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What Works? Research Methodologist Tackles Complex Social Issues, Targets Effective Practices

April 5, 2004
Professor William Shadish Joins School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts

MERCED, CA. — Does psychotherapy benefit people who are depressed? What is its effect on couples seeking marriage counseling? Does it improve the outcome of treatment for alcoholism?

These are some of the issues examined by licensed clinical psychologist, noted author and professor William R. Shadish, Ph.D., who specializes in program evaluation and the design of experiments that probe social issues. A research methodologist, Shadish also is known nationwide for his work in meta-analysis, a practice that combines results from many studies on the same question into a comprehensive overview of the subject.

Shadish was recently named Professor of Psychology in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts (SSHA) at the University of California, Merced, where he will tackle some of California's complex social issues. As one example, he has been asked to consult on the design of a potential study that would use computerized instruction to help farm workers for whom English is a second language.

Recently, he also has consulted with the U.S. Department of Education to set up the “What Works Clearinghouse,” a project to gather and summarize experimental evidence about effective practices in education. By summarizing the findings of many studies on this topic, researchers and policymakers can avoid being misled by unusual results from a single study.

“Professor Shadish is one of the nation's foremost experts on social science methodology for learning 'what works' in a variety of social settings,” says Thomas D. Cook, a longtime colleague and co-author of three books with Shadish. A professor of sociology, psychology, education and social policy at Northwestern University, Cook says Shadish “has used this expertise to become a substantive authority on what works in psychotherapy and is now branching out to do more on what works in education.”

“In addition, he has made seminal contributions to theories of evaluation, the study of how any policy program or project should be evaluated so that the truth about it emerges and the results are likely to be used,” Cook says. “What sets him apart from others is the depth of his understanding and the empirical rigor of his work.”

Shadish gained national recognition after writing a book on program evaluation and he frequently serves as a consultant to the educational community. His most recent book, Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Generalized Causal Inference, was co-authored with Thomas Cook and Donald Campbell, and is considered the definitive statement on the subject.

“There are not many experiments in education to tell us what works,” he says. “My most recent book came out about the same time as the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act mandated more experiments, so my book has become popular in part because educators are looking for helpful advice on how to do the experiments that the Act calls for.”

Shadish is author of more than 100 publications, chapters and books on wide-ranging topics relating to psychology, meta-analysis and experimental design. He wrote Foundations of Program Evaluation: Theories of Practice, described as the classic description of the field of program evaluation. Published in 1991, it was co-authored by Laura Leviton and Cook.

For the past four years, Shadish was the Dunavant University Professor of Psychology, and he was director of the Research Design and Statistics Program at the University of Memphis for 16 years. He was honored as an eminent faculty member and distinguished researcher in psychology at Memphis, where he taught and conducted research for 22 years in the Department of Psychology. For seven years, he also directed the Center for Applied Psychological Research in the Psychology Department at Memphis.

He was a visiting scholar at the Institute of Policy Research at Northwestern University in 1997 and a visiting research associate at Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies from 1985-1990. Previously, Shadish was a postdoctoral fellow in methodology and evaluation research in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University from 1978-1981.

He obtained doctorate and master's degrees in clinical psychology with a specialty in measurement and statistics from Purdue University and spent six months studying undergraduate psychology at California State University, Hayward, after obtaining his first bachelor's degree in sociology from Santa Clara University.

“'Wow, how the heck did you manage to get Shadish?' That's a very common reaction I get from colleagues throughout the country,” says Kenji Hakuta, Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, who also happens to be a psychologist and is involved in national debates about the effectiveness of education programs. “Shadish is a household name in those circles. He is also extremely well liked because he's so balanced in his views, and a gentleman to boot.”

Shadish may teach both undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology and research, depending on the need, including a course in psychological statistics. While many students find the subject difficult, he feels his ability to explain the complicated topic is one of his strengths as a teacher.

“Students who are afraid of statistics do well in my class and while there are several keys to being a good teacher, one is being available to help students,” he says. “Just the mere fact they know you're there to talk to them about the class helps.

“After nearly 23 years of teaching, I've found it's the personal relationship with the student that makes the difference on both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Personal contact is the most important. Students can tell right away if you're interested in them or not.”

Shadish is pleased to be at UC Merced. “I've done just about everything in academics but have never started a new university. It's incredibly exciting,” he says.

Family contacts also were an important part of his decision to leave Memphis. Shadish's father retired from the Army and settled in Redding, where some of his family still lives. He also has a brother in Pleasanton and a sister in Gardena who teaches at El Camino Community College.

UC Merced is the first major research university to be built in the United States in the 21st century. Already serving students through a concurrent admissions program coordinated with three regional community colleges and through summer session courses, UC Merced has a special mission to serve the educational needs of California's San Joaquin Valley. Scheduled to open in August 2005 to serve 1,000 students, the campus currently employs a total of approximately 190 educators and other professionals. In the coming decades, the campus will grow to a student population of 25,000.