Wednesday, 20 September 2017

New educational neuroscience blog series on BOLD

I'm really excited to have the first of a mini series of blog posts published on the BOLD website. BOLD is the Blog On Learning and Development. In the mini series I will be posting about evidence in the classroom, and the first post is a short introduction to educational neuroscience. I really enjoyed writing the post and found it quite an eye-opening experience - I realised shortly after I started writing that I was defining educational neuroscience almost entirely by defending it from common criticisms. This must be a habit I've got into since it is so widely criticised. I managed to start again and re-write it in a much more positive way, so I hope my enthusiasm for the field comes across!

You can read the first post on educational neuroscience here.

My second post, on neuromyths, can be read here.
My third post is about randomised control trials in education, and can be read here.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Designing a cognitive training study: Control groups

Previous posts in this series considered the differences between process- and strategy-based training, and what success might look like in a training study. Another key design feature to think about is the inclusion of an adequate control group. Including a control group seems obvious, since we need to make sure that gains are linked to the training rather than to normal development. But designing a study with a good control is challenging.

A control group might be matched to the training group on key characteristics, such as general cognitive ability and age, only differing in that they do not receive the training – a ‘business as usual’ control. While this seems like a sensible option, it is important to consider what the control is doing while the other group receives training. Is the control group doing normal reading practice while the training group get their reading intervention? Or perhaps the training group is receiving extra reading help while the control group have already left school for the day. This is clearly an important distinction that will affect the conclusions that can be drawn from the results.

One way to counter these challenges is to include an active control group. In this scenario, the control group is again matched on key characteristics to the training group. However, the control group also receive some training, just not in the skill that is trying to be developed. In this case, the control group could be given something very different to the reading training group, like a maths intervention, both taking place after school so as not to interfere with normal schooling. This would mean that any gains seen in the reading training group cannot be down to the effect of simply taking part in a piece of research, which might involve working on fun computer programmes or with researchers and cause a spike in engagement at school.

But is this a fair comparison? Is it very surprising if pupils improve their reading skills after doing some more reading? If we really want to find out what causes the change, we need an even closer match for the control group – for example a similar reading intervention that does not train the key ingredient that is thought to lead to improvement (e.g. phonics). Now if we see an improvement in the training group, we can be fairly sure that there is something special about the phonics training that led to gains.

The use of different types of control group is associated with recruitment challenges that should also be taken into account. Unsurprisingly, many teachers and parents are opposed to their children being put into the control group, which can mean that fewer pupils sign up to take part. One clever way around this is to use a cross-over ‘wait list’ control group, where half of the pupils are in the training group and half are in the control group for one phase of the study, then they switch for the second phase. Everyone receives the training at some point, and it is still possible to compare training to control.

A final option is to include no control group. This might be appropriate when the aim is to see which individuals respond best to the training. For instance, do those with better working memory improve more with phonics training than those with poorer working memory? To answer this question, a group with a large variation in working memory skills could take part, with no control group. In this example, the outcome will be able to tell us something useful about the mechanisms of learning in the absence of a control group.

There is no single right answer when it comes to choosing what the control group does. This will vary between studies and should be thought about very carefully before commencing the study, depending on what the research question is.

Part one on types of cognitive training can be found here, and part two on success in cognitive training can be found here.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Shaking up the academic conference

Last week I was at a large conference of over 2,000 delegates. While I was there, an article was published in the Guardian, lamenting the huge expense and exclusivity of such conferences, which can be too costly for early career researchers to attend. I was lucky enough to have my trip paid for, but I wondered how many people were unable to attend due to finances, or how many people had forked out their own money to be there.

The Guardian article, written by two academics, highlighted the increasingly extravagant social programmes. If social events are included in the cost of the conference, researchers may wonder why their registration fee was not better spent elsewhere. On the other hand, if the social event is an added extra that is paid for, those with less money (due to any number of factors, including being an early career researcher, or from a poorer country) may opt out and miss important opportunities for networking.

The article also questioned whether or not conferences really deliver what they intend to. A survey of delegates at conferences in the water sector found that only 2% found conferences useful and cost-effective. So even when researchers can afford to get to a big conference, is it worth the effort and expense? Last week I found myself wondering what the added value was of attending conference talks compared to reading the latest papers.

I think there are a number of things that can be done to improve these international conferences. Keynote speakers often get their expenses paid, yet they are typically not the ones who are most in need of financial help. Keynote speakers who have access to conference funds could be encouraged to pay towards their own expenses, so that money can be directed more towards those in need.

Conferences could offer more in the way of online engagement to reach those who are not present. Conference tweeting is now very common, but this can be hard to follow from afar, so a move towards more formal online discussions, and video streaming, would be welcomed. Conferences could take place less regularly, particularly when there are many conferences that overlap in their themes. Within my field of research, educational neuroscience, there have been discussions about whether or not societies that typically hold separate conferences could run a joint event. This way, delegates would not have to choose which conference to attend in a given year.

Finally, conferences should aim to be better value for money. Researchers often attend a conference for a few days, and present just one talk or one poster. Multiple submissions could be encouraged, particularly to encourage early career researchers to discuss their ideas. Many conferences only allow submissions from those who have results at the time of submission. This excludes work that is finalised during the intervening months, and prevents discussion of new project ideas that are not yet underway. Opening up discussions to proposed work, which will most likely require different formats of conference session, would enable peers to help shape future research.

I will continue thinking about these issues over the coming months, as I am co-organising an upcoming conference. My aim is to encourage early career researchers to become more involved, and to provide settings for discussions of issues and ideas outside of the usual talk and questions format. While it is implied that these discussions will happen during coffee breaks and social events, I believe that these discussions should take a prominent role in conferences. The expertise present should be capitalised on so that researchers can work together to consider how best to address issues and move the research field forward.