The 9 research studies from 2019 you need to read

Thousands of research studies are published each year – but how do you figure out which ones are really worth your time and attention? Tes commissioning editor Jon Severs asked nine academics to pick one study from 2019 – and then asked them to explain exactly what those studies say and why they have the potential to change the way you teach for the better
13th December 2019, 12:04am
Nine Research Studies From 2019


The 9 research studies from 2019 you need to read

It’s the titles that are the first warning: often, they are a seemingly random selection of words - only 60 per cent of which you recognise - housed together in an impossibly long sentence.

If you get past that, you hit the abstract, which sucks you in with some simple lexical choices for approximately two lines before it descends into what appears to be someone randomly mashing the keyboard with their (admittedly well-educated) fist.

Plough on further and you finally hit the beast itself: the academic paper in all its glory. You fumble through it like you’re drunk and searching for your house keys: if only you could just grab hold of something - anything - you could unlock the barrier in front of you and everything would be OK.

What’s the key issue holding education back from becoming a fully fledged research-informed profession? Translating the research into something that your average classroom teacher can actually access.

It seems that everyone has realised the problem. On the academic side, the translation of research so that it is “useful” is now discussed as much as the research itself. Researchers are teaming up with teachers, finding new language to convey evidence and generally doing all they can to bridge what once seemed an impossible divide.

On the teachers’ side, a conduit to evidence is being built by research leads, an active group of bloggers and grassroots movements to bring the nuggets of evidence to the broader teaching community.

And platforms such as Tes are acting as a go-between.

Is all this successful? Increasingly so.

But in translation, we always risk oversimplification or accepting a compromise that goes that bit too far. And we also risk being selective in a way that leaves unread and unnoticed the research that has most potential to make a difference to teachers.

So, to end a year in which research has been setting the agenda for teachers more than in any other, we asked nine academics not just to tell us the papers published in 2019 that they felt were the most important for teachers, but also to tell teachers what that paper said and why it is worth their time. And then we asked them to give us the reference for that paper so teachers can read that evidence first-hand, without a filter.

It is our hope that this exercise will not only show how diverse and rich the evidence being produced for educators is (we all too easily fall into the trap of only paying attention to the “in” thing or that which supports our ideology) but also provide a helping hand in accessing raw research. Teachers don’t have to make a habit of it (unless they want to) but hopefully experiencing the true complexity of the arguments being made will put them at an advantage the next time they are sat in a CPD session being offered easy “evidence-informed” solutions.

So here they are: your nine most important research papers of 2019 for teachers.

Growth mindset: a real - and important - effect

Recommended by:

Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment, UCL Institute of Education


“A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement”

What is it about?

It explains how a one-hour, computer-delivered growth-mindset intervention, delivered to a nationally representative sample of US 9th grade (Year 10) students in 65 schools, improved the achievement of lower-achieving students - the target of the intervention - by 0.11 standard deviations, with larger effects in schools where the school norms encouraged challenge seeking. The intervention also increased the likelihood that students would choose to study more demanding mathematics courses such as algebra II from 33 per cent to 36 per cent.

Why would it be useful to teachers?

A number of experiments have shown that getting students to believe that intelligence or ability is malleable rather than fixed - what is sometimes called developing a “growth mindset”- increases student achievement. However, several attempts to replicate these findings have failed, and last year Victoria Sisk and her colleagues discovered that growth mindset interventions had no impact on student achievement in 37 of the 43 growth- mindset studies they found, with an average effect size of just 0.08 standard deviations.

Many people, misreading the work of Jacob Cohen on the interpretation of effect sizes, and accustomed to much larger effect sizes popularised by John Hattie in his Visible Learning project, interpreted this as a negligible effect, and concluded that the importance of “growth mindset” had been overstated. In fact, since most of the students participating in these growth- mindset intervention studies were secondary school students, for whom one year’s growth - at least when measured with typical tests or exams - is at most 0.4 standard deviations, a 0.08 effect size would be equivalent to an increase in the rate of learning of at least 20 per cent. When you add in the fact that most growth-mindset interventions take only a few hours per year, such interventions would appear to be among the most cost-effective things that schools can do to increase student achievement.

This experiment, by David Yeager and his colleagues, shows that a growth-mindset intervention of less than an hour’s duration can have a large impact on student achievement. This study also draws attention to the fact that asking “do growth-mindset interventions work?” is the wrong question. Instead, the right question is: “Under what circumstances do growth-mindset interventions improve student achievement?” - and this study provides some clear, helpful pointers. Growth-mindset interventions are more effective when students in the school, on average, are more open to undertaking challenging tasks.

Yeager, DS et al (2019) “A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement”, Nature, 573: 364-369

Anxiety could be at the root of your school’s poor attendance figures

Recommended by:

Tamsin Ford, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge


“The association between anxiety and poor attendance at school - a systematic review”

What is it about?

The authors found a clear relationship between anxiety and poor attendance, but a lack of longitudinal data that could help us disentangle cause and effect. Few studies included medical or authorised absence, which is the most common form. This is important because anxiety can cause physical symptoms of such severity that attendance at paediatrics is common.

Why would it be useful to teachers?

Attendance at school is essential for good educational outcomes. The role of anxiety can easily be overlooked, and is important to consider because it often responds well to cognitive-behaviour approaches. Other emotional difficulties (such as self-harm and depression) also show strong relationships with attendance at school, but anxiety is the most common of these problems.

Teachers and mental health leads should be alert to the possibility of poor mental health as an explanation for poor attendance, particularly if the pattern of attendance changes.

Finning, K, Ukoumunne, OC, Ford, T*, Danielson-Waters, E, Shaw, L, Romero de Jager, I, Moore, DA et al (2019) “Review: the association between anxiety and poor attendance at school - a systematic review”, Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 24/3, 205-216

*Lead author Katie Finning was studying for her PhD with Tamsin Ford at the time she completed the work

Getting to the heart of effective teaching

Recommended by:

Christian Bokhove, associate professor in mathematics education within Southampton Education School at the University of Southampton


“A randomized controlled trial of interleaved mathematics practice”

What is it about?

This article reports on a pre-registered trial of a mathematics learning intervention. The study compared blocked practice, in which a block of problems devoted to the same skill or concept was used, with “interleaving”, in which no two consecutive problems require the same strategy. The study was especially noteworthy as it was at a very large scale, namely 54 7th-grade (equivalent to Year 8) mathematics classes. The paper found that “taken as a whole, the extant evidence suggests that interleaved mathematics practice is effective and robust”.

Why would it be useful to teachers?

Firstly, it combines several “common-sense” principles with the interleaving; for example, spacing (keeping some time between tasks for better effects) and retrieval practice (creating opportunities for retrieval for better effects). This is modelling good practice for teachers.

Secondly, the study was pre-registered, which means the researchers first determined how they would analyse the data - they did not decide after they had seen it. Such pre-registration is becoming more popular and improves the robustness of the findings.

Thirdly, teachers were able to implement the intervention without training; no lengthy training courses or thick manuals to study, just a straightforward strategy to sequence materials.

Finally, I appreciated that the article was honest about the caveats: for example, that interleaving takes more time, that it often is combined with some blocked practice and that corrective feedback is important.

Ideally, sequences like this would be embedded in a broader curriculum with rich tasks and sensible instruction…and maybe even textbooks.

Rohrer, D et al (2019) “A randomized controlled trial of interleaved mathematics practice”, Journal of Educational Psychology,

Why working-memory training is not likely to help children after all

Recommended by:

Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford


“The hype cycle of working memory training”

What is it about?

As it states in the abstract of the paper, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science: “Seventeen years and hundreds of studies after the first journal article on working-memory training was published, evidence for its efficacy is still wanting …The current review discusses the past, present and future status of working-memory training, including consideration of factors that might influence working-memory training and transfer efficacy.”

Why would it be useful to teachers?

Working-memory training has been promoted in schools as a means of improving attention and/or overall ability. As the author notes, new forms of training tend to be greeted with considerable enthusiasm and overinflated expectations, followed by disappointment.

The problem with working-memory training is that children improve on the trained task but there is little transfer to other activities.

This is an accessible account, and it raises questions as to whether working memory is some kind of general capacity that can be increased. Rather, if we want to help children improve on a specific task, then it makes sense to focus on training on that task.

Redick, T S (2019) “The hype cycle of working memory training”, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28/5: 423-429

How you present your classroom rules ‘affects whether they are followed’

Recommended by:

Alice Jones, director of the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London


“Correlates of students’ internalization and defiance of classroom rules: a self-determination theory perspective”

What is it about?

The authors set out to find out what motivated students to follow classroom rules, and whether these motivations were associated with important behavioural outcomes and attitudes, including: disruptive classroom behaviour; truancy; cheating; and feelings of resentment and anger towards school.

Motivations to follow rules can be classed as external (eg, to avoid punishment), internal pressures to conform (eg, to be seen as good) or fitting with a student’s own internal set of values (eg, because respecting others’ right to learn without disruption is right).

More than 1,000 11- to 19-year-olds reported on their own attitudes and behaviour, as well as their motivations to follow or defy school rules.

Why would it be useful to teachers?

The study suggests that if students follow the classroom rules because they value and accept the rules as their own, they are less likely to misbehave or feel resentful. Interestingly, those who follow rules because of external pressures, such avoidance of punishment, are more likely to report feeling resentful and enact “cheating” behaviours - so while not actively disrupting the class, more covert negative behaviours might still be happening.

It is useful for teachers and school leaders to think about how school rules might best be presented and made meaningful to students (other research supports a role for student autonomy).

Aelterman, N, Vansteenkiste, M and Haerens, L (2019) “Correlates of students’ internalization and defiance of classroom rules: a self-determination theory perspective”, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 89/1: 22-40

Why phonics alone is not enough for teaching the pronunciation of words

Recommended by:

Jessie Ricketts, director of the Language and Reading Acquisition (Lara) lab at Royal Holloway, University of London


“The role of set for variability in irregular word reading: word and child predictors in typically developing readers and students at risk for reading disabilities”

What is it about?

This study seeks to explore how children who are learning to read in English read unpredictably or irregularly spelled words such as “post”.

Why would it be useful to teachers?

Phonics knowledge provides children with the tools that they need to crack the alphabetic code so that they can sound out new words when they encounter them and, ultimately, commit them to memory for easy access later on.

However, using phonics alone to read an irregular word such as “post” would result in a mispronunciation that rhymes with “lost”. Phonics gets you the “p” and “st”, but something else is needed. What is it?

Well, Laura Steacy and colleagues investigated “set for variability”, which is the idea that when a child reads a word and produces a spoken word that they don’t know, they can try out similar sounding words until they find the right one.

For the teaching of reading, what this suggests is that alongside phonics, we should be teaching children that when they encounter a “red word”, a “tricky word” or a word that sounds a bit familiar, they can be flexible and try out words that sound similar and would fit with the context.

This study shows that the ability to do this is closely related to reading ability. Other studies show that a beneficial addition to phonics is to teach children to read vowels flexibly, and to use this trial-and-error set for variability approach.

Steacy, LM et al (2019) “The role of set for variability in irregular word reading: word and child predictors in typically developing readers and students at risk for reading disabilities”, Scientific Studies of Reading, 23/6: 523-532

Literacy interventions: why the ‘when’ matters less than the ‘how’

Recommended by:

Courtenay Norbury, professor of psychology and language sciences at University College London


“The effect of linguistic comprehension instruction on generalized language and reading comprehension skills: a systematic review”

What is it about?

Rogde and colleagues report a meta-analysis that asked whether, for example, vocabulary training would yield improvements on standard vocabulary tests (such as the BPVS) or a test of reading comprehension (such as the Yarc).

Why would it be useful to teachers?

The team reviewed 43 methodologically rigorous trials and found that the overall impact of specific interventions on general language was disappointingly small (effect size 0.13) and for reading it was close to zero (0.05).

Clearly, generalised impact from specific literacy interventions remains elusive. One reason, I think, is that more generalised language or reading comprehension relies on multiple skill sets. For instance, improving vocabulary can only impact reading comprehension if the child can also decode.

It wasn’t all bad news, though. Interventions yielded much bigger treatment effects if they were delivered in small groups by non-school staff, and closely adhered to the intervention manual. There are numerous learning points for teachers here.

Also important is that, intriguingly, dosage did not matter - interventions that lasted for more than 20 weeks were just as effective as those that finished earlier.

And yet another interesting revelation was that early intervention did not yield significantly larger or more persistent positive impacts than interventions carried out later in early primary school or in later years (up to 8th grade, equivalent to Year 9).

A critical question for future research is whether and how we target multiple systems simultaneously. This paper further suggests that treatment delivery (the “how” of intervention) is as important as the “what” (the treatment content).

Rogde, K et al (2019) “The effect of linguistic comprehension instruction on generalized language and reading comprehension skills: a systematic review”, Campbell Systematic Reviews, 15/4

Why we must get on board with RCTs if we want evidence-informed teaching

Recommended by:

Jonathan Wai, assistant professor of education policy and psychology, and the 21st-century endowed chair in education policy at the University of Arkansas


“Objecting to experiments that compare two unobjectionable policies or treatments”

What is it about?

The paper shows that people tend to approve of untested policies being universally implemented but disapprove of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to determine which of those policies or treatments is superior. The authors examined 16 studies of 5,873 participants, spanning nine domains, including education policy, specifically on the topic of “promoting schoolteacher wellbeing”.

Why would it be useful to teachers?

RCTs have long been the gold standard in medicine and are now increasingly used throughout the social sciences, including in education. In fact, the recent Nobel Prize for Economics was given for using RCTs to fight poverty.

This paper, though, demonstrates how the use of RCTs remains a contentious topic. I believe reading this paper would help increase the use of RCTs in education, persuading teachers to take part in them, as it demonstrates that experimentation aversion may be an important barrier to the implementation of evidence-based practice.

Meyer, MN, Heck, PR, Holtzman, GS, Anderson, SM, Cai, W, Watts, D and Chabris, CF (2019) “Objecting to experiments that compare two unobjectionable policies or treatments”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116/22: 10723-10728

The effect of social media on how happy students are

Recommended by:

Pete Etchells, reader in psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University


“Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction”

What is it about?

Using data from more than 10,000 10- to 15-year-olds, the researchers were interested in whether teens who used social media frequently showed differing levels of life satisfaction compared with those who didn’t use it so much - a critical question in the current climate of worries around the potential detrimental effects of screen time.

Why would it be useful to teachers?

This paper is a highlight for me because it does three things. First, the overall findings reinforce the message that we shouldn’t get too worried about media scare-stories around digital tech use - the associations between social media and life satisfaction were small and inconsistent.

Second, it adds much-needed nuance to the debate around screens: the data showed that social media was a predictor of slightly decreased life satisfaction for girls, particularly in regards to their school work and the extent to which they were happy with the school they attend. While we can’t figure out the causal direction of the relationship from this study alone, it’s nevertheless a robust, open-science study.

And finally, in highlighting the need for scientists to embrace circumspection and transparency and rigour in this sort of work, to my mind the study makes something else clear: we need to engage more with teachers, the people who have expert insight into the day-to-day lives of adolescents, so that we can figure out the right questions to ask around digital tech use and education.

Orben, A, Dienlin, T and Przybylski, AK (2019) “Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116/21: 10226-10228

This article originally appeared in the 13 December 2019 issue under the headline “Uncovered: nine research studies from 2019 that could make you a better teacher”

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