To mark the end of the school year, this column highlights some of the most interesting studies published in 2018-19.
Improving engagement and attainment in maths and English courses
This report, from the Behavioural Insights Team, reviews three years of testing ways to improve student engagement and attainment in English and maths courses. The approaches tested include encouraging “grit”, having students affirm things they valued while at college and using text messages (discussed in a previous research review, here).
The report offers evidence that some approaches really help: increasing communication with “study supporters”, such as parents and friends, can improve attendance and attainment, for example. Helpfully, it also describes interventions that didn’t work so well, and tries to explain why, such as attempts to use students’ language on social media to measure their wellbeing.
Transfer of test-enhanced learning
Retrieval practice – testing to improve learning – is increasingly popular. This meta-analysis looked at the effect of testing on transfer: students’ capacity to use what they know in a new context. Reviewing a large number of existing studies, the authors show that testing helps students to transfer learning to new contexts.
The review also highlights gaps in our knowledge: very few studies test that transfer knowledge between different domains (maths and science, for example).
Toward a multifactorial model of expertise
Deliberate practice – intentional rehearsal to improve performance – also seems increasingly popular: this has brought greater research attention to its limits, as well as to its strengths. Advocates of deliberate practice suggest that it is the sole ingredient of success. This paper synthesises criticisms of these arguments, noting, for example, that elite athletes who win medals often practise less than non-medallists.
The researchers note that the claims that advocates make about deliberate practice keep changing, which makes it hard to test its power. They argue that expertise is a result of the individual, the environment and the task they are conducting.
Teacher professional development and coaching
An innovative set of studies in Kenya tested the importance of individual components of professional development. Some teachers received professional development and coaching, some received this plus textbooks, and some received all of the above plus teacher guides. This showed that the most effective (and most cost-effective) approach was the one that offered the greatest support.
By identifying exactly which ingredients made a difference, the Kenyan government was able to develop a programme that improved outcomes for primary pupils in literacy and numeracy nationally.
Identifying the Essential Ingredients to Literacy and Numeracy Improvement
Finally, last month a new meta-analysis of professional development in maths and science collated the results of 95 studies. It found strong overall positive effects: on average, professional development improved student learning.
The number of studies included also allowed the researchers to reach broader conclusions. They found that:
- The length of the programme and number of hours of training was not correlated with the results for students.
- Programmes that combined professional development and curriculum materials had better results.
- Programmes that included online learning had lower effects.
- While no individual professional development activity (seeing a teaching technique demonstrated, for example) was associated with improved results, a combination of at least five separate activities was linked to better outcomes.