Educational Scholarship Questions that Keep Us Moving

By: Spencer E. Harpe, PharmD, PhD, MPH, FAPhA and Theresa Charrois, BScPharm, MSc, EdD

This post is part of our Educational Scholarship “Quick Start” series.  In this series, the editorial boards of Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Innovations in Pharmacy are joining together to provide advice that helps authors avoid common problems in education-related inquiry. A “Quick Start” is not only about being efficient, it’s about enhancing the impact and effectiveness of our scholarly contributions.

Let’s start with a familiar scenario, a pharmacist reviewing a patient profile to identify medication therapy problems (MTPs). Simply identifying MTPs and communicating those problems to prescribers is not enough to optimize patient care. Monitoring whether those efforts towards MTP resolution were effective is an important next step, but we must continue by looking at how and why our resolution efforts were effective, in order to understand how to improve patient care. The same holds for our educational scholarship. We must move beyond identifying the problem and describing our interventions. We must move to examine the how’s and why’s of our efforts to solve a problem.

Turning to our educational scholarship, most of us would say that we want to make an impact. This impact may involve improving student learning, which will ultimately improve patient and population health outcomes. As Albon, Cooley, and Janke1 discuss, impact occurs at many levels: in our own courses, at our local institutions, or more broadly across the academy. Developing questions that promote or facilitate impact is the first step of the educational scholarship process.

Framing educational scholarship questions

Cook, Bordage, and Schmidt2 provide a useful framework to view educational scholarship questions that is based on the intended purpose: description, justification, and clarification. Think of these as a progression–starting with description, then moving to justification, and on to clarification. The earlier MTP example demonstrates this progression: identifying MTPs (description), monitoring intervention effectiveness (justification), and determining how and why our intervention was effective (clarification). We provide examples to compare the practice-focused scenario, using MTPs, with an educational scholarship context.

Question types and examples from practice and education

Question type Medication therapy problems Educational scholarship
 (What was done?)
-What types of MTPs were found?

-What was done to resolve those MTPs?
What was involved in creating and implementing an online cardiology therapeutics course?
 (Did it work?)
– Were the MTP resolution efforts effective? 

-Did patient outcomes improve?
Do students in an online cardiology therapeutics course have better (or at least equivalent) knowledge outcomes compared to students in an in-person course?
(How or why did it work?)
-Why did certain efforts to resolve MTPs work? 

-Why did others not work?
Using a social constructivist framework, how does learning in a cardiology therapeutics course influence outcomes like student success in a cardiology APPE? 

MTP: medication therapy problems; APPE: advanced pharmacy practice experience

Description questions are typically focused on what was done with little to no assessment of learning outcomes. Projects may be designed after the teaching and learning modality was planned and implemented. Single group studies with pre- and post-tests are commonly used. While the lack of evaluative data limits their impact, descriptive questions do have a role in describing early stage investigations.

Questions focused on justification examine whether some teaching and learning intervention worked. These questions include study designs with a comparison to a group not receiving the intervention (comparing two separate course sections, comparing one student cohort to the previous cohort, etc.). With justification questions, there is increased emphasis on careful development of the study plan rather than it being an afterthought.

Clarification questions generally examine why or how an intervention worked. These questions are most likely to be prospective. There is an expectation for the use of theory or theoretical frameworks to support the explanation. Qualitative methods are particularly useful. Questions at this level require the most effort, but give us the greatest insight into our educational interventions, thus advancing our knowledge.

Why should we consider these different types of questions?

When framing a new inquiry, we can use this categorization to help inform practice. Our efforts must build upon the existing body of knowledge.3 This involves considering the types of questions we ask and being flexible in the way we approach our questions.4

If our goal is to have a positive impact, then we might measure success on the ability of other educators to use our findings in their own local context. Starting with good questions is key. Additionally, we should move from one-off projects that are conceptualized retrospectively to developing a pipeline of scholarship—a prospective plan involving multiple projects that can help clarify questions related to problems affecting the academy at large. There are multiple publication options providing space for various kinds of questions and phases of inquiry.5

Similar to the pharmacist identifying and resolving MTPs described above, pharmacy education scholars need to know what was done through the use of description questions, whether it worked through use of justification questions, and why it worked with clarification questions. By tending to the types of questions we ask and aligning them with what is already known, we can maximize the chances that our educational scholarship efforts will have a meaningful impact across a variety of contexts. 


Spencer Harpe is Deputy Editor for the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association and Associate Editor for Author Services at Currents in Pharmacy Teaching & Learning. He is also a member of the Annals of Pharmacotherapy Editorial Board’s research design and statistics panel. Theresa Charrois is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board at Currents in Pharmacy Teaching & Learning.


  1. Albon S, Cooley J, Janke K. Taking the Reins in Describing the Impact of Educational Scholarship. Pulses blog. November 8, 2020. Accessed March 31, 2021.
  2. Cook DA, Bordage G, Schmidt HG. Description, justification and clarification: a framework for classifying the purposes of research in medical education. Med Educ. 2008;42(2):128-133. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2923.2007.02974.x
  3. Janke K, Wilby KJ. What do conference receptions and scholarly writing have in common? Pulses blog. March 9, 2021. Accessed March 31, 2021.
  4. Young M, LaDonna K, Varpio L, Balmer DF. Focal Length Fluidity: Research Questions in Medical Education Research and Scholarship. Acad Med. 2019;94(11S):S1-S4. doi:10.1097/ACM.0000000000002913
  5. Janke K. Finding the right type of article for your scholarly work in pharmacy education. Innov Pharm. 2018;9(1):12. doi:10.24926/iip.v9i1.1110

Author bios


Spencer E. Harpe is Professor of Pharmacy Administration at Midwestern University College of Pharmacy (Downers Grove, IL Campus). He teaches topics related to healthcare quality, program development and evaluation, quality improvement methods, statistics, and epidemiology. His educational scholarship interests include methods to improve statistics and research education, engagement in research and evaluation activities, and the reporting and uptake of evidence-based practices in education. In his free time, Spencer enjoys travel, photography, and building with LEGO.

Theresa Charrois is a Clinical Associate Professor and Director of Practice Innovation at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta. Her teaching area is practice skills and her scholarly interests include teaching students about clinical decision-making, professional identity, and pharmacist prescribing. Teri also works as an ambulatory care pharmacist. Teri likes to spend her time knitting, travelling and playing sports. 

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning


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