Narrative stories may be especially

persuasive for groups that are least
likely to be persuaded by traditional
modes of didactic information.
Identification With People in Stories. Transportation theory (Green, 2006; Green & Brock,
2000) holds that storieswhether in the form of
novels, movies, television shows, lawyers' closing
arguments, political speeches, or research summariescan potentially transport individuals into
the world of the story such that they feel as
though they are witnessing or are involved in the
story. Identification with a main character in a
story appears to be a critical factor in triggering
and intensifying transportation and its effects.
Identification occurs when "audience members
experience reception and interpretation of the text
from the inside, as if the events were happening
to them" (Cohen, 2001, p. 245). Rather than just
transporting themselves into the world of the
story, identification allows consumers to play an
active role in the story through the character(s)
with whom they identify (Green, 2006). Green
noted that although identification with a story
character may involve similarity of demographic
characteristics (e.g., age, ethnicity, gender), it can
be fostered most strongly by common experiences
and values.
Kreuter et al. (2008) found that, rather than
narrative quality, the best predictor of participants' engagement in and positive thoughts about
the stories of breast cancer survivors "was whether
they viewed her [the survivor] as similar to themselves and liked her" (p. 41). Similarly, McQueen
and Kreuter (2010) found that perceived similarity significantly correlated with trusting, liking.

Winter 2013

and being transported into the stories of breast (p. 1603). Steiner recommended five attributes of
cancer survivors. And Moyer-Guse, Chung, and effective, representative stories: (a) expression of
Jain (2011) reported that identification with themes in research, (b) location in the distribucharacters in a Sex in the City video in which sex- tion of stories, (c) acknowledgment of uncerually transmitted infections (STIs) were discussed tainty, (d) verifiability, and (e) compelling
correlated significantly and inversely with coun- narrative. First, researchers must carefully review
terarguing (i.e., wanting to argue with what was the research literature to identify key themes (e.g.,
occurring onscreen), and significantly and posi- the effects of a practice, population for whom the
tively related to intention to discuss or get tested practice has been shown to work, outcomes affor STIswhich in turn predicted actual behav- fected, social validity). Stories are then evaluated
regarding their representativeness along each
Thus, facilitating practitioners' identification theme. Although the most representative stories
with characters in stories about EBPs might pro- typically are selected for dissemination, Steiner,
mote successful dissemination of EBPs in special Nowels, and Main (2010) noted that researchers
education. Meaningful identification will likely may sometimes select atypical experiences for storequire ascertaining relevant experiences (e.g., ries to communicate cautionary "nightmare" or
types of teaching experiences, working under dif- inspirational "ideal" cases. When disseminating
ficult conditions) and values or goals (e.g., impor- stories, researchers shotild, then, explicitly inditance of individualizing instruction) of one's cate whether the story is typical or atypical of retarget audience and then refiecting them in the search findings for each theme. Stories can also
main character(s) of the stories. For example, our acknowledge and communicate areas of uncertarget audience in this article is special education tainty in the research literature. For example, if
scholars who work with special education practi- the research literature is unclear on whether an
tioners and desire to bridge the research-to-prac- EBP shown to be effective for students with
tice gap. A story that reports the successful learning disabilities is also effective for students
application of some of the strategies discussed in with autism, a story can communicate this by the
this article could be made particularly effective by teacher-narrator noting uncertainty about
having the main character share these and other whether the practice will work for her newly ascharacteristics with our target audience.
signed student with autism. Last, Steiner recomRepresentative Stories. Despite the potential mended that the narrator or subject of the story
power of narratives as a dissemination tool, "many verify the story as authentic and that the story be
researchers have categorically rejected the use of presented in a compelling manner.
stories to disseminate research findings because of
If researchers cannot locate a single story that
their subjectivity and susceptibility to bias" is representative across the multiple themes they
(Steiner, 2007, p. 1603). Indeed, persuasive stories wish to address, it may be necessary to rely on
can be and have been used to promote ineffective multiple stories to speak to all themes. Kreuter et
practices. Even true stories may result in what al. (2007) raised another option, that of a comKreuter et al. (2007) referred to as an epidemio- posite story, in which pieces of different, true stological misstatement (i.e., information that is ries are combined into a single narrative. Such an
technically accurate but nonetheless misleading). approach "may allow communication developers
As Green (2006) noted, "people tend to general- more control over the accuracy of . . . content
ize from stories even when the cases presented in while maintaining the realism of personal experithe story are not typical" (p. S170). Paradoxically, ence" (Kreuter et al., 2007, p. 231). Alternatively,
then, the very thing that makes stories powerftil given initial research findings that stories identitools in dissemination (i.e., their persuasiveness) fied as fictional are as persuasive as factual stories
can represent an important liability.
(Green & Brock, 2000), scholars might create
Steiner (2007) stressed that when using nar- prototypical, fictional stories that address all
ratives to disseminate and diffuse research find- themes in a representative manner. In such cases
ings, stories must be evaluated and selected for it is important to communicate clearly that the
representativeness to avoid "errors in inference" story is contrived.

Exceptional Children









In 1601, James Lancaster conducted an experiment showing that lemon juice prevented scurvy,
a disease that caused more deaths among sailors
than accidents or warfare at the time. However,
even though James Lind replicated the study in
1753, scurvy continued to be the scourge of the
seas until 1795 when the British Navy started
using citrus juice regularly (Meyers, 2003;
Mosteller, 1981). Roddis (1941) estimated that
"5000 lives a year were needlessly lost from
scurvy" in the interim between scientific discovery
and practical application of this treatment, a total
of nearly 800,000 lives (as cited in Anderson,
2000). Although lag time between tesearcb and
implementation has improved considerably.
Creen (2008) estimated that it still takes approximately 17 years for research to result in meaningful benefits to patients in medicine, with
ineffective dissemination being a primary cause of
the delay.
Creen (2008) noted that when disseminating
research findings, many researchers engage in the
empty-vessel fallacy, falsely assuming that "the
practitioner is an empty vessel into which the information can be poured and once full will spill
over into action" (p. i23). Such assumptions result
in passive, traditional dissemination efforts such
as journal articles and didactic PD, which tend
not to persuade practitioners or compel them to
action. Researchers who want their research to
matter will "have to find ways to both motivate
and enable practitioners to process and use academic findings" (Rynes, Bartunek, & Daft:, 2001,
p. 346). Our core message is that special education scholars can make their ideas stick and
heighten their impact on practice by incorporating effective dissemination strategies such as simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility,
emotion, and stories.
There seems to be a mindset in academia
that actively disseminating one's research findings
risks crossing a line into self-promotion and "science 'spin'" (Shonkoff & Bales, 2011, p. 27),
which may not be too far removed from huckster176

ism and the selling of snake-oil. Yet, as Maibach,

Van Duyn, and Bloodgood (2006) noted, the
readily apparent influence of marketing in contemporary society should be taken "as prima facie
evidence of marketing's potential to manage behavior and shape community environments, for
better or worse" (p. 7). Thus, rather than bemoan
the application of marketing principles in the service of questionable instructional approaches, it
may be important, if not imperative, for special
education researchers who want their work to
matter to push toward a more comprehensive
study and application of the emerging literature
on effective dissemination.

Rather than bemoan the application of

marketing principles in the service of
questionable instructional approaches, it
may be important, if not imperative, for
special education researchers who want
their work to matter to push toward a
more comprehensive study and
application of the emerging literature
on effective dissemination.
We acknowledge a related and perhaps ironic
concern that higher education, especially research
universities, may not be set up to reward active
and effective dissemination of the research they
produce (see Reeves, McKenney, & Herrington,
2011). Traditional reports of research in top-tier
scholarly journals are almost certainly not the best
venues fot dissemination to impact practice, yet
such publications remain the coin of the realm in
most academic institutions (e.g., used as the primary basis for decisions related to promotion,
tenure, and merit pay). The lack of institutional
rewards for pursuing meaningful dissemination
strategies beyond publication has no doubt contributed to many academics defaulting to what
Stolz (1981) called a "publish and hope" (p. 502)
approach to dissemination. Arranging the reward
structure of higher education to recognize and reinforce the importance of translating research to
practice may be necessary for researchers to
broadly adopt effective dissemination.

Winter 2013

Of course, the strategies reviewed here are

not mutually exclusive; in fact, they can easily
overlap and complement one another. For example, research on an EBP can likely be made more
persuasive when told as a story narrated by a real
teacher (credible) who sticks to a core message
(simple) that contains vivid details about implementing the practice (concrete), which has a surprising twist (unexpected outcomes) that
culminates with a parent's heartfelt response to
improved student performance (emotional).
Indeed, multipronged dissemination strategies
may be the most likely approaches to lead to the
desired diffusion of innovations (Dearing, 2008).
It is important to recognize that the majority
of research and theory that we have discussed
comes from fields other than special education.
We conjecture that successful dissemination
strategies in fields such as medicine, psychology,
and marketing will generalize to special education, but this is of course an empirical question.
Considerable research needs to be conducted to
determine (a) whether dissemination strategies
shown to be effective in other fields with other
populations also work for special educators, and
(b) how to adapt and refine these and other dissemination strategies to optimize their effectiveness in special education.
Ultimately, if special education researchers
are serious about matteringabout positively impacting the instructional behaviors of practitioners and consequently the outcomes of students
with and at-risk for disabilitiesthen researching,
refining, and applying effective dissemination
techniques are amotig the many critical tasks to
be accomplished. Continued disregard of disseminadon will allow too much of the applied intervention research that is the hallmark of scientific
inquiry in special education to languish within
the frequently closed loop of academia.


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BRYAN G. COOK (Hawaii CEC), Professor; and

LYSANDRA COOK (Hawaii C E C ) , Associate

Professor, Special Education Department, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, T I M O T H Y J .

LANDRUM (Kentucky CEC), Associate Professor, Department of Special Edtication, College of
Education and Human Development, University
of Louisville, Kentucky.

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elusive "vividness" effect. Psychological Review, 89,

Address correspondence concerning this article to

Bryan G. Cook, Special Education Department,
University of Hawaii, Wist Hall 123, Honolulu,
HI 96822 (e-mail:

van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Sweller, J. (2005). Cognitive load theory and complex learning: Recent development and future directions. Educational Psychology
Review, 17, 147-177.

The authors thank Sam Odom and an anonymous reviewer for their insightful feedback on
this article.

Winton, P. (2006). The evidence-based practice movement and its effect on knowledge utilization. In V.
Buysse & P. Wesley (Eds.), Evidence-based practice in the

Manuscript submitted April 2012; accepted July



Winter 2013

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