Tag Archives: Education

Class Lectures in Medical School – Nearly Obsolete?

The University of Vermont’s College of Medicine advertises “no lectures required.” And empirical enquires show that context heavy, PowerPoint loaded, lectures are ineffective. But a thoughtful article in the New England Journal of Medicine [1] suggests that the class lecture should change rather than go. In fact, the classroom is well suited to active learning, with students who have already assimilated the core material at their own pace through private study. The lecturer interacts with the students who sit around tables and are provided with opportunities to discuss issues in small groups as the need arises. I learned that this is called the ‘flipped-classroom’ approach. Such an approach resulted in better outcomes when compared to traditional problem-based learning approaches in a randomised trial.[2] So a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And there is still a place for a little theatre. As to problem-based learning as a method to propel a new topic – forget it. It is sub-optimal, as discussed in a previous News Blog.[3]

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Schwartztein RM & Roberts DH. Saying Goodbye to Lectures in Medical School – Paradigm Shift or Passing Fad? N Engl J Med. 2017; 377(7): 605-7.
  2. Krupat E, Richards JB, Sullivan AM, Fleenor TJ Jr, Schwartzstein RM. Assessing the effectiveness of case-based collaborative learning via randomized controlled trial. Acad Med. 2016; 91: 723-9.
  3. Lilford RJ. Bring Back the University Lecture: More on Evidence-Based Teaching. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 26 September 2016.
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Diet and Socioeconomic Status

People looking to lose weight and/or get healthy try a wide variety of diets, from fad diets with highly specific restrictions on what can be eaten, to general healthy eating plans. One such nutritional recommendation is the Mediterranean diet, based on the “food patterns typical of Crete… Greece and southern Italy…”,[1] and entails consumption of high amounts of plant foods (fruit, vegetables, cereals, legumes, etc.) and olive oil, moderate amounts of dairy, fish and wine, and low amounts of poultry and red meat. A number of observational studies have shown associations between such a diet and lower incidences of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and associated mortality, cancer, neuro-degenerative disorders, and overall mortality. However, there is uncertainty whether such benefits differ across different socioeconomic groups.

Bonaccio et al. carried out a prospective analysis of nearly 19,000 Italians to see the effect of the Mediterranean diet on CVD.[2] While there was an overall reduction in CVD risk associated with adherence to the diet (HR=0.85, 95% CI 0.73-0.99), this was not seen across all socioeconomic groups – only in those who were educated to a postgraduate or higher level (HR=0.43, 0.25-0.72) and in those with a high (>€40,000) household income (HR=0.39, 0.23-0.66). Those with less education (HR=0.94, 0.78-1.14) and lower income (HR=1.01, 0.79-1.29) had no significant association. Why such a difference? Subgroup analysis of people with similar adherence to the diet showed that there were a number of differences in the diet of those with high compared to low education, and those with high compared to low income. These included consumption of organic vegetables (which would have higher antioxidants and lower levels of pesticides), monounsaturated fatty acids (found in avocado, nuts, olives, etc.), micronutrients, and whole-grain bread, as well as greater dietary diversity.

So perhaps it is more important to make sure the food you are eating is of high quality and varied, than just simple healthy eating. Of course, access to high quality food of high nutritional value is not easy for poor people.

— Peter Chilton, Research Fellow

References:

  1. Willett WC, Sacks F, Trichopoulou A, Drescher G, Ferro-Luzzi A, Helsing E, Trichopoulos D. Mediterranean diet pyramid: a cultural model for healthy eating. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995; 61(6): 1402S–6S.
  2. Bonaccio M, Di Castelnuovo A, Pounis G, et al. High adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with cardiovascular protection in higher but not in lower socioeconomic groups: prospective findings from the Moli-sani study. Int J Epidemiol. 2017.

Another Interesting Trial of an Educational Intervention – This Time Concerning Access

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to apply to elite universities, both in the UK and the US, than those from economically better-off backgrounds. This finding applies even after controlling for exam results prior to application – i.e. the GCSE results in England. So Sanders and co-authors from the Behavioural Insights Team and the English Department for Education did an inexpensive trial of an inexpensive intervention.[1] The outcomes were application to, and acceptance into, an elite university (defined as belonging to the Russell Group). The intervention consisted of a letter sent to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who were on track to attend an elite university given their GCSE grades. Eligible schools were randomised to control conditions or one of three interventions: to receive a letter written by a pseudonymous male student (Ben) at Bristol University on Department for Education note paper; to receive a similar letter from a female student (Rachel) at the same university; or to receive letters from both Ben and Rachel. Three hundred schools (clusters) and 11,104 students participated. It was then a simple matter to collect the outcomes from the agency that supervises the admission process (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS). Receipt of a letter was associated with a non-significant increase in applications, and eventual admission to, an elite university. The increase was greatest and statistically significant for students who received both letters – from 8.5% acceptance among controls, to 11.4% in the ‘double dose’ intervention group – an increase of 2.9 percentage points (or 34 percent relative risk). Certainly, these results add to growing evidence concerning aspirations in education – see recent News Blogs on keeping children back a year [2], streaming [3], and the Michelle Obama effect.[4]

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Sanders M, Chande R, Selley E. Encouraging People into University. London: Department for Education; 2017.
  2. Lilford RJ. Keeping a Child Back at School. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 10 March 2017.
  3. Lilford RJ. Evidence-Based Education (or How Wrong the CLAHRC WM Director was). NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 15 July 2016.
  4. Lilford RJ. More on Education. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 16 September 2016.

Government vs. Private Schools

CLAHRC WM is not just interested in health care since the methods we use are equally relevant to decision-makers in education, social services, industrial policy, criminology, and so on. We should all be learning from each other. In a previous blog I reported on the (mostly positive) results of the ‘Moving to Opportunity’ experiment in the USA, where families were given an opportunity to move from a deprived neighbourhood to a more salubrious one. So I was interested to spot an RCTs of vouchers that allowed children (over a wide age range) from government schools to attend private schools (also in the USA).[1] The experiment was recent (last five years) and we have outcomes at one year only. Seventy percent of pupils allocated a voucher to attend a private school took up their offer; so both intention to treat and per protocol analyses are reported. The educational outcomes were lower in the intervention group, and were statistically significantly lower for mathematics. This negative effect was greater if the voucher was taken up than if it was not. The negative effect was greater if the child came from a school that was not rated as poor performing than if the previous school was rated satisfactory or good. The negative effect was greatest if the child was in elementary school, and non-significantly positive if they were already in high school.

What caused the negative effect on educational outcomes? Simply moving school does not seem to explain the results, since a proportion of control children moved school with little or no apparent effect. However, private schools provide less instructional time than government schools, especially in elementary school. Other studies have also noted negative effects of moving children to private school on educational outcomes in the short term. But it is far too early to declare the intervention a failure. There is a limit to how much an elementary school child can assimilate, and it is the long-term effects that are important. However, I was surprised by this result – educational interventions have a habit of producing results different to those intended. Full marks to the US Congress, which had the wisdom to evaluate its own policies. The UK Cabinet Office has published a document arguing for more RCTs of policy,[2] and I expect to be able to report the results of further RCTs of educational interventions in the News Blog.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Dynarski M, Rui N, Webber A, Gutmann B, Bachman M. Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program. Impacts After One Year. Alexandria, VA: Institute of Education Sciences, 2017.
  2. Haynes L, Service O, Goldacre B, Torgerson D. Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials. London: UK Cabinet Office, 2012.

Reducing Class Size

News blog readers know that from time to time I make a diversion into the territory of evidence-based education. On the way home from work recently, I listened to a discussion about the merits of reduced class size. One of the protagonists argued that reducing class size was very beneficial to learning outcomes. The other said that educational outcomes were hardly affected by class size. So I turned again to Hattie’s monumental work.[1] There was support for both positions from this well-studied intervention; the debate concerns the magnitude of the effect. The total number of students across the studies is about 1 million and the effect of reducing class size from about 25 to about 15 is about 0.15 of a standard deviation. This might sound like a nugatory effect (as argued by one of the debaters). However, a standard deviation of this magnitude represents about half a year of learning achievement. Remember, a standard deviation of only 0.3 represents a whole year and a standard deviation of 1.0 represents going on for three years of achievement, on average. Reducing class size is much less effective than many other interventions, but it still seems highly desirable. There is also an argument that teacher satisfaction and retention might be improved by smaller class sizes. However, when all is said and done, class-size is not nearly as important as teacher ability (which in full is not nearly as important as student ability, but that is a given for any particular class).

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

Reference:

  1. Hattie J. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2009.

Wrong Medical Theories do Great Harm but Wrong Psychology Theories are More Insidious

Back in the 1950s, when I went from nothing to something, a certain Dr Spock bestrode the world of child rearing like a colossus. Babies, said Spock, should be put down to sleep in the prone position. Only years later did massive studies show that children are much less likely to experience ‘cot death’ or develop joint problems if they are placed supine – on their backs. Although I survived prone nursing to become a CLAHRC director, tens of thousands of children must have died thanks to Dr Spock’s ill-informed theory.

So, I was fascinated by an article in the Guardian newspaper, titled ‘No evidence to back the idea of learning styles’.[1] The article was signed by luminaries from the world of neuroscience, including Colin Blakemore (who I knew, and liked, when he was head of the MRC). I decided to retrieve the article on which the Guardian piece was mainly based – a review in ‘Psychological Science in the Public Interest’.[2]

The core idea is that people have clear preferences for how they prefer to receive information (e.g. pictorial vs. verbal) and that teaching is most effective if delivered according to the preferred style. This idea is widely accepted among psychologists and educationalists, and is advocated in many current textbooks. Numerous tests have been devised to diagnose a person’s learning style so that their instruction can be tailored accordingly. Certification programmes are offered, some costing thousands of dollars. A veritable industry has grown up around this theory. The idea belongs to a larger set of ideas, originating with Jung, called ‘type theories’; the notion that people fall into distinct groups or ‘types’, from which predictions can be made. The Myers-Briggs ‘type’ test is still deployed as part of management training and I have been subjected to this instrument, despite the fact that its validity as the basis for selection or training has not been confirmed in objective studies. People seem to cling to the idea that types are critically important. That types exist is not the issue of contention (males/females; extrovert/introvert), it is what they mean (learn in different ways; perform differently in meetings) that is disputed. In the case of learning styles the hypothesis of interest is that the style (which can be observed ex ante) meshes with a certain type of instruction (the benefit of which can be observed ex post). The meshing hypothesis holds that different modes of instruction are optimal for different types of person “because different modes of presentation exploit the specific perceptual and cognitive strengths of different individuals.” This hypothesis entails the assumption that people with a certain style (based, say on a diagnostic instrument or ‘tool’) will experience better educational outcomes when taught in one way (say, pictorial) than when taught in another way (say, verbal). It is precisely this (‘meshing’) hypothesis that the authors set out to test.

Note then that finding that people have different preferences does not confirm the hypothesis. Likewise, finding that different ability levels correlate with these preferences would not confirm the hypothesis. The hypothesis would be confirmed by finding that teaching method 1 is more effective than method 2 in type A people, while teaching method 2 is more effective than teaching method 1 in type B people.

The authors find, from the voluminous literature, only four studies that test the above hypothesis. One of these was of weak design. The three stronger studies provide null results. The weak study did find a style-by-treatment interaction, but only after “the outliers were excluded for unspecified reasons.”

Of course, the null results do not exclude the possibility of an effect, particularly a small effect, as the authors point out. To shed further light on the subject they explore related literatures. First they examine aptitude (rather than just learning style preference) to see whether there is an interaction between aptitude and pedagogic method. Here the literature goes right back to Cornbach in 1957. One particular hypothesis was that high aptitude students fare better in a less structured teaching format, while those with less aptitude fare better where the format is structured and explicit. Here the evidence is mixed, such that in about half of studies, less structure suits high ability students, while more structure suits less able students – one (reasonable) interpretation for the different results is that there may be certain contexts where aptitude/treatment interactions do occur and others where they do not. Another hypothesis concerns an aspect of personality called ‘locus of control’. It was hypothesised that an internal locus of control (people who incline to believe their destiny lies in their own hands) would mesh with an unstructured format of instruction and vice versa. Here the evidence, taken in the round, tends to confirm the hypothesis.

So, there is evidence (not definitive, but compelling) for an interaction between personality and aptitude and teaching method. There is no such evidence for learning style preference. This does not mean that some students will need an idea to be explained one way while others need it explained in a different way. This is something good teachers sense as they proceed, as emphasised in a previous blog.[3] But tailoring your explanation according to the reaction of students is one thing, determining it according to a pre-test is another. In fact, the learning style hypothesis may impede good teaching by straightjacketing teaching according to a pre-determined format, rather than encouraging teachers to adapt to the needs of students in real time. Receptivity to the expressed needs of the learner seems preferable to following a script to which the learner is supposed to conform.

And why have I chosen this topic for the main News Blog article? Two reasons:

First, it shows how an idea may gain purchase in society with little empirical support, and we should be ever on our guard – the Guardian lived up to its name in this respect!

Second, because health workers are educators; we teach the next generation and we teach our peers. Also, patient communication has an undoubted educational component (see our previous main blog [4]). So we should keep abreast of general educational theory. Many CLAHRC WM projects have a strong educational dimension.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Hood B, Howard-Jones P, Laurillard D, et al. No Evidence to Back Idea of Learning Styles. The Guardian. 12 March 2017.
  2. Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D, Bjork R. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2008; 9(3): 105-19.
  3. Lilford RJ. Education Update. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 2 September 2016.
  4. Lilford RJ. Doctor-Patient Communication in the NHS. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 24 March 2017.

Keeping a Child Back at School

We have often talked about Hattie’s work on evidence-based education.[1-4] Now we turn to retention (pages 97-99) – the act of keeping a child back and having them repeat a year of school on the grounds of poor performance.[5] Numerous papers, including a meta-analysis of 20 studies,[6] have shown retention to be associated with negative effects for the retained student. In subsequent years they have lower scores for a whole range of subjects: language, arts, reading, mathematics, work-study skills, and social studies, as well as social and emotional adjustment and behaviour, self-concept, and attitude to school. So a picture is starting to emerge – remember streaming is also unhelpful.[7] So any act that demeans a child or destroys her self-confidence is bad, while bright children are not held back by having less bright peers in the classroom. See also our News Blog on the Michelle Obama effect.[8]

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Lilford RJ. Evidence-based Education. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 24 February 2017.
  2. Lilford RJ. The School, the Teacher of the Pupil – Which is Most Important? NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 28 October 2016.
  3. Lilford RJ. Ask Not to Whether, But Why, Before the Bell Tolls. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 29 July 2016.
  4. Lilford RJ. Education Update. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 2 September 2016.
  5. Hattie J. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2009.
  6. Jimerson SR. Meta-analysis of Grade Retention Research: Implications for Practice in the 21st Century. School Psychol Rev. 2001; 30(3): 420-37.
  7. Lilford RJ. Evidence-Based Education (or How Wrong the CLAHRC WM Director Was). NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 15 July 2016.
  8. Lilford RJ. More on Education. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 16 September 2016.

More on Brain Health in Young Children and Effect on Life Course

Brain health in early childhood is a recurring theme of your News Blog. Peter Chilton referred me to an interesting article in Nature Human Behaviour published at the end of last year.[1] This study was based on a prospective study of children in the South Island of New Zealand. The investigators wanted to determine the prognosis for the 20% of the population with the worst brain health indicators at age three. These indicators include single parent family; low socioeconomic group; poor self-control; and low IQ. Outcome variables covered a range of important economically burdensome outcomes, such as obesity, cigarette smoking, and crime. These variables were harvested from various databases where health and crime statistics are recorded. A 20% ‘segment’ of this young population could be defined which predicted 80% of crime, and similar high rates on other outcomes. This 20:80 ratio, called the Pareto ratio, is often encountered in social science – for example, wealth distributes itself roughly in this proportion across many societies (about 20% of people control 80% of wealth). The authors say that their study shows plenty of ‘headroom’ for preventive interventions. That is to say, society could achieve massive gains if health and social outcomes among the highest risk segment could be improved to average levels. We have discussed interventions, such as early childhood education, before.[2-4] Many studies show statistically significant and economically worthwhile results for such interventions, but the gains come nowhere near the theoretical headroom defined here. Likely this is because brain health at age three is only partly the result of remediable factors.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Caspi A, Houts RM, Belsky DW, Harrington H, Hogan S, Ramrakha S, Poulton R, Moffitt TE. Childhood forecasting of a small segment of the population with large economic burden. Nature Hum Behav. 2016; 1: 0005.
  2. Lilford RJ. Pregnancy before age 16 – dropping quite rapidly from a peak in 1997. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. February 10, 2017.
  3. Lilford RJ. If you want to reduce partner violence or teenage pregnancy, then teach algebra and history? NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. December 9, 2016.
  4. Lilford RJ. Evidence-based education (or how wrong the CLAHRC WM Director was). NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. July 15, 2016.

Evidence-Based Education

Another shibboleth bites the dust. Have you ever heard (dinner parties?) that girls do better in all girl classes? If so, this is correct – there is indeed such an association. But the observational studies do not compare like with like – the comparison groups are not equivalent since single sex schools tend to have more selective intakes than their controls. So we need within school comparisons or, even better, RCTs. There is one example of each in Hattie’s monumental study (pages 96-97),[1] – Marsh & Rowe [2] and Signorella, Frieze & Hershey.[3] In both cases there were – wait for it – no advantages for all girl classes on educational attainment or career choices, and in the former study, the point estimates were negative for the brightest girls. Likewise, boys did not perform differently in all-male vs. mixed sex classes.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Hattie J. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2009.
  2. Marsh HW, & Rowe KJ. The Effects of Single-Sex and Mixed-Sex Mathematics Classes Within a Coeducational School: A Reanalysis and Comment. Austral J Educ. 1996; 40(2): 147-62.
  3. Signorella ML, Frieze and Hershey. Single-Sex versus Mixed-Sex Classes and Gender Schemata in Children and Adolescents: A Longitudinal Comparison. Psychol Women Quart. 1996; 20: 599-607.

 

If You Want to Reduce Partner Violence or Teenage Pregnancy, Then Teach Algebra and History?

There is little doubt that highly educated men are less likely than poorly educated men to perpetrate violence against their partners,[1] and that highly educated women are less likely than poorly educated women to get pregnant in their teens.[2] But what is going on here – which way does causality run? Certainly, an educated man is likely to earn more than one less educated. More money means less stress, and since stress is a harbinger of partner violence, it is plausible that education leads to less violence through this mediating (intervening) variable. Alternatively, the kind of person who acquires education may be the sort of person who is less innately pre-disposed to violence than a person who does not acquire education. A person who seeks out education may have greater mental resources, such that a wider range of responses are available to him – and hence he is less likely to lash out. But could it be that education per se increases moral rectitude, even when the education is not targeted at moral behaviour? One can devise a theory for such an effect. Algebra, history and other ‘academic’ subjects exercise the capacity for abstract thought. Could the capacity spill over from the topic of instruction to influence behaviour more generally? Compassion, for example, is abstract – it requires the ability to imagine what another person is feeling. Teaching abstract academic subjects may spill over in to heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others. This hypothesis could be tested neurophysiologically – highly educated persons, on average, may manifest greater specific responses on functional neuro-imaging than those of similar IQ, but lower educational attainment, when confronted with a compassion-arousing event. The brain, after all, is a learning machine that is permanently altered by education. This might explain why sex education has a rather small effect on teenage pregnancy, but being educated is associated with a large effect. It is sometimes said that education refers to what is left when all the facts have been forgotten, or to quote BF Skinner more accurately, “Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten”?

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Abramsky T, Watts CH, Garcia-Moreno C, et al. What factors are associated with recent intimate partner violence? findings from the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence. BMC Public Health. 2011; 11: 109.
  2. Girma S & Paton D. Is education the best contraception: The case of teenage pregnancy in England? Soc Sci Med. 2015; 131: 1-9.