Eight Steps to Conducting an Evidence Search

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) promotes the use of federal funds to purchase programs that have evidence of effectiveness in increasing student success. But how can state and local education leaders find programs and practices that meet ESSA evidence standards? As part of a partnership between Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Central at Marzano Research Associates and the Nebraska Department of Education, we provided technical support in developing a systematic process for conducting evidence searches. If you are on a quest for rigorous evidence to support a program or practice, here are eight steps you can follow to conduct a search.

  • Step 1: Define constructs. To start, it is important to fully understand what you are looking for! Therefore, the first step of the process is to thoroughly define the program or practice that is the subject of your search, including its expected outcomes.
  •  Step 2: Identify search databases. The Internet is bursting with search engines! However, some will be more relevant to the search than others. In this step, take some time to determine which search engines and databases will be most appropriate to this specific search. If the search is in the realm of education, websites and search databases such as What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), REL publications, and Evidence for ESSA are good places to start because the studies on these sites have already been reviewed against rigorous standards.
  • Step 3: Determine inclusion criteria. There is so much literature out there! Therefore, it is necessary to set criteria for including a study to review. Good criteria will help you focus weed out studies that aren’t relevant to your search and focus your attention on those with the highest potential to meet evidence standards. Criteria might include study design characteristics, such as a randomized controlled trial or quasi-experimental design, or program characteristics, such as relevant outcomes.
  • Step 4: Determine search terms. Before beginning the search, determine and record the search terms to be used in the search process. Be sure to consider synonyms and alternative terms for the constructs you defined in Step 1.
  • Step 5: Prepare the search database. Before you begin, you’ll need to prepare a database to document your search results and describe studies that meet inclusion criteria. We use an Excel spreadsheet with column headers to capture study design characteristics that speak to the study’s rigor and program characteristics that help define the program and explain why it’s effective and how it can be replicated. Include additional column headers for any information relevant to your specific search purposes.
  • Step 6: Conduct the search. Now you are ready to conduct the search! Enter the search terms identified in step 4 into the search engines and databases identified in Step 2 and review the results. If a study seems relevant, review the abstract or the entire study more carefully to determine if it meets your inclusion criteria. As you conduct the search, document the number of initial results, number of abstracts reviewed, and number of studies identified for further consideration in the spreadsheet or other tool prepared in Step 5. It is important to track these numbers to capture historical data regarding your search as well as representation of the breadth and depth of your search process.
  • Step 7: Document studies. Yay, a study meets your inclusions criteria! Document those studies that fit your criteria in the spreadsheet you prepared in step 5. This creates a record of these studies, so they can be further examined and reviewed.
  • Step 8: Review the search process. Throughout the search process, it is important to periodically evaluate the findings and the process in general to ensure the review is on track and identifying the most relevant studies. Review the studies you’ve captured. Are you finding studies that align with your search goals? If not, revisit the search design (steps 1–5) and revise steps as needed. Also review the results of the search and determine whether the studies you’ve documented are providing strong supporting evidence for your program or practice. It is important to gauge this regularly so you know if you are on track.

These eight easy steps will help you organize any evidence search so you find the most relevant studies to support your program or practice in a systematic and efficient manner. For more information on meeting ESSA requirements for evidence-based programs and practices, check out WestEd’s resources for states here.