Thursday, 23 October 2014

Why Educational Neuroscience?

Two weeks ago the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) announced the six grant winners of their call for educational neuroscience research. While this funding call was met with excitement from those in the field, others were less positive. There is a concern that neuroscience and education are just too far apart for any real benefit. In addition, widespread 'neuromyths' are being passed from teacher to teacher and providing false information which may harm learning. Last week, results from a published survey showed the extent of these neuromyths in teachers around the world. Although some would argue that it is psychology, not neuroscience, that can have an impact in the classroom, and that neuroscience can have no real impact on education, I would argue otherwise.

Psychology and neuroscience
Clearly it is important to use psychology methods and behavioural measures when investigating the impact of an intervention. However, if we find one intervention that works well compared to another intervention, we may be left wondering why one was better, and what we really changed. By investigating what is going on at a deeper level, we gain a clearer picture of how the intervention worked. This may in turn help us to build even more effective interventions. Psychology as a discipline incorporates neuroscience, and I think these two approaches complement each other in finding out more about our interventions. The Wellcome-EEF funding was awarded to projects where the neuroscience added something extra, and was not simply an add-on with no relevance.

Teachers want evidence
Teachers are keen to hear from neuroscientists, and want to know exactly how they can enhance learning in their classrooms. I believe neuroscientists therefore have a duty to engage with teachers and pass on relevant information. If neuromyths are left to continue spreading, the situation may get worse. Eventually we want to be able to replace these myths with useful neuroscience findings.

Evidence-based education
The field of education is in need of a strong evidence base. Ben Goldacre compared education to medicine, arguing that one day teaching could be an evidence-based practice just like medicine. If teachers are keen to get involved with neuroscience research, then this is a good thing as researchers need the help of schools to build up an evidence base.

Until recently we didn't have the means to fully implement an educational neuroscience approach. Technology has vastly improved, as has our knowledge, and we are now at a stage where we can make some really meaningful findings. Just because we don't know exactly where this young field might go, we should not decide that it isn't worth investigating.

The future
I think the growth of educational neuroscience is very positive. It is helping to bring a science base to the field of education, and its aims are to directly influence and improve education for all learners. Psychologists and educators have been known to not interact with each other when they often have overlapping goals. Educational neuroscience will help to bring neuroscientists, educators and psychologists into the same room, to work together with the common goal of improving education.

One example of good practice in educational neuroscience is the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, which is a joint enterprise between Birkbeck, the Institute of Education, and UCL. They aim to bring together education, psychology, and neuroscience, to improve education for all. I think educational neuroscience has an exciting future ahead, and I look forward to seeing the field grow.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Tips for recruiting schools

I've spoken a little before about some of the challenges in school-based research. One of the first challenges you will face in carrying out research in schools is recruitment. I am often amazed to read papers that have studied hundreds of students and have no mention of how they recruited their participants. Having worked in a number of schools I thought I'd share my tips for recruiting schools, which can be a very disheartening process.

Look for systems already in place in your university
Lots of departments and lab groups keep databases of schools in the area. Before contacting any schools, it's worth asking around to see if any of these are available for you to use. These can be really helpful as they hopefully will have notes on which researchers have been into those schools, and how well received the contact from the university was. They may include helpful tips for specific people to contact, or email addresses that are not included on the school website.

Visit local council websites
Council websites will have lists of the schools in the area, often with a link to the school's website and a list of contact information. If there is no database as described above, I use Excel to create a spreadsheet of my local schools using the information from the council website. Council websites sometimes tell you the size of the school, which can be really helpful in deciding which schools to contact - you may decide to contact the schools with 500 students in rather than those with 50. If you're looking for lots of schools, then only note down the most important information into the spreadsheet. Don't bother with things like addresses because the chances are you'll not need these and it would be a waste of time.

Don't forget private schools
Private schools won't appear on council websites so you may need to do some searching for local private schools. A Google search can show you these schools.

Make first contact
As a first contact I usually send out a blanket email to all of the schools in the area. Remember that return rates are very low so you should definitely contact many more schools than you need. Keep the email short, and include all of the important points, including any participation payment you are offering. In your Excel spreadsheet, keep a column for noting the date and contact made with the school. If you're lucky, you will get a response from some schools!

Make second contact
Schools get a lot of junk emails so may have deleted yours. I usually phone the school within a week of sending the email, and ask if they received the email and if they could pass it on to the headteacher. Often they will  say that they haven't received the email, and will ask you to resend it. Confirm the email address with the receptionist as those on websites are sometimes not up to date. If I'm sending out a second email, I usually use the headteacher's name to make it more personal, and mention the name of the person I've been in phone contact with. Schools will not usually allow you to contact the headteacher directly, but it may be worth asking as occasionally they will give you the head's email address. However, I've noticed one trick that some schools do - they tell you the headteacher's email address but actually all emails go to the central admin account! Always be polite to the receptionists because they are often the ones who decide whether or not your email gets through to the head.

Keep making contact!
You may have to keep phoning schools and sending reminder emails through. Remember that teachers are incredibly busy. I have found that teachers appreciate polite reminder emails as they may have forgotten to reply. If you agree to speak with a teacher on the phone, confirm a suitable time and date to ensure you catch them while they're not teaching.

Keep notes of ALL contact made
I've already mentioned this above, but it's really important to write down what contact was made and when. The schools will probably blur together and you won't remember specific conversations, so instead of noting "called the school to ask if they were interested", write down more specific details like "called the school to ask if they were interested, Louise will call me back within 2 days to let me know". This will be really helpful if you don't hear anything back and want to contact them again.

Be flexible
When you are in contact with schools and trying to recruit them to your study, be flexible in your contact with them. Offer to speak on the phone and over email. Offer to go in to speak directly to the headteacher and any interested teachers to tell them more about the study. If you are recruiting for a study which involves a great deal of school participation, consider holding an information seminar for headteachers where you can give a talk about the project (possibly at your university), followed by a question and answer session.

Manage expectations
If your project involves a lot of time in the school or a lot of work for the teachers, be open and honest about this from the beginning. It may be tempting to play down the amount of school involvement to get teachers on board, but when they find out they have more to do they won't be impressed with the lack of transparency. If the amount of work does put schools off, at least you haven't recruited a school that wouldn't have been able to complete the work, or would have got annoyed by your presence.

Offer rewards
If possible, monetary awards for schools that take part can be a big incentive. If you are unable to offer money, then think about other things you can offer the school. Perhaps you could give them results from the study in a small seminar for teachers or interested parents. You could give an assembly to the school about your area of research, or take some students on a tour of your campus. Perhaps you could show the teachers how to use a specific tool that your research utilises. Or at the end of the study you could give the teachers access to the project materials if they are helpful.

Good luck!

I'd be interested to hear if there are any other tricks of the trade out there that I haven't covered! Please do comment below.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Cross-National Research

At the ESRC Research Methods Festival last week, I attended a session on cross-national research. This topic is particularly relevant to my research as I am involved in an international project looking at the effects of an anti-bullying programme. Although much of the discussion in the cross-national research session related to much larger projects, I found that many of the issues were similar to those I had encountered.

I was pleased to hear Vitalija Gaucaite Wittich championing the need for international research, despite the often negative views often surrounding it. Firstly, the evidence base it provides allows for the comparison of countries. This is important for policy makers as it allows benchmarking, which can be an important motivator in policy debate. The Active Ageing Index was given as an example of a successful tool which has enabled the monitoring of outcomes nationally and internationally.

Jane Scobie spoke about a large scale project aiming to monitor the wellbeing of older people across the world. The Global AgeWatch Index aimed to provide benchmarks and insights into areas of policy intervention within 96 countries. While the project helped to identify, track and monitor key trends of ageing internationally, there were a number of difficulties in compiling the information. Firstly there were cultural challenges in terms of definitions - cultures define the concept of quality of life differently, and assign priorities differently to the dimensions used. It is difficult to capture 'wellbeing' when it has different meanings internationally. There were also issues methodologically as there was no international agreement on the measurement indicators. This led to a lack of comparable data, which is hugely problematic given that international comparisons was one of the main aims.

These issues resonated with some of the problems I have come across during the course of the international project I am working on. Although bullying is generally defined in the same way within the countries involved in our project, the way that it is viewed varies a great deal. Here in the UK, schools are aware of bullying and are required to have anti-bullying measures in place. This was unique in our project, as the other countries had the initial hurdle of raising teacher awareness of the negative effects of bullying. Overall this meant that we couldn't all use exactly the same protocol, as teachers in our schools wouldn't want a lesson from us on why bullying is bad. We have also found that it isn't possible to have comparable data across all countries, due to differing priorities. Some partners value the more qualitative measures, while others value the quantitative measures. These factors have led to some challenges in project design and in interpreting our results.

Despite these challenges, cross-national research has the potential for informing policy debate, increasing accountability, identifying effective policies and improving diagnosis. Isabelle Engsted-Maquet ended the session on a hopeful note that cross-national research can bring social monitoring level with macro-economic monitoring.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

What to do if you can't access a paper you need

Today I found myself getting increasingly frustrated as I added to a literature review that I've been working on. Many of the articles that looked relevant were behind paywalls that my university couldn't get me through. So I vented my frustration on Twitter with the following tweet: "Have hit a load of paywalls today. How is a person supposed to write a comprehensive literature review?! #openaccess #ecrchat". It's very rare that anyone responds to my tweets so I was really pleased to receive a number of useful responses that I'd like to share below.

Inter-library loan
This was suggested to me by @lizgloyn and @kellywakefield. I must admit I have a vague recollection of being told about this in the past but thought it was one of those things not relevant to me. This system allows university staff and students to request papers and books that are not available in the university's stock. My university's inter-library loan website is here and gives further information. At this point I received a tweet from @lbinfo informing me that at Loughborough, staff can make 40 requests, which sounds pretty decent to me. I'm not sure how this compares to other universities but I'm assuming they are similar.

Open Access Button
@LisaLodwick suggested this, and I had actually already tried it. If you haven't heard of the OA button, I recommend checking it out and downloading it. This is useful in two ways - firstly it logs whenever someone can't access a paper, which is useful data in encouraging the move towards open access. Secondly, it looks for the paper in places that you may not have checked (although this has not yet worked for me).

This method was also suggested by @LisaLodwick with an accompanying relevant link. This requires writing a tweet with the hashtag and the paper you're after. I gather you then just sit and wait for somebody to tell you they have the paper, and then exchange email addresses. I'm not sure how well this would work for someone like me with few followers. Also, this method infringes copyright.

Ask the authors
This was the final suggestion, gratefully received from @Tom_Hardwicke. It was also me being lazy which meant I hadn't yet done it. I thought this might end up being the simplest solution, and as I searched for the author's email on Google, I came across their ResearchGate page. All I had to do was click a button and the request was done, no need to even write a message (although this did feel a little impersonal). Within a few hours I had a nice message from the author and a pdf to download!

Finally, I also wondered what to do if these methods didn't work, and all you had access to was the abstract which included some useful information - is it okay to cite the article without actually having read the whole paper? @kellywakefield suggested being explicit in the text to say that you are referring to the abstract, and @lbinfo agreed that this is acceptable.

Thanks all for your suggestions, and I'd be happy to hear of any other ideas below.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The ins and outs of peer review

When a peer review request comes in, it's very exciting as an early career researcher, as it shows there is someone out there who respects your views. But, it can be quite daunting when you sit down to do it. Having done a few reviews myself, and recently been to a workshop on peer review, I thought I'd gather up my knowledge into a how-to post for those who are new to it. Please comment any other thoughts or questions below.

Should I accept the request to review?

You should have a good understanding of research in the field if you agree to review the paper. However, as an early career researcher it's tempting to think that you're not expert enough to review it. The chances are that you've been asked because of your knowledge in that field. If you feel like you would have useful things to say, and know some of the literature, then I think it's safe to accept. Remember that you are one of two (perhaps more) reviewers, and the overall responsibility lies with the editor. You're not expected to be the number one expert on that topic, and your opinion will be one of a few.

Another thing to bear in mind is that you should not have conflicting interests (in an extreme example, a colleague of mine was asked to review her own paper!). You need to be impartial, so if you know it's written by your best friend or by someone you hate, then you should decline. Finally, if you're too busy to do it any time soon then definitely decline - imagine you're the author; nobody wants to be sat waiting for months.

What kinds of things should I write?

When I did my first couple of reviews, I wrote corrections to every minor error including spelling or punctuation mistakes. I've since been told that this is not necessary! If there are lots of small errors like these, it's worth just writing a note to the editor that there are some small mistakes throughout and the manuscript needs further editing. As a reviewer, your job is more about the academic quality rather than spelling and punctuation.

It's important to keep suggestions positive if possible.

Have the authors included the relevant literature? If there seems to be an important area of the literature missing, suggest some papers that they could use rather than just pointing out a hole. Is there evidence for each claim made?

Have the authors used the appropriate methods and analysis? If yes, then say so. If not, you could ask for a rationale behind their choices, or if they have considered doing it differently. If you find there is an area of the methods or analyses that you're not familiar with and don't feel you can comment on, that is fine. Again, a note to the editor explaining that you don't know about that particular area is helpful.

Do the authors make appropriate conclusions based on the data? I think this is a really important one. At journal clubs this is the kind of question we ask ourselves, and too often the answer is no. If the authors need to be more cautious in their conclusions then say so.

Does the manuscript have a clear message throughout? Sometimes in first drafts it's difficult to figure out what the overall message is. If you're not really sure what the paper is trying to say, then suggest that it needs to be clearer.

How long should I spend on it?

I couldn't track down the reference for this, but apparently reviews reach their peak of quality when completed in 3 hours. This is probably a helpful guideline - enough time to read the paper a couple of times to begin with, making notes, then to go into detail for the completed review. Of course the first few may take a little longer while you get the hang of it. I found at first that I'd read a paper once and think I didn't have much to say, then when I read through it a second and third time I found that I had a lot of comments.

The review system usually asks you to complete the review within a month. Again this is a good guideline. Nothing terrible happens if you go over the time limit, but it's good to get it in on time if possible. At my recent peer review workshop, we were told that if you are someone who spends a long time doing reviews, your papers are likely to purposefully be sent out to other reviewers who also take a long time! Pretty shocking, but apparently true!

Some final notes

Ethically speaking, you shouldn't show the paper you're reviewing to anyone else.

Keep in mind how you would feel if you were the author. You'd want useful, constructive feedback. A further word of caution is that if you review a paper anonymously (most likely), the author may be able to find out who you are in the future, if they then work as an editor for that journal. Don't be needlessly rude as you may suffer in the future!

Finally, remember that you're there to help improve the paper. It is very satisfying to get a paper back to re-review it and see the changes you suggested put into action. You're doing your bit for science as a reviewer!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Evidence-based Education

A year ago, Ben Goldacre, epidemiologist and campaigner for good science, turned his attention to education research. In a report entitled “Building Evidence into Education”, Goldacre described how increased evidence in education would improve child outcomes and allow greater professional independence. Likening education to medicine, Goldacre explained that by conducting randomised trials, we will be able to gather important information on what works best. Randomised trials allow us to compare the outcomes of children in different intervention groups, by minimising any effects of other factors involved, such as social background. For example, we might give one group of children a new bullying prevention programme, and another group no intervention. The crucial point is that the two groups do not differ significantly from each other, so that we can be confident any differences arise from the programme. Before and after the intervention, we would measure children’s bullying behaviour. We can then compare the two groups, and find out if the programme has led to any improvements in behaviour. Some people are concerned that it’s unfair to give the programme to one group of students and not another. As Goldacre explains, we have to be careful here, because we can’t assume that the programme works before we have the evidence for it. Further, many studies use a design whereby the ‘control’ group, i.e. those who do not receive the intervention, receive it later on. This eases the ethical concerns of not allowing a group of children to use the programme, but may only be possible for larger studies with more funding. Goldacre goes on to explain that randomised trials are not the be-all and end-all of education research. Qualitative research is also very useful in education, to help our understanding of individual experiences. Further, one well-run trial will not provide all the evidence that is needed in selecting an appropriate course of action in a school. All schools are different, and teachers are encouraged to be “a thoughtful consumer of evidence”.

This post was first published on the Leadership, School Improvement & Effectiveness Research Centre blog, for the Southampton Education School.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

"It's just what siblings do" - Is sibling bullying harmless?

There have been a few stories in the news recently about sibling bullying. It's good to see the issue getting coverage in the press, but attitudes towards it are concerning. A typical response is that it's just what siblings do, and builds character for the child being bullied.

This article by BBC News expresses a range of opinions from those who were either victims or perpetrators of sibling bullying as a child. A couple of the stories give a positive view of bullying, or call the behaviour bullying when it doesn't fit into the definition of bullying.

Kristina talks about being bullied by her brother, but says it was playful and not malicious in intent. A widely accepted definition of bullying is that it involves harmful intent. She goes on to say "you make the decision as to whether or not you let it bother you". This is concerning because it places the blame on the victim for any long term effects that we know bullying can cause.

Jack describes his experience as the victim of sibling bullying as "a natural part of sibling rivalry" and states that he "can face the worst of other people". Again this paints a positive picture of bullying and undermines that awful experiences that some children go through.

Sibling bullying may be worse than other forms of bullying, such as school bullying by peers. If the perpetrator is a brother or sister, the child has no escape and may live in constant fear. Home cannot be a safe place, and even at school the sibling may be nearby.

The BBC article does give some more negative views. Kathy was bullied by her brother and later suffered from depression as a result. Caroline describes how she would shake from head to foot, and is lucky to still be alive after the violent attacks she suffered. Charlotte, who was a bully herself, is scarred by the memories of bullying her sister.

It is important to tell the negative side of the story, for those children who constantly live their lives in fear. As well as being horrific at the time, the lasting effects can be depression, anxiety, and drug problems among other things. It can be difficult for those who were bullied by their siblings to tell others, because they know the response will be "it's just what siblings do".

Monday, 3 February 2014

Challenges of conducting research in schools

Teacher: "You want me to fill in one questionnaire for EACH child in the class?!"
Researcher: "Yes... At three time points throughout the study please."

This snippet of conversation between teacher and researcher has no doubt occurred numerous times, and it highlights the amount of extra work for teachers involved in research. Those of us conducting research in or with schools face a lot of challenges along the way which are often mentioned during corridor catch-ups or over coffee, but rarely in the literature. Here are just some of the challenges in school research.


It's easy to see why so many research studies are done with undergraduate students, as recruitment outside of this area can be difficult and time consuming. In order to draw meaningful conclusions from a piece of educational research, large numbers of children and schools are required. In my most recent research, I aimed to recruit 20 schools. I contacted a total of 391 schools, and ended up with just 16 recruited to the project. Only 14 schools declined to take part, so the rest either didn't respond to my contact, or didn't receive the message in the first place. Over four months I contacted these schools through email, phonecalls, and even school visits. The first hurdle is getting the message to the right person. Researchers are essentially cold-calling schools who are inundated with emails and phonecalls all the time, so it's difficult to persuade administrative staff to pass the message on. Most schools won't let you talk to the Head Teacher, or have their email address, so you really are relying on the person who answers the phone to see the value in your research. This can be very demoralising as the most common response is "we'll get back to you". From the numbers above you can see this rarely happens. In some cases, the message does get through but schools decide they simply can't take on any extra work, which is understandable given the amount of time researchers can be asking for.

Teacher time

For educational research in particular, researchers may be trying to find out if a certain programme of lessons generates learning. In some cases, the researcher may be able to go into schools to try out the programme. But if we want to see how the programme would really work in practise, we need the teacher to deliver the lessons. If we want a lot of schools to take part, to get a large amount of data, it is unlikely that the researcher will be able to deliver all the lessons, so again the teacher is needed to run the lessons. In addition to delivering the lessons, teachers will need some training before they start implementing the programme. This can create a lot of extra work for teachers, who are very busy people.

Data collection

If we want to see the effect of our programme on learning, we will need to carry out tests at the beginning and end of the study to see what changes have occurred over time. We will also need a control group for comparison, which can mean that tests need to be carried out at three time points. For a large number of schools this probably means asking teachers to fill in various questionnaires. It may also involve teachers carrying out slightly more complicated procedures with their pupils. In a study not involving school teachers, the researcher would usually go through training and then try the procedure out a few times before using it for collecting real data. This isn't possible for teachers, so we are relying on them to complete the measures with minimal training or practise. If teachers carry out the test wrong, or do it at the wrong time, this could cause problems with our data that we may not even know about.


Schools sometimes do not see the value in research, or are not willing to take part unless they get something in return. It can be difficult explaining to schools that we need to research school practices to find out if they really are effective. Researchers don't often have large sums of money to offer schools, particularly if they are students with limited funding. Without these incentives some schools decide it isn't worth their time.

These are just some of the challenges of conducting research in schools, and there are many more. Carrying out this research can be quite demoralising, as it involves a lot of rejection from schools, and sometimes drop out. But it is essential if we want to know what really works in the classroom.