Short Research Report

Randomised controlled trials in educational research: Ontological and epistemological limitations

Michael Rowe, Carmen Oltmann


Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are a valued research method in evidence-based practice in medical and clinical settings because they are associated with a particular ontological and epistemological perspective that is situated within a positivist world view. It assumes that environments and variables can be controlled to establish cause-effect relationships. However, current theories of learning suggest that knowledge is socially constructed, and that learning occurs in open systems that cannot be controlled and manipulated as would be required in a RCT. They recognise the importance and influence of context on learning, which positivist research paradigms specifically aim to counter. We argue that RCTs are inappropriate in education research because they force one to take up ontological and epistemological positions in a technical rationalist framework, which is at odds with current learning theory.

Authors' affiliations

Michael Rowe, Department of Physiotherapy, Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa

Carmen Oltmann, Division of Pharmacy Practice, Faculty of Pharmacy, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa

Full Text

PDF (66KB)


Randomised controlled trials; Epistemology; Ontology; Medical education

Cite this article

African Journal of Health Professions Education 2016;8(1):6-8. DOI:10.7196/AJHPE.2016.v8i1.683

Article History

Date submitted: 2015-10-13
Date published: 2016-03-26

Article Views

Abstract views: 12049
Full text views: 4234

Comments on this article

*Read our policy for posting comments here