12 studies of xmas

Posted on 5 January 2018

Jonathan Haslam, Deputy Director, IEE

This was the fifth year of our #12studiesofxmas and it presented a challenge. In the past it’s sometimes been a bit of a struggle to find 12 studies that I really like. This year things seem to have improved a lot. Looking back over the last year of Best Evidence in Brief, I found more than 15 studies which met my criteria for being interesting. Of course there could be a bias at play here, and either I’ve lowered my criteria for interesting-ness, or I’ve forgotten how good previous years were. Well I don’t think so. Let’s look at this year’s winners:

  1. Wish you were here

Everyone loves getting a postcard, and parents are no different. In this US randomised controlled trial, at the start of the academic year parents of students whose attendance had been poor the previous year got a single postcard. It encouraged parents to improve their child’s attendance and for some also included specific information about their child’s attendance history. Control families received no postcard. The intervention reduced absenteeism by 2.4%. That may not be much, but a postcard doesn’t cost much either.

  1. Early to bed, early to rise

We often cover studies on the importance of sleep for children and adolescents. This US study looked at the optimum amount of sleep for teenagers. They had the best mental health with 8.75 – 9 hours of sleep each school night, but academic achievement was highest with 7 – 7.5 hours. So which should you choose? It turns out it’s best to sleep for the best mental health, as the negative impact on academic achievement is minimal.

  1. Mixed results for mindfulness

There were some disappointing results for mindfulness over the year. This Campbell systematic review looked at the impact of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) – “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”, and often combined with yoga, cognitive-behavioural strategies, or relaxation-skills training – in school settings. It found that MBIs in schools have a small positive effect on cognitive outcomes and socio-emotional outcomes, but do not improve behaviour or academic achievement. This randomised controlled evaluation of the .b mindfulness programme in Australian secondary schools found it made no difference on self-reported measures of anxiety, depression, weight/shape concerns, well-being and mindfulness.

  1. Head teacher training that made a difference

There were some intriguing results from this randomised controlled trial of training for head teachers at schools in Texas. There was a positive impact on low- and high-stakes tests for maths and reading in year one, but no difference in year two. It seems like this was driven, at least in part, by the trained head teachers leaving their job. To mangle Richard Branson’s quote about Virgin, maybe they trained people well enough so they could leave, but forgot to treat them well enough so they didn’t want to.

  1. What happens in chess club stays in chess club

Does teaching one thing improve a student’s abilities at something else? This year, we reported on two studies that covered this ground. The first study considered whether teaching Go, chess, or draughts would lead to improvements in students’ mathematical abilities. It didn’t. Another study considered the impact of after-school computer programming clubs, and found, perhaps surprisingly, that it didn’t impact pupils’ computational thinking, or their views of their ability on a range of transferrable skills.

  1. Talking in class is good for you

One of the most successful EEF projects this year was Dialogic Teaching. The intervention was designed to improve the quality of classroom talk as a means of increasing pupils’ engagement, learning and achievement. Teachers received resources and training and then implemented the intervention for two terms. Pupils in intervention schools did better in science, maths and English. Sadly the intervention team (in part based at the IEE) disbanded before the good results came in, making it more difficult for the intervention to be scaled up more widely.

  1. The guide on the side

I always felt a bit sorry for Telemachus. Admittedly Mentor did most of the hard work, and his name justifiably lives on. But to invent the awful-sounding word “mentee” rather than use “Telemachus” to describe the person being mentored seems a bit harsh. Anyway, last year we covered two studies using mentors to support newly qualified teachers. One RCT provided new teachers with two years of coaching from a trained mentor for a minimum of 180 minutes each month. In the second RCT, retired teachers provided tailored mentoring to new teachers, holding weekly one-to-one meetings weekly on a one-to-one basis over for two years. Both studies showed an improvement in outcomes for the teachers’ pupils.

  1. A good friend is best to find

How do the slings and arrows of outrageous school cliques influence later life? Researchers looked at outcomes for US teenagers ten years later. Teens who prioritised close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression at age 25 than their peers. However, teens who had lots of friends, rather than a few close friendships, had higher levels of anxiety as young adults.

  1. Undiagnosed hearing problems and reading difficulties

We tend to prioritise larger, more robust studies, but sometimes small-scale research can flag up something interesting. As part of a study looking at the links between hearing problems and reading difficulties, researchers performed hearing tests. They found that 9 of the 36 children with dyslexia had mild or moderate hearing impairments, of which their parents and teachers were unaware. The researchers suggest that children with reading difficulties should be screened for hearing problems to help them receive better support.

  1. What a difference a year makes… or does it?

We regularly quote effect sizes in Best Evidence in Brief as a measure of the impact of an intervention or approach. This study looked at the impact of school, and the simple impact of time, as children moved through primary schools. The results showed that the effect size of a year changes as children get older, and for different subjects. So rules of thumb about the significance of a particular effect size risk being an over-simplification.

  1. How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Looking at the impact of different types of schools isn’t always easy. But two recent studies of Montessori schools used admissions lotteries to do just that. Children were randomly assigned to Montessori or normal schools. The first study, in pre-schools, found that the Montessori schools improved academic achievement and closed the gap for disadvantaged children. A second study in secondary schools found no ultimate difference for children in the Montessori schools.

  1. It’s tough to change practice

For several years I’ve understood if you want an intervention to have impact, you need to include professional development (rather than, say, simply being given published materials – see this study, for example, or this one). Now, I’m starting to appreciate that the reverse is also true. This study and this one suggest that you can have lovely professional development, but if it isn’t centred on something that makes a difference to children’s outcomes, it won’t make a difference to children’s outcomes. (There’s a caveat that it might be improving other teacher/child skills, although I’m a bit cautious about this.)


So that’s our review of the year. I wonder what we will find out this year. Or, as Agent K puts it

1,500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the centre of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.


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