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Blogs and publications

This blog is written by LEARN! academics. The contributions present our take on current issues in education and social science, and reflect some of the highlights from our extensive programme of research.

Views are our own and aim to inform, debate and shape our thinking.

Blogs and Research Highlights (March - June 2022)

  • Predicting and understanding student dropout in vocational education - PART II Irene Eegdeman

    In January 2020, we wrote a blog about predicting and understanding student dropout in vocational education. Back then, the conclusion was that, to improve students’ educational careers and their success rate in vocational education, we needed to come up with better measures of predicting dropout as early as possible. Achieving this goal would also require more sophisticated data and machine learning algorithms that could process such data to predict at-risk students. In the meantime, we gained more insight into the expectations of students at the beginning of their program, and we went forward with designing a method that uses a series of machine learning algorithms to identify at-risk students efficiently. Finally, we compared our machine learning models with the predictions of teachers based on their gut feeling. This blog serves to update the LEARN! audience on the developments of our project.

    DO STUDENTS WHO DROP OUT HAVE A DIFFERENT EXPECTATION ABOUT THE CONTENT OF THE PROGRAM THEY ARE GOING TO FOLLOW THAN THE SUCCESSFUL STUDENTS?

    Unrealistic expectations with regard to one’s study program have been linked to negative consequences for future academic success (e. g. Baker, McNeil, & Siryk, 1985; Fonteyne, Duyck, & De Fruyt, 2017; Helland, Stallings, & Braxton, 2002; Jacob & Wilder, 2010; Maloshonok & Terentev, 2017; Tinto, 1975; Wigfield & Cambria, 2010; Zijlstra & Meijers, 2006). Previous studies that have shown this are often retrospective, however, and focus on performance-related expectations (e.g., expected grades), while unrealistic expectations about the required effort and the content of the program (content-related expectations) may be more relevant for explaining dropout in tertiary education. 

    In our study, we prospectively investigated whether the content-related expectations of 208 Dutch Sport Academy students elicited before the start of their vocational program are associated with subsequent dropout and academic performance. Our results show that drop-out students did not differ in expected grades (even though they did differ in prevocational GPA). Moreover, their content-related expectations at the start of the program did not differ from successful students, nor were they less realistic. Still, upon retrospective inquiry, 50% of the students answered that the concerning program did not fit. This result suggests that retrospective reports of inadequate expectations may not reflect low expectations before starting the program. Instead, tertiary educational programs may defy expectations in both successful and unsuccessful students, with surprises being pleasant for successful students and unpleasant for unsuccessful ones.

    TEACHER VS. COMPUTER, WHO CAN PREDICT DROPOUT BEST?

    Machine learning algorithms use data to identify at-risk students early on such that future dropouts can be prevented. We presented a new method that uses a series of machine learning algorithms to efficiently identify students at risk and makes the sensitivity/precision trade-off inherent in targeting students for dropout prevention explicit (Eegdeman, Cornelisz, Meeter, & Klaveren, 2022). On the other hand, teachers tend to use subjective rules for signaling at-risk students (gut feeling)(Südkamp, Kaiser, & Möller, 2012). Are such subjective observations of teachers indeed predictive for identifying at-risk students, and can these subjective observations help increase the prediction performance of machine learning algorithms? 

    We put nine teachers in upper secondary vocational education to the test. For each of the 95 freshmen students enrolled to the educational program, these teachers were asked whether a student would have dropped out at the end of their freshmen year. Teachers answered this question at the beginning of the program and again after the first ten weeks of the program. The results show that the average teacher can predict dropout better than the machine learning algorithms at the start of the program, but not after the first ten weeks, even though their prediction accuracy increases over time.

    To improve students’ educational careers and improve their success rate in vocational education, we need to make our models better, especially at the start of the program when we still can help students. Future research might assess whether including teachers’ predictions at the start of the program as potential features to be selected by the machine learning algorithms allow these algorithms to increase their accuracy. Doing so might enable a highly targeted approach in combatting student dropout in the face of capacity constraints for counseling or participation in dropout prevention programs. Next, we do not only want to know who we have to target for a dropout prevention program, but we also want to know what to do in such a prevention program. Stay tuned to learn about the next steps and what a ‘practoraat’ is…

    Irene Eegdeman is a PhD student with a doctoral grant for teachers (Dutch Research Council), her (co) promotors are Martijn Meeter and Chris van Klaveren. Ilja Cornelisz also contributed to several studies. Irene hopes to finish her PhD trajectory this year.

  • A call to action: Addressing rising inequality in a decentralized system Melanie Ehren and Martijn Meeter

    INCREASING INEQUALITY

    In many countries, COVID-related school closures affected already disadvantaged students most in their opportunities to learn and progress. In the Netherlands, the Inspectorate of Education raised the alarm over how the pandemic is leading to further inequality, with alarming numbers of students leaving primary education without the basic skills in arithmetic, reading and writing. As in many countries across the world, the Dutch government is developing new policies to address learning loss from COVID and ‘build back a better system’. These policies include funding for schools to organize targeted support for students in need (e.g. tutoring, remedial teaching) with further investments for schools serving a disadvantaged population. In addition, a government-wide investigation is now underway to better understand the root causes of educational inequality and how to make the education systems more responsive to policies addressing those root causes.  

    A DECENTRALIZED SYSTEM AND A COORDINATED APPROACH

    Improving education from the top is not an easy task, given the highly decentralized nature of the education system in the Netherlands and the value placed on school autonomy. The OECD describes Dutch schools as having the highest autonomy internationally. Freedom of education has been the backbone of Dutch education for decades, and is a core value for many policymakers and practitioners working in education.

    A more centralized and coordinated approach is, however, crucial to reduce inequality, given that differences in learning opportunities and outcomes often lie outside a school’s span of control. Examples are of parents’ free school choice, which leads to highly homogenous schools with a concentration of social, behavioural and learning problems in some schools, or the early tracking in secondary education which tends to disadvantage children from poorly educated and/or migrant backgrounds. Various studies have mapped out the causes and consequences of the high inequality in the Dutch system with one clear message: this is a complex problem because of its multidisciplinary nature (spatial, social, economic inequalities interact and reinforce each other) where any type of measure to improve education will have multiple outcomes, a high level of interconnectedness, and non-linear outcomes. The high complexity requires a coordinated approach that goes beyond individual interventions or programmes, but where the goal is to change how the whole education system operates to reduce inequality.

    WHERE SHOULD WE START WHEN TRYING TO ADDRESS HIGH INEQUALITY?

    Ideally we want a set of interventions that have a multiplier effect where their collective impact on reducing inequality is greater than the sum of single activities. As  good teachers and high quality teaching are the backbone of any education system, this is where we should start:We need to ensure that all school have sufficient high-quality teachers. 

    However, the Netherlands faces a large teacher shortage that will only become bigger in the future. Predictions are that secondary schools in 2023 will have a shortage of more than 1000 teachers with a further estimation of a shortage of 2600 fte in 2026, due to retirement. Certain subjects (Dutch, German, French, ICT, Mathematics, Science etc) will be particularly affected in the future, while schools in some urban areas in the country are already in constant crisis management to fill vacancies. Approximately 12% of primary schools in the large cities (e.g. Amsterdam) have permanent vacancies as teachers are moving to more affordable places to live and work.Even when a sufficient number of teachers enters the profession (which is unlikely given current student numbers on teacher education programmes), many of them leave due to high workload and stress, a lack of support and too much responsibility when starting to teach, an unsupportive school environment with too few opportunities for career progression and lack of communication with colleagues and school leadership. An average of 31% of beginning teachers in secondary education tend to leave teaching within five years of graduation. 

    CONTRADICTORY MEASURES

    The Ministry of Education has tried to increase the number of teachers by allowing schools to hire unqualified teachers while they train to be teachers on the job, but these teachers seem to be particularly prone to exit the profession. It’s also worth questioning this strategy for the message it sends to the profession at large: how should we understand the nature and status of teaching when we allow anyone with a degree in Higher Education to be a teacher? The Inspectorate of Education reports that an average of 7% of primary schools have unqualified teaching staff and this has detrimental consequences for the instructional quality and children’s learning outcomes. The OECD TALIS report also indicates a sharp decline in the status of the teaching profession in the Netherlands. This may well be an important factor in shortages, as low status affects the potential to recruit sufficient high quality teachers. By reducing entry requirements, we unintentionally lower quality standards as well as the status of the profession. 

    Unfortunately, past policies have seen more of such inconsistencies, such as the introduction of a professional register which provides entry barriers but also increases the administrative workload of teachers without necessarily improving the overall quality of their work.

    WHAT CAN WE DO TO INCREASE THE NUMBER OF HIGH QUALITY AND QUALIFIED TEACHERS?

    Various studies look at the types of interventions that can help build a strong and sufficiently large body of teachers. Here is a summary of the top 6:

    1. Ensure high-quality school leaders. School leaders play a critical role in determining whether teachers are satisfied at work and remain at their school (Kraft et al, 2016), while their instructional leadership can improve the teaching in their school.
    2. Ensure a good working environment for teachers. Sims (2021) review of empirical literature stretching back 20 years suggests that the quality of the working environment in a teacher's school is an important determinant of retention. A good working environment includes limited administrative workload and marking, collaboration with colleagues and having a manageable classroom of students in terms of their behaviour and teacher-student ratios. The school leader will have an important role in shaping these conditions of work, but external stakeholders (e.g. Inspectorates of Education) will also have a role to play.
    3. Ensure that new teachers are supported when starting teaching and receive feedback and coaching from experienced teachers in the school.
    4. Ensure teachers are paid more in the most difficult schools, in the most unaffordable areas to live in, and to teach the subjects that are least popular. Sims and Benhenda (2022) find that eligible teachers are 23% less likely to leave teaching in state funded schools in years they were eligible for payments with similar results reported in the US.
    5. Ensure that teachers have career prospects within the teaching profession, so that they don’t have to find these elsewhere. Singapore’s model is exemplary in this regard, while other countries (e.g. England) are also increasing the opportunities for a career in teaching (including formalizing professional development for the various stages).
    6. Ensure that teaching is valued as a profession and has high status in society (e.g. such as when entry requirements are high and the job is paid well). 

    And one final take-away message: policies and measures need to be coherent and well-aligned in both aiming to increase quality and quantity; compromising on either will not reduce inequality in the long term. 

  • The impact of digital media on children’s intelligence while controlling for genetic differences in cognition and socioeconomic background - Bruno Sauce

    In this study (published in Scientific Reports), we estimated the impact of different types of screen time (watching, socializing, or gaming) on children’s intelligence. The novelty of our study was that we accounted for the confounding effects of both genetic predispositions and socio-economic backgrounds. Only a few studies so far considered socio-economic status (household income, parental education, and neighborhood quality), and no study had accounted for genetic effects. Genes matter because intelligence is highly heritable. If unaccounted for, these factors could confound or mask the true impact of screen time on children’s intelligence. For example, children born with a certain genetic background might be more prone to watch TV and, independently, have learning issues. The lottery of genetics is a major confounder in any psychological process, but until recently this has been hard to account for due to heavy costs and technological limitations.

    We analyzed 9855 children from the USA who were part of the ABCD dataset with measures of intelligence at baseline (age 10) and after two years. At baseline, time watching (r = − 0.12) and socializing (r = − 0.10) were negatively correlated with intelligence, while gaming did not correlate. After two years, gaming positively impacted intelligence (standardized β = + 0.17), meaning that the children who played more video games at age 10 has the highest gains at age 12. Socializing had no effect. And, unexpectedly, watching videos also benefited intelligence (standardized β = + 0.12), contrary to prior research on the effect of watching TV. Broadly, our results are in line with research on the malleability of cognitive abilities from environmental factors, such as from school interventions and the Flynn effect. 

  • Interview with Dr. Junlin Yu

    Junlin Yu, a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, Helsinki University, will be visiting LEARN! from mid-June until mid-July to work together with prof. Nienke van Atteveldt and dr. Tieme Janssen. During his stay, he will give a live seminar to the LEARN! audience to discuss some of his publications discussed in the interview below. 

    BEFORE YOUR CURRENT POSITION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF HELSINKI, YOU COMPLETED YOUR PHD AND MPHIL AT THE UNIVERSIY OF CAMBRIDGE. COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR WORK THERE?

    I am intrigued by the phenomenon that boys lag behind girls academically in many countries. Obviously, girls’ underachievement is still an important issue in the global south, but in the more developed countries, we see that boys are underachieving in schools. My PhD research focused on how gendered motivational patterns contributed to gender gaps in school engagement and achievement.

    My PhD research uncovers two motivational pathways in boys’ underachievement. The first - an academic pathway - concerns that boys are more often found in fixed mindset motivational patterns. They tend to see their ability as innate, view effort as pointless, and disengage from school. The second - a social pathway - concerns boys’ greater preoccupation with their social image. Academic effort is considered uncool and, as a result, leads boys to withdraw effort from school. Both of these pathways contribute to boys’ disengagement and underperformance in school. However, these results mask a complex picture: in reality, not all boys underperform, and not all girls do well in school. 

    In a third study, I identified the specific groups of girls and boys who underperformed in school. To do this, I used latent profile analysis to investigate how students acted out their gender roles in school. The results show that problematic academic mindsets and social goals that we discussed earlier did not apply to two thirds of the boys who had more flexible ideas about gender. At the same time, signs of low engagement and achievement were apparent in a sizable group of girls who conformed to the traditional gender norms. By identifying the specific groups of girls and boys who fall behind, this study challenges the simplistic, binary view of the gender gap in schools. 

    AT YOUR CURRENT POST-DOCTORAL POSITION, YOU ARE STUDYING HOW STUDENTS' GROWTH MOTIVATION (GROWTH MINDSET, MASTERY GOAL) IMPACTS LEARNING. HOW DOES THE GROWTH MINDSET VS A FIXED MINDSET AFFECT STUDENT LEARNING?

    Like many other motivation researchers, I am interested in studying motivation as an independent variable, that is, how it influences students’ engagement and learning. However, I also study motivation as a dependent variable–an important educational outcome in and of itself. In my current research, I am looking at how environmental influences such as the school contex and teacher practices can influence students’ motivation to improve, including growth mindset.

    Carol Dweck proposes that people can think about their intelligence or ability in two ways. Some people view their ability as largely fixed, whereas other people view their ability as malleable. This is based on her earlier work on attribution theory where personal attributes are either fixed and uncontrollable or malleable and controllable. A large body of work has found that students with a stronger growth mindset tend to be more resilient. They bounce back from failure more quickly, are more engaged and persist in the face of difficulty. As a result of such adaptive motivational patterns they also perform better in school compared to those with a fixed mindset.  

    My recently published study looks at the association of students’ growth mindset with teacher beliefs, teaching practices and the broader school climate. In this study, I used the Finnish data from the OECD Study on Social and Emotional Skills. I selected the elementary school students sample because they are taught by one teacher for different subjects so it is easier to tease out the influence of teacher beliefs and teaching practices compared to secondary school students who have different subject teachers. 

    What I found is that students reported a stronger growth mindset when their teachers used more guided inquiry practices. Guided inquiry represents a middle ground between traditional teacher-directed instruction and student-led discovery learning. Students have the autonomy to explore and discuss their own ideas but, at the same time, teachers provide a lot of scaffolding and guidance to the students. The result suggests that when students make progress autonomously, they may experience a sense of effectiveness and believe that ability can be improved. 

    I also found that students reported a stronger fixed mindset when teachers differentiated tasks based on studuents’ abilities. This is interesting because we often talk about differentiation and individualized learning at school. It appears that there are nuanced differences between effective and ineffective differentiation practices. When teachers engage in ineffective, unsophisticated task differentiation practices, they may unwittingly communicate their expectations that certain students are more able than others. 

    At the school level, an emphasis on the value of social-emotional development was linked to a stronger growth mindset among students. This is interesting because as students progress from primary to secondary education, there is an increasing emphasis on their academic performance and a decreasing emphasis on their social-emotional needs. 

    I also looked at within-class ability grouping and school-wide ability tracking and how they might influence students’ mindset. However, I did not find significant effects. It seems that ability grouping and teacher practices are intertwined: for example, when teachers teach an ability-grouped class, they tend to use more direct instruction. It becomes difficult to disentangle the effects of the grouping from instructional style. I touch upon these ideas briefly in the paper concluding that grouping, as an organizational tool, might not be directly linked to student mindset but potentially affects teacher expectations and practices.  In the next step, I plan to conduct cross-national comparisons to better understand which classroom and school factors are consistently linked to growth mindset across cultures and which are more culturally specific factors.  

    In the LEARN! seminar on July 5th, I will also be discussing one study which shows that students' mindsets can create complex motivational systems that influence students’ learning. Based on existing research, one might assume a straightforward relationship between students’ mindsets and goals: students with fixed mindsets pursue performance goals, and students with growth mindsets pursue mastery or learning goals. Instead, I found that students form complex motivational profiles: students with the same mindset may enact it differently through their goals. I found a group of growth mindset students who simultaneously pursue high mastery goals and high performance goals. Thus it seems like growth mindset students are more able to coordinate mastery and performance goals at the same time and do as well as and sometimes even better than purely growth oriented students in school. In addition, I have identified a group of fixed mindset students who have low levels of performance goals and disengage from their education. A recent study by a PhD student in prof. Nienke van Atteveldt’s lab has replicated these mindset profiles in a Dutch sample, which is quite encouraging. 

    WHAT WILL YOUR WORK FOCUS ON DURING YOUR STAY AT LEARN?

    I will be working with prof. Nienke van Atteveldt and dr. Tieme Janssen. As part of their research, they have conducted a growth mindset intervention which improved student achievement. Since my interest is in how the learning environment may influence student mindset, I will be working with them to look at the contextual moderators of growth mindset intervention. Sometimes even if we deliver a growth mindset intervention, students may encounter very different messages in their broader school environment and daily interactions with school teachers. One of my hypotheses is that students who receive the growth mindset intervention are more likely to perform better when they also have a supportive classroom environment compared to others.I will be working with existing data and looking at for whom and under what conditions the growth mindset intervention works.

    WHY THIS INSTITUTE FOR THE VISITING STAY?

    It is all about shared research interests. I have met both Nienke and Tieme previously at conferences and know that we have similar interests. I have never worked with randomized control trials before but I have expertise in classroom-based research. So I believe this would be complementary and a great opportunity to collaborate.I am hoping to learn from their extensive research programmes on students’ growth mindset. I also hope that this experience will help me develop a network, independent of my current PI’s network. I look forward to meeting other researchers who are doing interesting work at the LEARN! Institute. 

  • A research story: reflection of a researcher on Dutch identity as an ‘outsider’ Neha Basnet

    The one thing that I have learned from my doctoral research journey is nothing but to wait. Wait for your participants to respond to your request, wait for your research results, wait for the golden ‘moments’ when writing just flow like water, wait for your paper to make sense to your readers, wait for professors to respond to your emails, wait for your paper to get accepted, wait for the spring and summer. The list could go on. Waiting is an endless activity. These ‘waiting’s’, as I have also mentioned in my research, are not the absence of actions but the opportunities to think, reflect, and focus on building something new (not entirely in a materialistic way). It also reminds you to value the importance of little pause in your life (see more about ‘Waiting’ in Basnet et al., 2020).  

    During my research, I have got the opportunity to enjoy plenty of these little ‘waiting’ moments. Every research interview conducted provided me a chance to sit down and listen to new narratives, experience new realities, and new lived lives. Until now, I had conducted research with Nepalese individuals only. However, I recently got the opportunity to work with Dutch individuals (mainly students) as well. There was one moment during this research, where I watched and listened to a white participant and found myself thinking: ‘my life would have been much easier if I had been born white.’ After finishing the interview with the participant, I got my little ‘waiting’ moment where I suddenly realised how I have generalised and homogenised the ‘white’ as a ‘privileged’ group.

    The discourse surrounding ‘white privileges’ emphasizes the fact that being born ‘white’ has its advantages. I had the assumption that ‘white individuals’ have the same privileges and have uniform opportunities. But, not all white individuals are homogenous, nor do they suffer or experience the opportunities equally because they have diverse and multiple identities, as do the people of the global south. During my research interviews with the Dutch students, I noticed that the experiences and differences among the Dutch students are palpable. Often Dutch students (mainly from the minority group) mentioned that the ‘real’ Dutch (white skin and blue eyes) do not consider ‘them’ Dutch. 

    During several interviews with the students, I also encountered common reluctance to refer to themselves (here I am referring to the students with minority backgrounds) as ‘Dutch-Dutch’. At the same time, students who considered themselves ‘Dutch-Dutch’ were often found to attribute ‘other-Dutch’ students' access to education, their failures and opportunities based on their skin color, limited financial resources, cultural preferences, Dutch language fluency/accuracy and their clothing choices. 

    How long do these ‘other-Dutch’ need to wait to be fully accepted as ‘Dutch-Dutch’?

    Edward Said (1987) conceptualised the historical relationship between the West and the East also as the Occident and the Orient. In Said’s Orientalism, knowledge about ‘us’ and ‘them’ is constructed through the practice of power (Said, 1987). The notions such as cultural preferences or obligations, limited financial resources, language barriers, clothing choices, and others found in the conversations with the ‘Dutch-Dutch’ students were purely part of the European imagination of the ‘Orient’. These notions are the product of Orientalism or part of Orientalist perspectives wherein knowledge and power were created through existing European hegemony. The perspectives show that the differences constructed between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are situated in the historical relationship between the Orient (Dutch ethnic minority group in the Netherland) and the Occident (the white-blue-eyed Dutch). The dichotomies constructed by the Dutch students during the interviews and my own against the ‘white Dutch’ as ‘us’- inferior (Orient) and ‘them’- superior (Occident), speak about the stereotyping that we have adopted in our lives about each other. There is a need to encourage students to challenge these binaries and discourses at an early stage of their educational journey. 

     

    As an ‘outsider’-researcher in the Netherlands, the experience of conducting interviews with Dutch students, especially around identity, marked the actual internalisation of my role as a researcher.

  • Essays for sale: how often do students pay others to complete their assignments and what can we do about it? Marjolein Camphuijsen

    ARE WE WITNESSING A GLOBAL RISE IN CONTRACT CHEATING?

    A growing number of studies has tried to get a sense of how prevalent contract-cheating is. Based on a systematic review of the academic literature, Newton (2018) has estimated that one in seven graduates around the world might have engaged in contract-cheating, which constitutes 31 million students worldwide. Newton (2018) however noted we need to interpret these estimates with caution, as numbers are likely to be underreported.

    Part of the problem in estimating the scale of contract cheating is that it is difficult to detect. Originality-detection software such as Turnitin, PlagScan and Urkund is often ineffective, as contracted assignments tend to contain original content and are often well-written and well-referenced (e.g. see Lines 2016). Consequently, in attempting to get an idea of the number of students engaged in contract-cheating, most research consists of self-report studies, which ask students whether they have ever paid a third-party to undertake work for them. Concerns however exist about whether self-report methods are reliable techniques to get a sense of “undesirable” behaviors such as academic misconduct (Newton, 2018). Studies with an experimental design indeed suggest self-report studies might result in underestimates of commercial contract cheating usage (Rigby et al., 2015). 

    Other ways of getting a sense of the prevalence of contract cheating are to look at the supply-side of the practice. In many countries, custom essay websites have proliferated and a significant informal “gig economy” has emerged. By reviewing the financial status of the ‘Essay Industry’, Owings and Nelsen (2014) estimated that the industry has ‘annual revenues somewhere upward of $100 million with estimated minimum profits of $50 million.’ While it remains difficult to say how many students are engaged in contract cheating and how many commercial contract cheating services are in operation, the growth of the supply side indicates the practice of contract-cheating might be widespread.

    WHY DO STUDENTS ENGAGE IN CONTRACT CHEATING?

    One key question that emerges from the acknowledgement that there might be substance to claims by media actors and policy makers about contract cheating being ‘on the rise’ (Newton, 2018, p.7) is why this would be the case. With regards to this question, the academic literature highlights a number of student motivations to engage in contract cheating, which include a lack of confidence in one’s own skills, a lack of satisfaction with the teaching and learning environment, disengagement with courses or assignments, a lack of understanding of assessment requirements, external pressures (including times pressure and performance pressure), a lack of understanding of academic integrity principles, as well as the perception that other students are cheating. Moreover, research highlights a number of personal characteristics might play a role. It appears male students, younger students, and students enrolled in lower levels of study, are more likely to engage in contract cheating. Some studies have also documented that second language students might be more likely to use contract cheating services.

    What can we do about contract cheating?

    In order to protect academic standards, quality and integrity, and to limit the influence of contract cheating in higher education, a number of suggestions have been offered which could be considered by policymakers as well as higher-education institutes:·      

    • Legal changes to make the provision of commercial contract cheating services illegal: Whereas in some contexts, commercial contract cheating services are legal, other countries have introduced legislation which makes it illegal to advertise or offer contract cheating services. Despite calls to introduce similar legislation in other contexts, some research paints a blank picture with regards to the effectiveness of legal measures. For example, Amigud and Dawson (2020) show that even in contexts where contracting cheating services are illegal, ‘contractors operate in plain sight, offering services to and from localities where services are prohibited by law’.
    • Staff professional development: It has been emphasized academic staff needs to be supported and resourced in identifying and investigating possible contract cheating, as well as in facilitating discussions with students about academic integrity (Morris, 2018). In a paper entitled ‘Detecting contract cheating in essay and report submissions’, Rogerson (2017) documents various patterns and clues that might help academic staff to detect contract cheating.
    • Updating academic honesty and misconduct policies: The inclusion of contract cheating related policies and procedures in academic honesty or academic misconduct policies has been suggested. This includes procedures on what to do when contract cheating is suspected or detected.
    • Raising student awareness and promoting support: In an attempt to prevent students to engage in contract-cheating, universities can organize academic integrity training to promote students’ understanding of academic integrity principles and the breach that contract cheating poses (Harrison et al. 2020). Moreover, the provision of greater support that enables students to develop academic writing skills has been suggested.
    • Changes in assessment design:  Alternative assessments methods that are less susceptible to contract cheating could be considered, including in-class tests and exams as well as oral presentations of completed assignments.  

     While some of these suggestions might not be able to eliminate the opportunity to engage in contract cheating entirely, they might reduce the motivation to do so. In deciding how to respond to contract cheating practices, Walker and Towley (2012) recommend policymakers and higher education institutes to ‘avoid moral panic and remain focused on supporting honest students and good academic practice’. In other words, any response to contract cheating would likely benefit from making sure prevention and deterrence measures are developed in ways which support the intellectual community, promote good and trusting relationships between students and academic staff, and strengthen students’ academic skills.  

  • Interview with Elsbeth Prins

    Elsbeth Prins, from the Dutch inspectorate of education is an external PhD candidate at LEARN!, conducting her research as part of the EISON project. As part of her PhD studies, she will look at the financial supervision of educational networks. In this interview, Elsbeth introduces her work and discusses her plans.

    CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR ACADEMIC AND PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND?

    I completed my Master's degree in technical business administration at the University of Groningen. Following my studies, around the year of 2000, I started working as an internal auditor in the financial services industry. However, because I missed the academic life while working as an auditor, I completed another degree in cultural studies as a hobby and two postgraduate degrees in controlling and IT auditing for work. 

    After working as an internal auditor for ten years, I took management positions in financial departments. Then, several years ago, I transitioned into education because I wanted to work on something with higher relevance to society. Thus, I trained as a school administrator, but I decided to work for the inspection instead since school administration turned out to be too operational for me, and I wanted to use my auditing experience. For the last two years, I have been working for the Dutch inspectorate of Education, where I was offered to participate in the EISON program with the possibility to do a Ph.D. At the time, it seemed to me like a perfect way to combine work and research. However, I have not yet found the right balance between the two. I think readers will also recognize that urgent tasks overshadow less urgent ones, even if they are important, like working on the outline of your research.

    CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THE EISON PROJECT?

    The EISON project - which stands for external and internal supervision arrangements for organizational networks addressing complex societal issues - is a cooperation between academics and several inspectorates: education, healthcare, social housing and safety. The object of the research is the supervision of networks. 

    Networks are organizations that can work together and achieve more working together than they can achieve by themselves. Within the education field, we are looking at networks for inclusive education that are supervised (or evaluated) by the inspectorate of education. These formal networks are mandated by legislation and include both mainstream schools and schools for special education who receive funding to provide support for children who need this. The network (coordinated by a separate authority) needs to allocated budget to schools to ensure all children in the region receive the support they need; where possible in a mainstream school. The EISON study will look at how inspection and supervision of networks can contribute to this goal. As my area of expertise is in finance, my research will focus on the financial aspects of supervision, the financial decisions made within the network, and the effects of these decisions on network effectiveness.

    WHAT IS THE ADDED VALUE OF STUDYING THE FINANCIAL STRUCTURES AND INCENTIVES OF NETWORKS? 

    Financial structures of networks are an interesting and much under developed area of work, but money is a key driver for how partners in a network collaborate; particularly where budgets are limited, partners in a network need to decide which areas of work to prioritize and this will have a big effect on the outcomes of the network. 

    Other interesting aspects of network finances concern rules and regulations. For example, the money meant for education must not be spent on care. However, for teachers working with students who need extra support, teaching and care are two sides of the same coin, making it challenging to find the proper funding. Thus, the network organizations are confronted with the fact that they may need to offer specific arrangements in terms of funding that may be a mix of education and care. The problem is that they are not allowed to do so by law.

    WHAT DO YOU WISH TO ACHIEVE WITH YOUR PH.D. PROJECT?

    I hope my work has practical value to society rather than simply expanding the body of knowledge. I expect policymakers to use my project to improve policies concerning the financial management of networks. Additionally, it would be good to improve the work of the inspectorate, such as how external inspection can build on the internal accountability structures in networks.

    HOW DO YOU THINK THE NEXT FEW YEARS WILL LOOK LIKE DOING A PART-TIME PH.D.?

    It is an extra challenge as a part-time Ph.D. student to dedicate the time to Ph.D. work. Some of my other colleagues have told me they spend one day per week at the university so that they meet people and devote their time exclusively to their Ph.D. work. This sounded like a good idea, but of course, the pandemic has prevented this. One other colleague who was doing her Ph.D. had to stop due to the high demands of her job at the inspectorate. So that is also a warning for me that time management will be a big challenge for the next few years.

    CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THIS WORK AT THE INSPECTORATE?

    At the inspectorate, I supervise several research projects. One of these projects concerns the financial surplus that boards have, where they are not spending their lump sum funding in the designated year. Some school boards have underspent their allocated budgets for more than ten years with large sums in the organization’s bank account. Two years ago, we tried to come up with a formula for how much money the boards need to have in reserve, and we figured out that a lot of the boards were not spending enough on education. My job as an inspector is to monitor this surplus money and stimulate the board to spend it. Here, too, you can see the same mechanism at work where decision-making around money is involved. What is very remarkable is that the networks for inclusive education that I have discussed above are also considered very rich. They receive a lot of money, and they are not spending it.

  • School quality: can we measure this with standardized tests? Martijn Meeter and Melanie Ehren

    THE NETHERLANDS: INCREASING INEQUALITY

    The OECD’s PISA study has altered how countries think about education. For some, there was cause to celebrate, for others to mourn and fret. Germany famously experienced a “PISA shock” when in 2000, the scores indicated the country was doing less well than its neighboring countries. At that time, the Netherlands was one of the countries that compared favorably to Germany. However, in the past two decades, scores have seen a slow but steady decline, combined with mounting concerns over increasing inequality. While performance differences between students are not very large compared to other OECD countries, they are determined by social background to a larger extent than elsewhere. 

     

    DISAGREEMENT ABOUT CAUSES OF INEQUALITY

    There is considerable disagreement on the reasons for the decline and on what to do about it. Some, including the Dutch Inspectorate of Education argue for more time and emphasis on basic skills, reading, writing and arithmetic, rather than time for other goals such as healthy behaviors or life skills. They point to evidence from standardized tests showing that a large number of students exit school without mastering a basic level in mathematics, or not able to write coherent texts. An underlying cause for low skills in mathematics might be teachers who are not competent in the subject themselves. For writing, the Inspectorate points to the lack of deep feedback that students receive on their writing products, with teachers only commenting on basic errors of spelling and layout. For reading, the problem is one of motivation and students not reading enough books outside of school.

    Others however do not necessarily agree that declining test scores are problematic and instead argue that education is becoming too much about testing and valuing test scores. The association of secondary school boards has claimed, for example, has claimed that emphasis on basic skills hampers students’ social and mental development. 

     

    SHOULD WE USE STANDARDIZED TESTS TO MEASURE SCHOOL QUALITY?

    These viewpoints reflect a long-standing debate about whether school quality should be measured by (only) standardized test scores, and whether these tests are the best way to understand student performance. Elsewhere we have argued for multiple measures, but here we address the second question and discuss it for primary education.

     

    Can standardized tests of students’ basic skills be used as measures of school quality?

    For primary education, there are three simple criteria to assess an assessment : does the assessment predict success in secondary education? And does it reflect variables that the school has a major influence on (as opposed to, e.g., a child’s genetic makeup or social background)? And is it difficult to game? Standardized tests of arithmetic skills and of reading comprehension meet all three: They reflect the residue of years of in-school training on these skills, because of this they are difficult to game (except through outright fraud), and they are highly predictive of later success in education.

    In fact, “basic skills” is something of a misnomer, given what is needed for successful reading comprehension. Successfully answering questions about the meaning of a text not only requires good text decoding skills, but also good knowledge of vocabulary and understanding of the world, and an ability to make inferences. In fact, reading comprehension is more of a capstone skill than a basic skill (the same holds for advanced tests of arithmetic).  

    Should we extend standardized tests to measure other outcomes?

    If standardized tests of arithmetic and reading comprehension are indeed valid ways to measure school quality, are there other measures that might be added? We argue that for now it is best to focus on academic subjects only, as many of the available alternative measures of non-academic skills or attitudes tend to be unreliable. For example, the social-emotional skills measures championed by the OECD tend to actually measure personality traits; and schools have little influence over these. Possible additions to the palette could be student satisfaction, because of the intrinsic value of a child’s happiness during school hours, and civics education – although the predictive value of the latter for later civic attitudes still needs to be established. And rather than overburdening schools and students with a battery of tests, its best to focus on the basics that every students needs to do well in school and life in general.

  • Interview with Antonina Levatino

    Dr. Antonina Levatino is currently in the middle of a visiting scholarship at LEARN!. She works at the French Institute of Demographic Studies (INED) in Paris and at the Department of Sociology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, where she researches the link between the internationalization of higher education, skilled migration, and student mobility. In this interview, Dr. Levatino introduces her current projects and future plans.

    YOUR RESEARCH HAS MAINLY FOCUSED ON THE INTERNALIZATION OF HIGHER EDUCATION, SKILLED MIGRATION, AND STUDENT MOBILITY. COULD YOU PLEASE ELABORATE MORE ON THIS LINE OF RESEARCH?

    Yes, of course. I have been working specifically on the link between transnational higher education and the mobility of students and graduates. Transnational higher education refers to any teaching or learning activity in which students are based in a different country than the country where the institution providing the education is located. An example is an English university that has campuses in China or Malaysia and offers degrees in these countries so that people can obtain an English degree without going to England. In this sense, it is different from student mobility because, in this case, the educational services and programs are moving, and students can get a foreign degree without having to go abroad. Because of this, it has been argued that for countries that open their education market to foreign providers, transnational higher education could represent a way to convince students to stay in the country, constituting a potential solution for the “brain drain” problem. But the issue is very complex. What we see is that transnational higher education is increasingly important. However, we know very little about the effect of the mobility of university programs on the mobility of students and graduates because empirical evidence is scarce. This is why I have dedicated time and effort to research this. The results of my research so far show that transnational higher education does not seem to be a substitute for international student mobility. 

    Instead, we are seeing the emergence of a two-tier international higher education system where studying abroad is still considered more prestigious compared to studying “offshore” through transnational education. It follows that the two types of international education absorb different segments of students. I also found that being enrolled in transnational higher education favors the creation of ties with people from the country of the education provider and enables access to important information about that country. This might increase the desire to go abroad after graduation and make the realization of this desire easier. If we consider these results, transnational higher education is far from a solution to brain drain and might even increase it.

     

    YOU WERE ALSO INVOLVED IN TONI VERGER’S WELL-KNOWN REFORMED PROJECT; AN INTERNATIONAL STUDY ON PERFORMANCE-BASED ACCOUNTABILITY. COULD YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT IT?

    Yes, ofcourse. On the one hand, the REFORMED project analyzes how and why school autonomy with accountability reforms are being adopted and re-contextualized in different countries. On the other hand, the project explores policy enactment processes at the school level. This second objective has been based on data from a big survey conducted in several countries among school principals and teachers and interviews with school actors. I have been mostly involved in this second strand of research within the project. More specifically, I have been in charge of designing and coordinating the survey, and I am currently involved in the analysis of the survey data collected and in their triangulation with the qualitative information coming from the interviews. The aim is to explore, among other things, the determinants of the external accountability pressure experienced by school actors, the emergence of undesired behavioral effects (cheating, cream-skimming practices, etc.) and the strength of extrinsic rewards, which are more and more foreseen by accountability reforms, in motivating school actors. Apart from that, within the framework of the project, I am also currently collaborating with a colleague to explore the link between school autonomy, external accountability, and innovation, specifically analyzing the Italian case.  

    ANYTHING ELSE YOU ARE WORKING ON?

    Apart from what I already mentioned, I recently became one of the coordinators of the IMISCOE Standing Committee “Education and Social Inequality.” IMISCOE is the most important European network of researchers in the field of migration, integration, and diversity studies. So, within the Standing Committee, our current goal is to advance critical theoretical discussions on issues of social inequalities in education, transitions in education, the labor market, and the integration of refugees and asylum seekers into the education system.  

    WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?

    I hope to have time to continue doing my research on transnational higher education and how it has been changing higher education and student mobility flows worldwide. Also, since last year, I have been a member of the Management Committee of the COST Action ENIS (European Network on International Student Mobility: Connecting Research and Practice) that will last for the coming five years. Within this project, we are investigating inequalities in access to international student mobility and the social and cultural integration of international students in the countries of destination. Finally, within the framework of the work of the IMISCOE Standing Committee, with the other coordinators, I will seek to strengthen the issues of discrimination and racism in formal and informal education. 

  • How do teachers understand their school? Metaphors as a lens to their sense making of daily school life - Melanie Ehren

    When we use the word ‘school’ we often assume to have a similar view of what this means: in its most basic form a building with classrooms of students and a teacher. This ‘grammar of schooling’ has been in place for decades and tends to include the grouping of students for purposes of instruction where teachers’ work is defined vis-à-vis groups of students and how they are progressed through school on the basis of assessment outcomes and/or age. 

    Underlying these visible structures, we however find a vast variety in practices and views of what it means to educate children, how to organize a school and the meaning of a school. Those involved in schooling – students, parents, teachers and school leaders- may have different views of their school, conceptions of their role in the school, and the values of schooling. Such views, often expressed in metaphors provide an important means to access what people think, but also to understand their actions. Mills et al. (2017) for example argue that how we choose to act is (also) a function of how we construct conceptions of what we are and what we are trying to do; and when certain metaphors gain prominence in the minds of a majority of people in an organisation or domain, they will over time transform into social or organisational values instead of only representing individual values or beliefs.

    As teachers have an important role in improving learning outcomes and school life more broadly, their metaphors are particularly relevant to understand the functioning of a school. How they understand their profession and their work, the views they have on how students learn and the learning process provide an important lens to learn about and explain everyday school life. 

    In our interviews with teachers in four high and four low performing schools in South Africa we found references to four metaphors and particularly to school as a family and factory:

    • In this school, we consider each other as family. Colleagues are brothers and sisters to me. The school is like a home to me where we nurture the children.
    • Our school runs like a factory: we have a well-planned and efficient process to deliver the curriculum and treat all the learners in the same manner.
    • Learners come to school to be taught by skilled professionals who know what they need. Teachers diagnose student needs and adopt their instruction accordingly. Learners will achieve well when they –and their parents- follow our instructions. (hospital)
    • This school feels like a warzone. There is a lot of conflict between staff, parents and learners. We need to protect ourselves from burglary and violence, including from students who are disruptive. When parents have an issue, it’s not safe to speak to them alone in the classroom. 

     

    METAPHORS ARE CONTEXT-SPECIFIC

    The choice of metaphor is however highly contextual rather than representing a predetermined and fixed mindset about the purpose of schooling. School staff who for example work in deprived areas where children come to school unfed would emphasize the nurturing of learners; in communities which have high levels of conflict and violence tend to see these conflicts transpire into the school context to reflect a warzone metaphor.

    Across the schools we see that the use of metaphors varies by specific professional roles, the socio-economic, ethnic and religious background of the school population, and the performance of the school. 

     

    METAPHORS ARE NOT UNIQUE CONSTRUCTS

    The four metaphors are also not unique constructs to describe a school organisation, but rather need to be considered collectively to appreciate how staff view their school and particular characteristics of the school. Staff have different images of, for example the decision-making and communication style versus the teaching and learning culture in the school, as well as how different metaphors may be employed to convey relations with parents, learners and colleagues. Teachers for example referenced a high level of standardization of their teaching where they are following a prescribed lesson plan to meet basic external standards (factory metaphor), but ignore these strictures at other times to play and care for their children, or to offer extended learning opportunities for children to grow and mature (family metaphor). Sometimes the high level of standardization (befitting the factory metaphor) is mentioned as a way to prevent conflict and create stability and is sometimes also considered in the best interest of learners growth and development (fitting the family metaphor). Understanding the metaphors teachers use and why they use them provides an important pathway to change and to enable a strong teaching profession.

  • Interview with Or Dagan

    Dr. Or Dagan is a clinical psychologist and an attachment researcher, currently in the role of a visiting fellow at the LEARN! Child Rearing program. In this interview, Or discusses his research on attachment to two parents versus the single child-mother attachment. Additionally, he shares the findings of his research and future goals of the project.   

    CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND? 

    Thinking back, I have always been interested in what makes some people emotionally suffer. I studied Psychology and Philosophy for my undergraduate degree in Israel, and continued to pursue my master’s in Philosophy. I focused on existential philosophy and philosophy of science and wrote a book on how science- being a human conduct- is as absurd as human life. In short, I argued that in the same manner that humans wish to live forever while knowing they are only mortal, science strives to find an ultimate truth while being fully aware that it will never reach such a destination. In the process of writing this book, and delving into the writings of great existential thinkers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus, I have gained a major insight that has stayed with me since then and has driven my clinical and research interests. 

     

    I realized that human suffering stems from a constant state of “lack” that is inherent in being alive and conscious. As soon as we are born, we devote an extreme amount of energy to fulfill all kinds of physical and psychological needs, such as the need for oxygen, nutrients, warmth, and protection. With time, we become aware of our lacks and the constant need to fulfill them. If those needs- especially emotional ones such as feeling attended to and cared for - are inconsistently fulfilled or unfulfilled altogether, they can lead to suffering. 

     

    But not all suffer equally. I thus became interested not so much in what makes us suffer- after all, being alive often bring about suffering just by the mere fact that we constantly lack emotional needs while being aware of them. Rather, I was interested in who is there with us and for us to help us deal with such suffering as a potential explanation to why some people suffer emotionally more than others. I realized that in order to better answer this question, I should get closer to real-life suffering through working with patients who deal with mental health problems. 

     

    I went on to pursue my doctoral degree in clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. During my studies, I was drawn to attachment theory and research, which emphasize the role early experiences with our primary caretakers play in our emotional difficulties. I came to realize that attachment theory fit well with the questions that interested me. Attachment theory highlights the human attempts at fulfilling an inherent need for emotional support and the emotional difficulties that may arise when such attempts fail.  

     

    CAN YOU BRIEFLY EXPLAIN WHAT ATTACHMENT IS AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT? 

    Attachment is an evolutionary-based behavioral and emotional system that was first articulated, as we know it today, by John Bowlby. The attachment system is designed to endow us with an instinctual tendency to seek support at times of need from a specific group of close others. This is an extremely important instinct to be born with, since we are “thrown” into this world without any capacity to stay alive for long. 

    We need to ensure physical and emotional proximity, or to be “attached,” so to speak, to our caregivers in order to survive and to learn through repeated interactions with them about our environment to independently navigate it. Generally speaking, when parents are available and responsive to children’s distress cues, children derive a sense of safety from being in proximity to their parents when facing distress. The learned expectation of parental availability at times of need fosters trust that parents will be there to support us should we need them. It also allows for exploring whatever we want to do away from our parents with the confidence that if we fail or find ourselves struggling with something, we can always go back to a secure base and be effectively soothed, and then safely continue with our lives. 

     

    But of course, whereas we all have a strong tendency to seek support from others at times of need, some of us don’t receive it. When parents respond insensitively to children’s distress, such as ignoring the child’s plea for help or not being consistently and emotionally available in such circumstances, children are likely to develop insecure attachment patterns. They develop expectations that a wiser and stronger parent will not be available as a secure base, and they are left with a significant “lack”- the lack of felt security, support, and confidence in their ability to deal with life difficulties. As a result, their behaviors are less likely to gear towards a free exploration of the environment, which itself limits their ability to live fulfilled lives. 

     

    WHAT LED YOU TO RESEARCH ATTACHMENT TO TWO PARENTS VERSUS THE OFTEN-RESEARCHED SINGLE CHILD-MOTHER ATTACHMENT RELATIONSHIP?

    As I was working on my dissertation, looking at how attachment security decreases the otherwise strong association between early life trauma and accelerated cellular aging in young adults, I met a prominent figure in the attachment research field, Dr. Avi Sagi-Schwartz from Haifa University in Israel. As we began to chat about our research interests, Avi directed my attention to the fact that the agreement about the importance of multiple caregivers in the developmental trajectories of children, very little research has been conducted to assess the joint effect of mothers and fathers on children’s outcomes. The little research that was conducted used relatively small sample sizes, which is statistically problematic since it does not allow for robust conclusions about the findings that these studies yielded. 

     

    I got excited about researching early attachment networks to mothers and fathers since it brought me full circle to my interest in human emotional suffering. At least in traditional Western two-parent families, I thought, understanding the quality of early relationships to both parents is understanding the lenses through which children learn about dealing with life difficulties and about whether and to what degree they can emotionally rely on others to support them when dealing with such challenges. Not developing a strong belief, based on repeated experiences, in the ability to effectively solicit emotional support from our parents, may explain why some of us emotionally suffer more than others. Studying an attachment relationship with only one parent is simply overlooking half of the story. So Avi and I decided to first map the problem of not conclusively knowing and not thoroughly researching the joint effect of attachment to mothers and fathers on children’s socioemotional outcomes, and proposed new theoretical models to propel systematic research towards answering this unresolved question.

    After publishing a couple of papers on the subject, I collaborated with leading attachment researchers, Drs. Carlo Schuengel and Marije Verhage from the Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences, Clinical Child and Family Studies, at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and established the Collaboration on Attachment to Multiple Parents and Outcomes Synthesis (CAMPOS).

    Through such international collaborations, we combined previously collected data from multiple sites across the globe on children’s attachment relationships with both their mothers and fathers and on children’s mental health and cognitive capacities. So instead of individual small datasets, we have compiled one large dataset, which allows us to simultaneously analyze data on many children and their parents- more than 1,000 child-mother-father triads- and be more confident in the conclusions that we derive from the findings. 

     

    CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE FINDINGS THAT YOUR TEAM HAS COME UP WITH THUS FAR? 

    We thus far analyzed the data to assess two developmental outcomes. The first was children’s mental health. We found that children with two secure attachment relationships with mother and father had significantly lower chances of experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms compared with children who had one insecure attachment to mother or father, and children who were insecurely attached to both parents. Interestingly, we found similarly elevated mental health symptoms that children who were insecurely attached only to mothers compared to those who were insecurely attached only to fathers, suggesting an equally important role that mother-child and father-child attachment relationships play in children’s mental health outcomes.

     

    We also looked at children’s language competence, and we found similar results to the ones we found with mental health outcomes. That is, language skills increased with more secure attachment a child had. Children with two secure attachments had the highest scores, then came children who were securely attached to only one parent, and last came those with two insecure attachments. Here, too, we found an immaterial difference between mother-child and father-child attachment relationships as predictors of language competence. Together with recent findings showing that language competence variability predicts individual differences in behavioral problems, it is becoming clearer how beneficial it is for children to develop a secure attachment with both mothers and fathers.    

     

    WHAT ARE THE FUTURE STEPS IN THE PROJECT? 

    At the moment, we are in the process of analyzing outcome data that will allow us to better understand the predictive power of attachment networks to mothers and fathers on children’s effortful and inhibitory control, emotion regulation, and social competence- all of which have been shown to increase the long-term vulnerability to mental health problems. Another future avenue I plan to pursue is a recruitment of a large birth cohort, potentially in collaboration with multiple research laboratories around the world, and follow children longitudinally so to better understand the influence of early attachment networks to mothers and fathers on the stability and change in mental and physical health problems. Such research design will also allow for tapping on potential mechanisms that contribute to such developmental trajectories.

  • A New Publication by Lianne Bakkum et al.

    Recently, our paper ‘Exploring the meaning of unresolved loss and trauma in more than 1,000 Adult Attachment Interviews’ was published in Development and Psychopathology. In this paper, we report on the psychometric validity of the rating category of ‘unresolved loss/trauma’ of the Adult Attachment Interview. The Adult Attachment Interview is a semi-structured interview about relationships with attachment figures (such as parents), developed in the 1980s. Unresolved loss/trauma is coded on the basis of incoherent and disorganised speech about loss or childhood abuse. Despite that the instrument has been widely used for over three decades, the 32 speech indicators for coding unresolved loss/trauma had not been psychometrically validated in other study samples than the one used to develop the coding scale. In this study, we used individual participant data from 1,009 adults to examine associations between the indicators of unresolved loss/trauma and the overall rating category of unresolved loss/trauma. Using predictive modelling, we found that two indicators of unresolved loss/trauma were especially important for prediction of the overall category. Twenty-two indicators were especially rare in our sample. Our findings suggest that the scale for rating unresolved loss/trauma has been overfitted to the development sample, and provide directions for further innovation and articulation of the Adult Attachment Interview coding system.

  • Wat zet studenten aan tot kritisch denken bij een scheikundepracticum? - Marion van Brederode

    Scheikundepracticum en instructies
    Een scheikundepracticum is een complexe leeromgeving. Op de leerlingen wordt vaak in korte tijd een overweldigende hoeveelheid informatie afgevuurd: scheikundige theorieën, doel of nut van het onderzoek, omgaan met instrumenten en chemicaliën, en dan nog alle waarnemingen die de uitvoering van het experiment zelf opleveren (Agustian and Seery, 2017).

    Het vraagt dus enige stroomlijning om leerlingen dit allemaal te laten verwerken. Tegelijkertijd willen we ook dat ze bij praktische opdrachten kritisch denken en problemen zelf leren oplossen.

    Practicuminstructies hebben grote invloed op hoe leerlingen een onderzoeksopdracht benaderen en ervaren. Stapsgewijze instructies, ook wel kookboek of traditionele instructies genoemd, pakken hierbij veelal teleurstellend uit (Kirschner, 1992). Een herkenbare situatie is dat de leerlingen zich pas realiseren wat ze aan het doen waren tijdens het practicum op het moment dat ze het verslag dat ze in ''moesten” leveren aan het schrijven zijn.

    In het verleden is er veel discussie geweest over de effecten van de mate van sturing in de begeleiding bij onderzoekend- of ontdekkend leren. Uit een meta-analyse kwam naar voren dat meer sturing tijdens onderzoekend leren onder andere resulteert in een hoger niveau van de onderzoeksverslagen van leerlingen (Lazonder and Harmsen, 2016). Dat vind ik niet zo verwonderlijk, omdat met meer sturing tijdens de opdracht leerlingen beter worden geïnformeerd over datgene wat van hen wordt verwacht of waarop ze worden beoordeeld.

    Herkennen van kritisch denken.
    In ons onderzoek wilden we daarom naar de invloed van practicuminstructies op het kritisch denken van leerlingen tijdens de uitvoering van de practicumopdracht kijken en niet naar het niveau van de verslaglegging. We zijn hiervoor specifiek gaan letten op de reactie van leerlingen wanneer er dingen op ze afkomen die ze van tevoren niet hadden verwacht. Dan worden aspecten van kritisch denken ineens heel belangrijk, zoals de behoefte om geïnformeerd te zijn en het vermogen om tot voortschrijdend inzicht te komen. Concreet betekent dit dat we keken of leerlingen trends in hun waarnemingen kunnen herkennen, die belangrijk zijn voor hun conclusies, maar waar ze aanvankelijk niet aan gedacht hadden (en waarbij ook niemand ze gevraagd heeft om daaraan te denken). Het onderzoeksdoel was om erachter te komen of de voorbereidende fase van het practicum invloed zou hebben op het kritisch denken van de leerlingen tijdens de uitvoering van het experiment en de verwerking van de meetresultaten.

    Onderzoek aan voorbereiding.
    We hebben twee voorbereidende fasen voor een practicum vergeleken die we de gebaande weg (paved road)- en de kritisch denken (critical thinking) conditie zijn gaan noemen. In de gebaande weg conditie bereiden de leerlingen zich voor met vragen waarmee ze zich focussen op de onderzoeksvraag en het begrijpen van de meetmethode. In de kritisch denken conditie werken leerlingen aan dezelfde onderzoeksvraag, maar wordt ze eerst gevraagd zelf te komen met een experimenteerplan. Hierbij hebben ze dezelfde informatie beschikbaar als de studenten in de gebaande weg conditie. Het belangrijkste verschil tussen de condities zit dus in de manier waarop de studenten voorafgaand aan het practicum de aangeboden informatie verwerken. Beide condities kennen instructie-elementen die veel gebruikt worden bij scheikundepractica en in beide condities werken de leerlingen in tweetallen. Voor de opzet van de kritisch denken conditie en het definiëren van de niveaus voor kritisch denken hebben we ons verder laten inspireren door een grootschalige studie naar het kritisch denken van natuurkundestudenten bij practica (Holmes et al., 2015).

    Om het kritisch denken te kunnen indiceren was het handig om leerlingen te laten werken aan een experiment met een ‘verborgen val of verrassing’. Bij de verslaglegging van dit experiment bleek dat sommige leerlingen een ‘schijnbare discrepantie’ tussen waarnemingen en een theoretisch model in het geheel niet opmerkten, of dat hen dat niet zo gek veel kon schelen. Dit gaf dan een gebrek aan kritisch denken tijdens het practicum weer. Wanneer leerlingen de meetresultaten wel op waarde konden schatten en probeerden te begrijpen, bleek het ‘probleem’ relatief eenvoudig op te lossen. Dit gaf dan een hoger niveau van kritisch denken weer.

    Twee cohorten
    We hebben de studie twee jaar achter elkaar uitgevoerd in vier parallelle 6 vwo scheikunde clusters. Bij het eerste cohort werden we vooral overvallen door de lukrake opmerkingen die studenten in de gebaande weg conditie maakten over hun meetgegevens. Hierdoor werd meer dan helft van de leerlingen in de gebaande weg conditie ingedeeld in het laagste kritisch denken niveau. In de kritisch denken conditie van het eerste cohort kozen enkele tweetallen juist voor een heel andere experimentele benadering, waarbij ze wel zeer gemotiveerd waren om de betekenis van hun meetgegevens te doorgronden, maar de verborgen val niet duidelijk tegenkwamen.

    Directe vergelijking
    Voor het tweede cohort hebben we voor beide condities het doel van het practicum scherper gecommuniceerd en was de uitvoering van het practicum beter gestroomlijnd door onze ervaringen van het jaar daarvoor. Dit resulteerde ook in een hoger gemeten kritisch denkniveau voor de gebaande weg conditie. Dit zou kunnen betekenen dat met meer sturing en begeleiding bij onderzoekend leren meer kan worden bereikt. In beide schooljaren liet de directe vergelijking van de leerlingen in de kritisch denken conditie met de gebaande weg conditie echter duidelijk zien dat leerlingen in de kritisch denken conditie doortastender en beter in staat waren om onverwachte trends in meetgegevens op te merken en niet weg te wuiven. Zo zagen ze dat zelf ook, want tijdens de evaluatie gaven leerlingen in de kritisch denken conditie vaker aan dat deze opdracht hen tot nadenken had aangezet.

    De aanscherping en verbetering van het practicum in de gebaande weg conditie van het ene op het andere jaar is waarschijnlijk exemplarisch voor wat docenten doen, zodra het opvalt dat studenten niet serieus of goed omgaan met hun meetgegevens. Het is duidelijk dat je op deze manier in de verslaglegging meer kunt terugkrijgen van wat je zelf vooraf belangrijk vindt. Op het onafhankelijk en kritisch denken van leerlingen kan dit soort sturing echter een remmende werking hebben. In onze studie liet de directe vergelijking van groepen in de gebaande weg conditie met de kritisch denken conditie beide jaren namelijk duidelijk zien dat leerlingen na het maken van voorbereidende vragen minder geneigd waren onafhankelijk en kritisch te denken dan leerlingen die een eigen experimenteerplan hadden gemaakt.

    Kritisch denken is niet eenvoudig te evalueren in een onderzoek: je kunt het pas meten op het moment dat het ook echt op kritisch denken aankomt. Het effect dat leerlingen eerder geneigd zijn om onafhankelijk en kritisch te denken wanneer ze meer autonomie ervaren is er waarschijnlijk wel altijd. Dat hebben we ook zo beleefd bij andere practica in andere klassen. Als we het kritisch denken bij leerlingen willen stimuleren kunnen we hier in de toekomst rekening mee houden, ook als er geen verborgen verrassing in de opdracht zit.

    Het artikel is gepubliceerd in Chemistry Education Reseach and Practice en is hier te lezen.
    Examining the effect of lab instructions on students' critical thinking during a chemical inquiry practical.

    Marion E. van Brederode, Sebastiaan A. Zoon and Martijn Meeter

  • What drives students to think critically during a chemistry lab? - Marion van Brederode

    Laboratory learning and instructions

    A laboratory is a complex learning environment in which students often have to deal with an overwhelming amount of written and verbal instructions about the functioning of instrumentation, safety, underlying theory, and input from the experiment itself (Agustian and Seery, 2017).

    So it takes some streamlining to have students handle all this. At the same time, we also want them to think critically and to solve problems themselves.

    Laboratory instructions affect how students approach their laboratory assignments. It has been noted often that step-by-step instructions, sometimes called cook-book or traditional instructions, that guide students through an experiment have limited learning effects (Kirschner, 1992). These kind of instructions can often lead to situations in which students only start to think about the meaning of the laboratory activity when they are writing their assignment reports.

    Recently it emerged from a meta-analysis of studies on guided inquiry instructions that, among other things, more specific guidance during inquiry assignment results in higher quality students’reports than inquiry learning that is guided by moren open instructions (Lazonder and Harmsen, 2016). I think this is rather unsurprising as with more specific guidance the students are better informed on what is expected from them or what they are assessed on.

    Therefore, in our study, we wanted to look at how instructions affect students’ critical thinking while they are conducting a practical assignment and not at the quality of the final reporting.

    Recognize critical thinking by surprise

    To recognize critical thinking in the students, we wanted the them to encounter something during the experiment they had not expected beforehand, but where it would be relatively easy for those who thought critically about the meaning of their data to notice this ‘hidden trap’ and propose a correct way of analysing the data. However, students who are not concerned about the meaning of their experimental data either fail to notice the apparent discrepancy between their experimental data and the models they had learned about or are not bothered by it. This can be interpreted as an indication of a lack of critical thinking during the inquiry assignment.

    Investigation of preparation

    The research goal of our study was to find out whether the preparatory phase of the practical assignment would influence the students' critical thinking. We made a direct comparison of two different, but equally comprehensive, designs of pre-laboratory activities that we implemented in parallel in four chemistry classes of senior-year secondary school students. These we named paved road- and critical thinking pre-laboratory activities. Both forms of activities are based on elements that are often recognizable in educational practice to prepare students for laboratory work. For the design of the critical thinking condition and defining the levels for critical thinking, we were further inspired by a large-scale study into the critical thinking among physics students during lab work (Holmes et al., 2015).

    With the paved road pre-laboratory activity, students were making pre-laboratory questions that guide them through the design of the assignment. These questions focused the students on the research question and how the presented experimental method is well suited to answer the research question. With the critical thinking pre-laboratory activity, students investigate the same pre-specified research question but they were making their own design for the experiment according to given criteria for a good experimental set-up and provided information (hints). The amount information available for making the experimental plan in the critical thinking condition was identical to the provided information for answering the laboraboratory questions in the paved road condition. So the main difference between the two conditions comes down to the way in which the students process the information offered prior to the practical.

    Two cohorts

    We conducted the study two years in a row with Dutch senior year high school students. In the first cohort, we were mainly surprised by the haphazard comments made by students in paved road condition about their measurement data. As a result, more than half of the students in the paved road condition were classified in the lowest critical thinking level. In the critical thinking condition of the first cohort, a few pairs opted for a completely different experimental approach, in which they were highly determined to understand the meaning of their measurement data, but did not clearly encounter the hidden trap.

    To avoid a similar situation the next year, the cohort 2 students in the paved road conditions were focused more on the research goal and in the critical thinking condition they were given more direction for the set-up of the experimental plan, relative to the students in cohort 1.

    Direct comparions

    As a result we observed that more students in the paved road condition interpreted their measurement data with more depth. This may be interpreted as that the level of research reached in inquiry learning is largely a function of the direction given in the guidance. However, the direct comparison of the paved road and critical thinking conditions on the contrary, showed that for both cohorts students in the critical thinking condition expressed more independent critical thinking when evaluating their measurement data. They more often noticed the unexpected observation and were more often trying to understand and clarify it, instead of waving it away.

    Critical thinking is not easy to evaluate in a study: you can only measure it when it really comes down to critical thinking. The effect that laboratory instructions have on the critical thinking of students is probably always there (and we have experienced that with other laboratory assignments in other classes as well). When students experience automony they are more determined to solve problems or unravel surprises. It is therefore a good idea to take this into account in the future when designing instructions, even if there is no hidden surprise in the assignment.

    The article is accepted for publication in Chemistry Education Reseach and Practice and can be read here. (https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2020/rp/d0rp00020e)

    Examining the effect of lab instructions on students' critical thinking during a chemical inquiry practical.
    Marion E. van Brederode, Sebastiaan A. Zoon and Martijn Meeter

  • Interview with PhD students

    Here we interview Linda Messemaker-Veerman (1st year Ph.D. student) and Jana Runze (3rd year Ph.D. student) about their PhD studies at the VU: the past, present, and future of their PhD journies. They also tell us about the PhD engagement initiatives they have started organizing at the POW. 

    Linda Messemaker-Veerman

    PhD-student Academic Collaborative Centre Social Relations & Attachment, Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences, Clinical Child & Family Studies

    COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR ACADEMIC BACKGROUND?

    I completed both my bachelor and master of ‘Educational Sciences (Pedagogische Wetenschappen)’ at the VU.. After that, I worked in residential care for people with disabilities. First, I worked as a support worker for people with an intellectual disability. Later, I worked as a psychological assistant, involved in psychodiagnostics. My next job was at an organization for people with epilepsy (SEIN).. I worked there as a behavioral scientist with people with and without intellectual disability, children, and the elderly. I enjoyed that job.


    During this job, I got in contact with the organization's research team, which was doing a lot of medical research into epilepsy. We wanted to do research in the residential care department as well. We were busy starting up with the project and started data collection. While doing this, I noticed that I missed doing research. 


    I always used to get notifications about academic vacancies. Just like that, I received a notification for the Ph.D. position I currently hold, and I left my old job at SEIN to pursue it. It was a big step for me. During my previous job, I was used to going to many meetings, talking to a lot of people, seeing a lot of people. I had a lot of responsibilities relating to the care Now, I have different responsibilities and I am learning different skills again. I am a student again, and this is new to me. I do a lot of my work at my desk alone - this is a significant change. 

•          

     

    CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CURRENT PH.D. POSITION?

    We are doing a project about the siblings of children with disabilities under the supervision of prof. dr. Paula Sterkenburg. Notably, we are now developing a Serious Game - a game that children can learn from - for children from six to nine years old that have a brother or sister with visual impairment, an intellectual disability, or both. We are almost done with the development of the game. We are now amid the medical ethics committee evaluation and hope to be able to start investigating the effectiveness of the Serious Game in April. 


     

    WHY SIBLINGS OF CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES?

    Generally, attention is paid to the child with disabilities both from the parents and care facilities around the family. So sometimes, the sibling without the disabilities is forgotten. Thus, we are designing a game that is meant for the siblings to let them feel that they are important too and that they are not the only one. 
Another important reason to target this group of children is that the siblings of children with disabilities sometimes develop emotional and psychological problems later in life and have trouble prioritizing their own needs. We hope that if we intervene early in their development, and help them with recognizing and coping with different emotions, thoughts and difficult situations we can improve their quality of life and psychosocial well-being and perhaps prevent these problems. But of course we do not yet know if this game actually works. What's more, siblings of children with disabilities become caregivers of their brother or sister in the future. So, that is another reason why it is vital to pay attention at an early age.

     

    CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE GAME?

    The game has fun little monster creatures, called Broodles, who are the game's main characters. The Broodles are experiencing all kinds of things that siblings encounter when they have a brother or sister with a disability. For example, when a sibling with a disability does not understand what their brother or sister is saying; when they do not understand the meaning of a game; when they show challenging behavior or can not talk; or they have to go to the hospital. We think it is crucial to let these children understand that the feelings and thoughts they might experience when facing these issues are notable, and it is good to talk about them. 



     

    WHAT DO YOU SEE AS A LONG-TERM GOAL OF YOUR RESEARCH? 

    We are first going research the effectiveness of the serious game with an RCT. We hope to find that this game can improve the quality of life and well-being of the siblings and make them feel more supported and less impacted by their situation. In the long term, we hope that the game can be broadly offered to all siblings of children with disabilities. In addition, we hope that this tool can be available to care professionals visiting families of children with intellectual disabilities who have siblings.
I think we could really make a change by offering a game to children that may feel forgotten. 



     

    DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER PROJECTS PLANNED FOR THE REST OF YOUR PH.D.?

    We have not set it in stone yet. I only started in May of last year, and we have been focused on this quite large RCT study. However, we have thought a little about what else we can do. For example, we are now investigating if we can do some data analysis with the NTR data (Dutch Twin Registry). They might have longitudinal data where one twin has an intellectual disability, and the other does not.
 

    I have talked to professionals from several care organizations, and I have learned that many professionals do not realize that they forget about the sibling that does not have an impairment. That is also what I noticed when I was working at the residential care that I did not do much with the siblings and realized that I was forgetting them.

    I would maybe like to do a practical review of what is happening in the country, what we are doing for the siblings and general perceptions about this. So it would be something like combining qualitative interviews with different people in care facilities about what they are doing, looking at what is being done and what could be improved. 


    We are also planning to collect data in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. We have been in contact with a researcher in Belgium who did her Ph.D. on siblings of people with disability. 


     

    YOU ARE ALSO THE REPRESENTATIVE FOR THE POW PH.D. STUDENTS. WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES IN THIS ROLE?

    My co-promoter, Agnes Willemen contacted me to ask whether I wanted to do this. She had been talking with Prof. Meeter and Jana about Ph.D. students wishing to be more connected to each other, missing the social interactions with colleagues. Apparently, a few years ago, there used to be meetings for Ph.D. students in our faculty where the students would lunch together and talk. The idea arose to reintroduce those meetings, and together with Jana, I was asked to plan them.


    I was also asked to be the representative of this group of Ph. D. students because there might be more things that the Ph.D. students want to know or do, and in that sense, it is always good to have a representative that could speak to the board on behalf of the entire group. But, as I said, we are just beginning to establish this network and are thinking about what it can look like. 


    So far, Jana and I have planned the lunches. Thus, there are now the LEARN lunches and our Ph.D. lunches that are just social gatherings. Next to that, we also implemented a slack group to facilitate communication. Finally, we have made a Surfdrive folder where we plan to exchange documents that could be important for writing an article or courses interesting for Ph.D. students.  


    We will see how it goes from here! 
  

    Jana Runze

    PhD Candidate, Faculty of Behavioural and Movement SciencesClinical Child and Family Studies

    COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR ACADEMIC BACKGROUND?

    I did my bachelor's in psychology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Afterward, I did my research master's at Nijmegen Radboud university at the behavioral science institute. There, I also did an internship at the developmental psychology lab. Within the master program, I wrote a thesis while simultaneously doing my internship at the research department. I contributed to a longitudinal study on child development at the psychobiology lab. I did my thesis on parent-child attachment and in how far it was associated with childrens stress as measured by their length of telomeres. I looked into whether the regulation behavior of the child was a mediator or a moderator in this relationship.

    THAT BRINGS US TO YOUR CURRENT POSITION AT THE VU. COULD YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE DOING AS PART OF YOUR PH.D. PROJECT?

    My Ph.D. project is embedded within a big project which is the Leiden consortium on individual development. It is a longitudinal study with families with twins. There is one cohort of twins who were aged 3-4 when they started and one cohort with twins aged 6-7 when they started. Over six years, we followed both cohorts with yearly measurements, either home visits or lab visits. We collected a lot of different data: fMRI data, hair samples, saliva samples, behavioral measures, observational measures. My PhD study focused on parenting and parenting intervention's effect on child development, particularly psychobiological development, hair cortisol, or pubertal development. I also look at children's differential susceptibility: how some children are more affected by the environment than others.

    YOU MENTIONED A PARENTING INTERVENTION. WHAT EXACTLY DOES THAT MEAN? 

    We conducted a video-feedback parenting intervention to improve positive parenting and sensitive listening. After two pre-measures, we conducted an intervention in the form of a randomized control trial. We did that for about half of the families. The intervention included five sessions where we gave feedback based on video footage of parents interacting with the children. We tried to focus on positive moments between the parent and the child.

     

    HOW FAR ARE YOU WITHIN YOUR PH.D. PROJECT?

    I am in my third year, and I have another one and a half years left of my contract. I am on time, I would say. I finished the data collection and managed to do all my training. I have published two papers already and working on another two or three. I hope to finish my dissertation on time. 
I am now focused on analyzing the data and writing up the results. Some of the data from my projects are not processed yet.

     

    WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF THE MOST STRIKING FINDINGS OF YOUR PH.D. PROJECT?

    One paper I published was on the effect of the VIPP intervention. The intervention has been very successful in many different samples: clinical, nonclinical, adoption, autism, and many others. But it had never been tested in twin families or older children (above the age of three). So, I tested whether the intervention would successfully improve sensitive parenting in parents of older children and parents of twins. I found that the interventions were not successful in improving observed sensitive parenting, but it was successful in improving parents' attitudes about sensitivity towards children. So, the hope is that older children and twins might need more time to go from attitudes to real behavior. But there still is an upward trend in the samples. 

     

    WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE BEEN LIKE AS A PH.D. STUDENT AT THE VU?

    The University of Leiden coordinated my project. So, in my first year, I predominantly worked at Leiden University and almost never came to the VU or interacted with people here. But, then Corona started, and I found it quite challenging to connect with the department and LEARN because I was not aware of the structure within the department. I didn't feel that I was guided or welcomed when I arrived.


    A positive thing about doing my Ph.D. at the VU has been the myriad opportunities within the department, such as the possibility of applying for travel grants to go abroad and workshops that you can take. 


     

    YOU REPRESENT THE PH.D. STUDENTS FROM THE POW. WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES? WHAT DO YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE?

    To clarify, I am also a member of the Ph.D. education committee from the faculty, and there I assess travel grant applications or junior talent applications. In addition, I try to get an overview of what the PhDs need in the department.

    
I realized that within the POW, there wasn't much initiative to have social activities, one group within the department. I thought that was a pity. I also heard from other Ph.D. representatives that they had that it other faculty departments. That was one of the reasons why I opted to try to get this thing started.


    As I am at the end of my Ph.D., I am not the primary Ph.D. representative. Linda is the one who has that role. 


    The thing that I want to achieve with these lunches is there is a connection, cohesion and bonding between PhD students. Within this group of people, we have a lot of different expertises. People can find each other and help each other, and hopefully, feel less lonely. 


     

    OTHER THAN THE LUNCHES, IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE PLANNED?

    We started not only the lunches but also a Friendship Book, where you have a short profile of yourself with your photo, origin, hobbies, research interests, job. We include all the Ph.D. students in this book. It makes it easier to understand who is who, what expertise they have, and with whom one can partner up.


    I am also a board member for the forum of young scientists (an organization within the VU for PhDs and postdocs, not specifically linked to the department). I think it would be helpful for Ph.D. students to know that there are workshops that are being organized. Any Ph.D. or postdoc associated with the VU, VUmc, or AMC can sign up for the free workshops.
  

  • Interview with Dr. Rashmi Kusurkar

    Dr. Rashmi Kusurkar, the leader of the LEARN! research program 'Motivation and Lifelong Learning' describes the evolution of her research department and her future goals. 

    COULD YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?

    By background, I am a medical doctor. I studied medicine in India. I specialized in physiology. I taught for a few years in India and moved here because my husband was offered a job in Amsterdam. In India, I also completed a fellowship in education because I was teaching full-time. At that time, I had many questions about the teaching-learning process. That's how I got into a fellowship program in education and conducted small research projects.
 

    I had many questions and answers. It was not possible to do a Ph.D. in India at that time. However, I used to do a lot of faculty training. So, I was involved in faculty development courses, but I wanted to do research.


    When I was teaching, I had questions about why students who come into medical education with the same motivation perform differently. Why do some people do well, and some people who seem to know a lot do not do well. And why does motivation differ between people? These were questions I did not have answers to. So, when we moved to the Netherlands, I looked into a Ph.D. opportunity in education. I found one in UMC Utrecht and chose motivation as my topic. The title of my thesis was "motivation in medical students," which looked into what motivates students for medicine and how it influences their academic performance and learning. 

    
When I was doing my Ph.D., I also started looking at the level of motivation and quantity of motivation. Within one year, I had two articles published, which should have made me very happy as a Ph.D. student. But I was not very happy because it did not help me answer the questions that I had during my practice. I was dissatisfied with the track I had taken. So, I went back to the literature and looked into motivation theories. I stumbled across self-determination theory. Self-determination theory mainly looks at the type or kind of motivation: why do we do what we do? It focuses more on the qualitative aspect of motivation and not its quantity. When I looked at the theory, I was able to identify and understand everything that was happening around me from the point of view of the theory. So, I decided to use self-determination theory as the primary framework for my thesis. 

    
As I already said, I mainly wanted to look at the relationship between motivation, learning, and performance during my teaching days. So, I had two studies on motivation and learning performance. I included UMC Utrecht and VUmc students in my thesis. I wanted to have application-oriented papers which teachers/educators could use immediately in their teaching-learning sessions. So, within my thesis, I also looked at using insights from my research for practice.


     

    HOW DID YOUR CURRENT RESEARCH DEPARTMENT COME ABOUT?

    During my Ph.D., I had two supervisors, one of them was Gerda Croiset, who moved to VUmc in the first year of my Ph.D., that's why I could also include students from VUmc in my thesis. As I was finishing my Ph.D., she said they did not have a group working on research in education at VUmc, and offered me to come along and start a group there. So, that's how I started working at VUmc. 


    Setting up a group yourself is fun and challenging, and I liked it. I started with two Ph.D. students: one Ph.D. student came from the National Federation of Universities, NFU (they wanted more research on selection). The other student was part-time from our institute who got FTEs from her daily job; she was in nursing education. So I started with the two of them, and over the years, I have grown the program. 


     

    WHAT ARE THE CENTRAL THEMES OF YOUR RESEARCH?

    The theme of my program is developing students for life. It is about stimulating students to be intrinsically motivated so that they are constantly learning from the practice and are ready to invest, dedicated to learning, and continuing professional development. That is what we call developing students for life. It is the main umbrella theme which covers all the research we conduct. I have three research lines within this theme. The first and the most prominent line has everything to do with motivation as a variable, the outcomes it influences in education, and the variables that affect motivation: motivation, learning, academic performance, professional behavior, professional identity. I also look at the background characteristics that influence motivation. So, everything that has to do with motivation comes in that line.


    Along the way, I wanted to research ethnic minority students, their motivation, and why their performance is lower than the ethnic majority students. 

    We tried to look at it through the lens of motivation, and it became a powerful thesis. Ulviye Isik, my Ph.D. student, graduated on that topic.

     During Ulviye’s research, many things came to light. We started getting interested in the topic of diversity and access. So, diversity and access became my second line of research. We also got external funding, and it became more and more important. Now, we have a solid second line that comes from many external finance/research grants. Within this line, there are different subtopics. We look at diversity not only as a different ethnic background but also in terms of gender, socioeconomic status, lower education background of the parents, and so on. For us, diversity is more diverse than ethnic origin. All the projects we have under diversity and access fall into this line. We have a huge project going on right now. PhD student, Lianne Mulder,  works on how we can select students to get a student population that is representative of the society or the patient population. We are looking at developing widening access criteria for admission into Health Professions Education (HPE). Suppose you have a student from a non-traditional background: not of Dutch origin with highly educated parents, parents already in the medical network, and high socioeconomic status. How can you ensure that non-traditional students also get the opportunity to study medicine? We looked at the hurdles they face for entering health professions education and what we can do to ensure they are represented in our medical student population. That is our biggest project on diversity right now. 
I lead this research line along with Anouk Wouters, an assistant professor in my team, who has completed her Ph.D. with me. Anouk got a Comenius grant for the Buddies Breaking Barriers project. From her thesis, which was on selection and motivation, we have found that high school students without a traditional background sometimes think that because of the selection procedure, they will never get through the selection procedure. There is thus selection happening at their own level, called self-selection, preventing them from even applying. So, to investigate this further (and that's how we got the NRO grant on widening access, the work that Lianne Mulder is doing), Anouk decided to set up a Buddy program for students in their first, second, third years. She coupled them with high school students from nontraditional backgrounds. She offered training sessions for them, as well as informal meetings. They got support on preparations required for selection and the types of selection programs we have - creating the network that the nontraditional students miss. Comenius funded the first year of the buddy program. Now, we are implementing it with our own budget, as an extracurricular activity. In my diversity line, we intensely focus on immediate societal implications. Since 2012, when I started the group, we have significantly grown: from two Ph.D. students to six Ph.D. students who have already graduated from the group and, currently, to 12-13 students registered with me, in different phases of their Ph.D. trajectory. 


     I have arranged my group in a pyramidal shape. Earlier, it was just the Ph.D. students and me. Now, I have assistant professors who take care of some of the daily supervision, and I have freed up my time to get more funding, network and focus on applications of the research and knowledge dissemination to the society.

     

    FOCUS ON HEALTH PROFESSIONS. WHY IS THAT?

    We were always a health professions education research group, but we have made it put more emphasis on it over the years. We had one person from pharmacy who graduated from our group. I have someone from midwifery, and I have someone from nursing. 


    The focus is on health professions because I come from health professions education and a medical center, VUmc, employs me.


    The field has changed over time. Initially, the field was focused on medical education. However, over the years, there has been a proper shift of the field to health professional education, an entire field of its own, with its independent journals. The health professional educators form a different group within higher education. The reason why medical education became health professional education is that you are learning competencies and skills. Additionally, students work inter-professionally, so it is beneficial to learn from one another. Therefore, we should not restrict ourselves to medical education but also include other professions in health in all we do so that we can learn from each other. 


     

    DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MEDICAL EDUCATION AND OTHER TYPES OF HIGHER EDUCATION?

    In health professions education, you get very motivated people, and a lot is expected from a student in terms of being a self-directed learner. You not only train yourself for building knowledge but also to become a professional. This is what makes health profession education different within higher education. 
The movement that you see in the field is that earlier, we were all talking about training to become a doctor, but now a core part of the training has become building professional identity. So professional identity building and professionalism are very strong components of health professions education, and it is becoming even stronger. 


    IN WHAT WAYS IS YOUR RESEARCH APPLICABLE IN PRACTICE?

    Even when I did my thesis, I wanted immediate practical applicability. So I wrote papers on practical applications currently used in tutor training. 


    Funding agencies like the NWO require that there has to be a substantial societal impact from research, the giving-back-to-the-society component. I think it is essential to do that. So, over the years, I have started investing time in creating materials or raising awareness or doing things that are oriented not only toward researchers and academics but also the society. One example would be the workshops for stimulating student motivation that I converted into E-learning videos and put them on Youtube so that it is not just teachers who can use the knowledge, but also the parents. I did not restrict myself to giving the workshops to specific people, but I made it as open as possible so that anyone could access it and learn from it. 


    As I said before, I had an application-oriented paper titled "twelve tips for stimulating students' intrinsic motivation in the classroom." That was a scientific paper. Unfortunately, not everyone can access a scientific paper and read it. So, two years ago, I converted that paper into an infographic. I made a poster out of it and put that on our website. I also shared it with people as study material.  

    The concern with applicability was always prominent in our research, but we used to publish application papers within our academic and scientific journals. Now, we have moved toward also letting people from non-academic circles benefit from our work. We try to orient ourselves. The Buddies breaking barriers is an entirely implementational project. It has a high giving-back-to-the-society component. 


     

    WHAT HAVE BEEN THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF YOUR RESEARCH TEAM SO FAR AND WHERE DO YOU SEE YOUR RESEARCH GOING IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS?

    People define achievement differently: the number of papers you publish and funds you can secure. To me, it is more important that, as a team we stand for something. For example, everyone knows that we are the group that works on Self-determination theory in Europe. Being that entity, I think, is an achievement. As a group, we are known for our motivation and self-determination theory in health professions education. That is an achievement to me.


    This year is significant for me because we have gained much recognition as a group now and I get invited to forums where I can contribute. Amsterdam UMC has me appointed on the Steering  Committee of diversity and inclusion. That is a very big appointment, not in the sense that I get paid for it, but it is a  position in which I can create impact. I sit in the committee and give feedback from the perspective of being a person with an ethnic minority background. I am investing more in impacting what happens in society so that I can bring in this point of view and fight for this cause. 


    Why do we not see ethnic minority people in academia or the healthcare work force? 30% of our students are from ethnic minority backgrounds, but it is majorly white if you look at our work force. So, why does this happen? This is a societal problem, and I can do something about it through this group. 

    
It was hard for me to fulfill all the expectations the institution had from me when I was on a career track. This is because I come from a different cultural background, I have a different way of looking at things and handling myself, but I was expected to fit into the image of a Dutch academic. The main change required was about being visible as a person/academic. In my culture we believe that if you do good work, visibility follows organically. But, in the Dutch culture, an academic is expected to actively create visibility. Although I believe that my own way of conducting myself as an academic was effective, I made changes that helped me in actively building visibility.  I found my own way of doing this while still remain authentic, which is important to me. I always thought once I am in the academic crowd, I can fight for change, not from outside the group. 

    
The group that I am working with right now on Diversity and Inclusion consists of people who want to have an employ-friendly policy on diversity and also have the influence to enact the suggested changes. Because Amsterdam UMC is the biggest hospital in the NL after the merger of VUmc and AMC, bringing about change at this level can trickle down to other hospitals. In this I can combine my research and experience to bring about change. 


    In the coming five years, I want to impact diversity and inclusion issues and not only in my institute but also at the Amsterdam UMC level and other UMCs. For example, with the widening access criteria study, what we are doing is we are developing a widening access policy for all health professions education to guide selection procedures. 


    Another project that I am doing right now focuses on the effects of assessment on motivation. I want to bring about a point of view of designing innovative assessment systems that can stimulate students' intrinsic stimulation instead of stimulating extrinsic motivation, making them learn only for the exams. 
  

  • The ARETE Project: Stimulating Students’ Social Behavioral and Emotional Learning via Augmented Reality Solutions – Jeroen Pronk, Sui Lin Goei, & Wilma Jongejan

    Introduction

    Within the ARETE consortium (see: www.areteproject.eu), we believe that education for youth around the world can be improved by incorporating new technologies into existing curricula. More specifically, Augmented Reality (AR) can be beneficial to enhance students’ educational experience and learning. AR is an innovative technology that enables users to augment the physical reality with additional layers of digital sensory information (e.g., animations) through a mobile device. In one of our projects, we focus on improving primary school students’ social emotional learning by embedding AR into behavioral lessons as part of the Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS) framework (see: www.pbis.org). In this blog we highlight some of the research & development steps taken towards embedding AR into PBIS.

    Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (PBIS)

    PBIS is a schoolwide approach focused on improving students’ self-regulation and behavioral management skills. PBIS schools define a small set of school values that promote a safe and healthy school environment. Schools choose the values that they deem most important (e.g., respect, responsibility, and safety). These school values inform the development of behavioral expectations for students (and school staff!) to adhere to in all school settings. Lessons are then designed to help students learn the expected behavior at school in a positive way following guidelines that are backed-up by both theory and practice. By teaching students about expected behavior in a structured way, behavioral problems are decreased, and a positive social learning climate is facilitated.

    Augmenting PBIS with Augmented Reality (AR)

    We believe that AR solutions can augment education in the PBIS framework by allowing students to both learn expected behavior through digital modeling and to practice desired behavior in a digital environment. Learning and practicing expected behavior through AR, is timely, aligns with students’ experiential world, and stimulates learning in a playful and gamified manner. As an example of modeling of desired behavior through AR, imagine a student standing in front of a water tap in a school restroom. The student scans a marker (e.g., a QR-code) on or near to the water tap with their mobile device. The water tap is enriched on this device with additional layers of visual information modeling the correct hygienic and behavioral rules for the behavioral expectation “I wash my hands with soap”. Students can repeatedly view the modeled behavior—from different viewpoints—on their mobile device in the real-life environment. As an example of practicing with desired behavior through AR, imagine a digital multi-user experience for the behavioral expectation “I greet others”, in which students can digitally greet each other’s digital characters (avatars) in a real-time environment. Practicing desired behavior in a digital environment allows students to firstly learn (especially more sensitive) desired behaviors in a safe environment before applying them in real-life.

    Research & Development of the ARETE PBIS-AR Application and Curriculum

    As PBIS schools determine their own school values and develop their own behavioral expectations and lessons, there are no pre-existing universal behavioral expectation matrices we could use for developing and designing our PBIS-AR application and accompanying curriculum. In an intense research and development process—suffering from delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic—we developed a universal behavioral expectation matrix, serving as the base for our PBIS-AR application and package of AR-compatible behavioral lessons.

    We originally planned to execute focus groups with teachers to gain insight into the most important content in terms of school values and behavioral expectations. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us into a contingency plan. We first collected behavioral expectation matrices of a large set of schools in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. After deduplication and reduction, we only maintained those behavioral expectations that were present in multiple matrices in multiple countries. We were still left with a gargantuan matrix. To further reduce and validate the obtained data, the PBIS in Europe (PBIS-E) questionnaire study was executed in the first half of 2021 in a sample of primary school teachers and students (aged 9-12 years) in the Netherlands, Italy, Lithuania, and Portugal.

    The PBIS-E study resulted in a final shortlist of 15 behavioral expectations. Starting from this shortlist of behavioral expectations, Dutch primary school teachers were recruited for a lesson design study in the second half of 2021. In a structured lesson design process, small teams of teachers worked together with PBIS-experts to plan, develop, and evaluate nine behavioral lessons around the top-rated behavioral expectations. All lessons were designed to enable tailoring to the educational needs of students within a particular classroom setting, while following a universal lesson plan. The developed lessons were then bundled into a behavioral lesson package including an instruction manual (see Table 1 for an overview).

    In the coming months, the behavioral lesson package—without the inclusion of AR solutions—will be pilot-evaluated in a small set of grades 4-6 PBIS primary school classrooms in the Netherlands and Italy. The main aims are to gain insight in how the developed lessons are received by students and teachers, as well as in how effective the lessons are in improving students’ executive functioning, social and emotional skills, and social climate relationships. Concomitantly, the AR solutions to be embedded within the PBIS-AR application are being developed by teams of AR content specialists and visual design experts. After these final steps in the research and design process are taken by the end of this school year, we will be ready to evaluate the effectiveness of embedding AR into education within the PBIS framework in a randomized control trial study in the school year of 2022-2023.

    Exciting times are thus ahead of us in the coming months and years! Keep your eyes peeled for the developments within the ARETE project by subscribing to the ARETE twitter account (https://twitter.com/ARETEH2020)!

  • A perspective on equal opportunities in higher education - Anouk Wouters

    “If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want”. Who hasn’t heard this motivational phrase throughout their educational or professional career? But is this true? And is this equally true for everyone? In this blog I will discuss the importance and meaning of the ‘you’, ‘work hard enough’, ‘achieve’ and ‘anything you want’. These are important to take into consideration when striving for equal opportunities in higher education.

    Surely, most will agree that students should be able to live up to their potential and achieve what they want in life. And many will believe that talent will be recognized, fostered and rewarded in education, and beyond. However, this meritocratic stance often fails to include the perspective of equity; the opportunities one has had and the barriers one has had to overcome throughout life to get to where they are. These opportunities and barriers arise from a society and system that may be more attuned to some than others. So let’s dissect the quote I started this blog with, and see what this means in light of equity in higher education.

    ‘You’

    The focus on ‘you’ places a responsibility on the individual student, and implies a fair amount of control on one’s circumstances. This ‘you’ however, has a certain background, and is surrounded by a system of family, friends, teachers, and so on. These are aspects a person has limited control over as most is related to the circumstances they are born into. It has become evident that background matters. Consequently, the capital one has at their disposal influences their chances to perform well. A student raised in an environment with people familiar with the (Dutch) higher education context, including its unwritten norms and values (i.e. hidden curriculum), will have a smoother transition into higher education than students with limited access to such knowledge. We can offer these students guidance on how to navigate towards and through higher education.

    ‘Work hard enough’ and ‘Achieve’

    It is important to realise there is no unified definition of success in higher education, and the understanding of success and which achievements are valued is highly dependent on the societal context. E.g., medical education highly values ‘assertiveness’ in students, which comes more natural to the majority student group without a migration background than their peers from ethnic minority backgrounds. Fitting into student or department teams requires more effort from students not belonging to the majority group, and not familiar with the environment, including its dominant values and expectations. Moreover, seemingly clear and objective measures of achievement, such as grades, represent a variety of student journeys, abilities, commitment and effort. Consider two students. Student A comes from a wealthy and university-educated family, attended private schools, and received private tutoring after school. Student B comes from a poor family, attended public schools, had to work and help around the house after school, and will be the first in family to go to university. Both students apply to a selective study program with a grade point average of 7,0 on a 1-10 scale. Who is the successful student? Selective study programs considering previous academic achievement could take into account the context in which grades have been obtained.

    ‘Anything you want’

    Growing up in an environment that does not value and stimulate educational ambitions can nip any aspirations for higher education in the bud, despite high academic ability. Moreover, it may be easier for students enjoying more favourable (educational) conditions, who experienced no or limited setbacks (e.g. such as experiences of discrimination ethnic minority students may have), to develop the confidence they will be successful in higher education. Relatable role models are a powerful tool to show students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds what they can achieve, stimulate relatedness and increase feelings of belongingness.

    Conclusion

    For inclusive higher education we have to recognize student differences in opportunities they have (had). It also requires us to be introspective of our own educational system, and be willing to remove barriers that contribute to inequity.  

    Further readings:

    Bourdieu P. The forms of capital.(1986). In: Szeman I, Kaposy T, editors. Cultural theory: An anthology. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd; 2011. pp. 81–93.

    Greenhalgh T, Seyan K, Boynton P. “Not a university type”: focus group study of social class, ethnic, and sex differences in school pupils’ perceptions about medical school. BMJ. 2004;328(7455):1541.

    Isik, U., Wouters, A., Verdonk, P., Croiset, G., & Kusurkar, R. A. (2021). “As an ethnic minority, you just have to work twice as hard.” Experiences and motivation of ethnic minority students in medical education. Perspectives on medical education10(5), 272-278.

    Wouters, A. (2020). Getting to know our non-traditional and rejected medical school applicants. Perspectives on Medical Education9(3), 132-134.

    Dr. Anouk Wouters a.wouters@amsterdamumc.nl

Older Blogs and publications

  • Using online tools for peer feedback: The pros and cons - Mirella Jongsma

    Peer feedback is very effective

    Peer feedback is a very effective method of formative assessment to increase students' academic performance. Regardless of how exactly the peer feedback activity is organized, it is better than providing no feedback, and in some cases, it can even be better than providing teacher feedback (Double et al., 2020; Huisman et al., 2018). This is mainly because students also learn from giving peer feedback rather than merely receiving feedback. It is a form of active learning that can enhance the learning experience for students (Topping, 2017). The question remains how peer feedback is best implemented to optimize student learning fully.

    Nowadays, there are many different ways to implement peer feedback in an academic course. There is the option to offer it as an activity in class, or it could be done online. In the wake of the transition to more blended learning in higher education, teachers often opt for online tools. Is that also the best way to implement peer feedback? What are the advantages of online peer feedback, and are there any disadvantages to consider? Quite some research has been done to investigate the effects of peer feedback, so it only seems right to summarize the most important pros and cons of online peer feedback.

    Pros of online peer feedback

    Implementing peer feedback by using an online tool has several advantages. First of all, an online platform specifically designed for providing online (peer) feedback can be an efficient way of organizing a peer feedback activity. It allows the teacher to access all of the feedback comments that students provide each other and react to them in real-time, rather than having to walk around in class and only be able to catch small parts of what students are saying (DiGiovanni & Nagaswami, 2001). Moreover, a tool makes it easier to opt for an anonymous setting, which can be helpful when students feel pressured by peers to give primarily positive feedback (Lu & Bol, 2007). Although in the best-case scenario, students feel safe enough to provide their peers with honest feedback. Another advantage of online peer feedback is its time independence. Because students can give each other peer feedback in their own time, there is more time for other learning activities in class. On top of that, students may experience more autonomy when they are able to decide for themselves when and how they give peer feedback (Mellati & Khademi, 2014).

    Cons of online peer feedback

    Although online peer feedback definitely has multiple advantages, it also has its downsides. Perhaps the most important disadvantage of online peer feedback is the loss of a feedback dialogue. When peer feedback is asynchronous, like in most cases when it is offered online, it becomes harder for students to discuss the feedback they give and receive (Guardado & Shi, 2007; Lee & Evans, 2019). This feedback dialogue is especially important when the feedback is hard to formulate in short comments, such as feedback on behaviour in group projects. A feedback dialogue gives the opportunity to directly react to the feedback that is given and ask for clarification. Moreover, it is easier for students to nuance their feedback when they give it face-to-face rather than when they only have a limited number of words to formulate the feedback. This could, in turn, reduce negative feelings towards peer feedback. However, when a teacher can monitor the feedback comments and students have the ability to rate or react to the feedback they have received, the disadvantage of a lack of feedback dialogue can be reduced significantly (Filius et al., 2018).

    In conclusion

    The most important thing to remember when implementing peer feedback in your curriculum is that practice makes perfect. Although there are many advantages to an online peer feedback tool, eventually, the best academic outcomes result from feedback training, clear instructions, and experience with giving feedback. The validity and reliability of peer feedback can significantly improve when students receive training in how to give good feedback and are handed feedback aids such as rubrics (Falchikov & Goldfinch, 2000; van Zundert et al., 2010). Considering the advantages and disadvantages of online peer feedback, it eventually is up to the teacher to decide whether offline or online peer feedback is preferred. Online peer feedback might be more effective when the task that is assessed is an essay, whereas offline peer feedback might be better when the feedback has a more subjective nature.

  • Toelichting ICL voorzitterschap

    As of January ’22 I am president of the interuniversity committee for primary school teacher training (ICL PO) from the Universities of The Netherlands (UNL, previously VSNU). This committee is a collaboration between the Dutch scientific teacher training programs (RUG, RU, EUR, UvA, ULeiden, UU and VU) aiming at exchanging good practices, improving education and collaboration with the field, and developing new teacher programs. The committee lobbies on collective issues, for example the positioning and formal recognition of academic teachers in primary schools, often together with the committee for secondary school teacher training (ICL VO).

    On behalf of the committee I also take place in the National steering group of the covenant between the ministry of Education (OC&W), the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Science (VH) and UNL on flexibilization of teacher education programs (22 million euros, 2020-2023). The VU is partner in most of the covenant projects. In this role I am, together with my colleagues from the ICL VO, responsible for steering and monitoring the broad range of projects aiming at university (including applied sciences) transcending collaboration to improve quality and flexibility of initial teacher training, subsidized trajectories to switch careers and professionalization after initial teacher training. We advise the board of directors on teacher training programs in the Netherlands (consisting of rectors from the participating universities).

  • The first Master’s of Science in Primary Education (EMPO) - dr. Anne Fleur Kortekaas-Rijlaarsdam

    From September 2022 the VU, UvA and ULeiden offer a joint degree master’s program for primary education. The VU is secretary of this joint degree and within the VU prof. dr. Maartje Raijmakers and dr. Anne Fleur Kortekaas-Rijlaarsdam are responsible for the EMPO. This new master’s program is directly accessible for students with a university bachelor degree in social sciences (for an overview of all accessible programs see here). The program was developed in close collaboration with schools and schoolboards. With the EMPO, we aim to attract a new group of ambitious teachers. In the EMPO, students explicitly learn how to apply their bachelor (or master) expertise in social sciences in primary education. For example, students with a background in Pedagogical Sciences or Psychology may specialize in Learning problems while students with a bachelor or master’s degree in Sociology may prefer specialization in education at the macro level, addressing inequality and adjusting to increasing diversity. The EMPO is a full time teacher training program at a university master’s level, resulting in a Master of Science degree and full teaching qualification for primary education. The program is taught by experts from the three universities and school(boards). The purpose of the EMPO is to train adaptive experts: highly qualified, scientifically strong teachers with a broad range of effective teaching routines and the flexibility to adjust and improve strategies when needed, based on contemporary scientific evidence. Pedagogic and didactic skills are taught at the meta-level were relevant (instead of specific didactic routines for each school subject), and the ability to teach heterogeneous classes and address individual needs within those classes is central in training of effective teaching routines. Intensive internships in a primary school works towards effective action based on deep understanding in the classroom. The EMPO program is substantially different from existing teaching training for primary education. School(board)s in the metropole region of Amsterdam, Leiden and De Hague are very enthusiastic and committed to the EMPO. EMPO-alumni are eminently suitable to build bridges between scientific research and actual school practice.

    With a new program, it is always crucial to reach all potential candidates. We can use your help here. Please inform your students / student assistants and broader connections about this new Master’s program! More information (only in Dutch as the program is taught in Dutch) can be found here: https://vu.nl/nl/onderwijs/master/educatieve-master-primair-onderwijs. For questions, please e-mail to empo@vu.nl.

  • Research-practice partnerships: a promising approach to evidence-informed policy and practice - Sylvia Koeree and Rien Rouw

    As part of her internship, Sylvia Koeree is working with Rien Rouw at the Knowledge Department of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Science and Culture to progress their agenda around evidence-informed policymaking. In this blog, they talk about how the department is trying to progress evidence-informed practice in Dutch education and what they have learned from other European examples.

    Navigating the limitless amount of knowledge 

    How to navigate the vast amount of knowledge that is generated by a growing number of scientists, consultants, stakeholder organizations, non-governmental organizations etc.? And how to make this knowledge actionable for use in classrooms, school boardrooms and ministerial offices? These are some of the perennial challenges in the field of education practice – research – policy relationships.

    A shift from linear relations to ecosystems and the role of government

    How to deal with these challenges? In the thinking about evidence-informed practice and policy, a shift has taken place from linear to relationship-based approaches and ecosystems perspectives. A linear way of working is focused on dissemination in targeted formats and high accessibility of research. The point of departure is research. relational and ecosystems-approaches are built on professional partnerships between practitioners and researchers, empathy and relationship skills, leadership and sustainable infrastructures. The starting point is the actual decision making taking place in classrooms, school boardrooms and ministries, and looking for windows to feed knowledge into these decision making processes. Continuous interaction between practitioners, researchers and policymakers is the key to build trust and knowledgeability about each other’s worlds.

    In the realm of education policy, interaction between policy makers and researchers takes place in a variety of ways, mostly in the context of research for policy. The Knowledge Department at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science actively promotes this interaction. However, in a way it is fragmented, organized around specific research projects or bigger research programs. What is currently lacking, is a central place where knowledge is collected, systematized and validated in an authoritative way. We are currently exploring how this could be organized on a national level. The Expert Committee on Accessibility in Higher Education is one of the examples. It was established in 2021 by the Ministry together with the National Initiative for Education Research (NRO), the Dutch education research funding organization. The Expert Committee aims to unlock both evidence-based and practice-based knowledge about effective accessibility practices and to make it applicable for institutions and policymakers.

    In the realm of education practice, we have been investing a lot in creating practice-research collaborations, together with our partners in the field and researchers. Although many collaborations have been established in the last ten years, overall it is still a drop in the ocean. The big challenge is to organize practice-research networks at scale.

    Examples from across Europe

    We have been looking for examples in several European countries, and we have learnt some lessons we would like to share.

    Based on research and discussions, several principles for a well-working research-practice partnership have been drawn up. First of all, it is important that all parties concerned are equal partners and actively share, spread and create knowledge. All the parties have their own knowledge and experiences to bring into the network, both research-based and practice-based. Secondly, practice issues are the starting point of scientific research. The partnerships take place on both the regional and the national level, and are connected to a knowledge centre. This centre makes sure the collaboration and research run smoothly and provides a research database, including translation into practice. Lastly, the partnership contributes to the professionalization of teachers and school leaders and to promoting a research culture in schools.

    We have also seen some fine examples of research-practice partnerships in Europe. Below, we present only a few models from a much richer collection.   

    Research Schools in England, Flanders and The Netherlands

    One interesting example are the English Research Schools of the Education Endowment Foundation. These Research Schools form a regional or local network and play a role as ambassadors for the use of evidence-informed interventions in schools. Professionalization of teachers, focused on the use of evidence in the schools, is also an important part of the Research Schools. Flanders has recently started a pilot with so called ’model schools’. In The Netherlands, the idea of research schools is still being developed to make it fit for the Dutch context.  

    Networks in Estonia, Ireland, Norway, England and Belgium

    Other examples are different networks from Estonia, Ireland, Norway, England and Belgium. The Norwegian New Competence Model focuses on the professionalization of educational professionals by working on training programs to improve education, based on practice issues. The Irish national forum, Belgian EAPRIL and Estonian Education Forum offer a platform for teachers, researchers, and policymakers to work together, share knowledge and experiences, and work on the professionalization and the purpose of improving education. In England, both the Coalition for Evidence-based Education and the What Works Network try to support evidence-informed working in practice and policy by providing an overview of what works, according to scientific evidence.

    As already stated, the big challenge is not only to translate these models to the Dutch context, but even more to realize practice-research partnerships as a routine throughout the education system. Currently, the Ministry is establishing a so called knowledge community as part of the National Program for Education, i.e. the Covid recovery strategy. The knowledge community is a collaborative effort of representative organisations of teachers, school leaders, school boards, and the Ministry. It will build on existing structures and networks. The aim is to create a knowledge infrastructure that is sustainable in the long run.  

  • Abolishing Policy-Induced Dropout in Dutch Higher Education. Exploring Trends in Future Academic Performance – Melvin Vooren

    It is a well-established fact that too many students leave university programmes before completion. Within the member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average dropout rate in higher education amounts to 31 per cent. Countries like the United States and Italy have higher rates of around 50 per cent, where Belgium and Denmark are at the lower end of the spectrum, at around 15 per cent. The Netherlands sits around the OECD average.

    Because dropout is such a widespread phenomenon, policymakers have used a lot of different programmes to reduce dropout. According to the literature most of these remediation programmes are found to have no impact, or a negative impact, worsening dropout figures instead of improving them. Financial aid programmes, aimed at providing extra funds to extend the study duration are found to have a positive impact. However, it has been largely ignored that a sizable proportion of dropout can be policy-induced.

    What are policy-induced dropouts?

    In countries where academic dismissal policies are enforced, students are required to leave the programme in case of poor academic performance at the end of their freshman year. In the context of Dutch academic dismissal policies, poor academic performance is generally defined as having accumulated less than 70 per cent of the credits in the first year, i.e. 42 ECTS. As a result, the policy increases first-year dropout rates. The students who are forced to drop out as a result of academic dismissal are referred to as policy-induced dropouts (PIDs).

    Previous research has found that the policy increases graduation rates for the remaining students (Sneyers and De Witte, 2017). However, other research by Cornelisz et al. (2019) has found that those students who are forced to leave the programme due to academic dismissal actually switch to a similar programme at the same university, or the same programme at a different university. Considering this, we can conclude that academic dismissal policies are quite costly because switching to a similar programme elsewhere usually implies moving to a different town and starting all over again.

    Our research objectives

    In the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Dutch government abolished first-year academic dismissal in the beginning of the second semester, on March 19, 2020. As a result of this, students who would otherwise have been academically dismissed were allowed to continue their studies in year 2. This circumstance provides a unique opportunity to monitor the performance of PIDs in the second year of the programme. However, the Covid-19 crisis also comes with a methodological challenge, because semester 2 performance could have been affected by other factors induced by the Covid-19 pandemic, such as grading leniency, online learning, or mental health effects.

    In order to address this, our research addresses three objectives: 1) determining the number of students who drop out due to academic dismissal, i.e. the PIDs; 2) examining second-year performance of PIDs who were allowed to continue as a result of Covid-19; 3) calculating the average study duration for PIDs until obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

    Our findings

    The main challenge in identifying PIDs in the Covid-19 cohort is that you cannot compare achieved credits at the end of the programme with achieved credits in earlier cohorts, due to the aforementioned Covid-19 effects on student performance, including mental health effects. To address this, we use a machine learning model to predict expected credits at the end of year 1 based on only pre-covid-19 characteristics, i.e. performance in semester 1 of year 1 and individual background characteristics.

    Because the first semester was not affected by the Covid-19 crisis, we can compare the expected credits of students in the Covid-19 cohort with the expected credits of those in earlier cohorts. Doing so, we can identify the PIDs and observe their performance in year 2. We find that within the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 22.4 per cent of all dropouts in year 1 are PIDs.

    As a next step, we examine second-year performance of PIDs. In the earlier cohorts, we can see that there is a substantial share of students below the academic dismissal threshold who are allowed to continue in year 2, despite the fact that they should have been dismissed based on their performance. In other words, these students got a waiver for the academic dismissal policy. We then compare the second-year performance of the students below the academic dismissal threshold in those earlier cohorts (i.e., those with a waiver) with the students below the threshold in the Covid-19 cohorts. We see that the performance of PIDs and students who got a waiver is not significantly different. Because the second-year performance of students with a waiver is the same as the performance of the PIDs, we assume that this remains the same in later years as well.

    Conclusion

    In other words, we can conclude that 22.4 per cent of first-year dropouts at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam are policy-induced (PIDs). These PIDs do not perform significantly different compared to students who got a waiver for the academic dismissal programme. It seems that students have a constant individual study pace, and from a student perspective, there does not seem to be a strict “unsuitability” threshold in terms of year-one performance. In terms of educational inequality, this brings up an important issue as well. Why do we dismiss PIDs based on an arbitrary academic dismissal threshold if they perform equally well as students who got a waiver?

    This blog is based on research by Melvin Vooren, Ilja Cornelisz, Martijn Meeter, and Chris van Klaveren

    Contact details

    Melvin Vooren
    FGB ACLA
    M.Vooren@vu.nl

  • Bruno Sauce - Genetic studies can tell us how well education is doing as the “great equalizer”

    "Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery."

    I believe the 1848 quote by educator Horace Mann still echoes our hopes today. Modern democratic societies reject systems of caste and birth privilege in favor of equal opportunities and fair social mobility. And we want these seeds to start early at school. In my experience, such views are shared by most across the political spectrum – from left-wing Marxists to right-wing libertarians.

    What is education supposed to be equalizing? A big one is our starting wealth. It doesn’t feel right to give more merit (and rewards) to a person simply because she was born with millions of Euros in a bank account or inherited the family business. We are all undeservingly born with differences in wealth, and education should equalize that playing field. But does it? For decades, economists, sociologists, and education scientists have addressed this question and voiced doubt: Studies reveal that the great equalizer  is not keeping up with growing wealth inequalities, and the market makes matters worse by tailoring schools to their rich and poor customers (Athur, 2004; Feinstein, 2003; Growe & Montgomery, 2004).

    Genetic research is relevant for policies in education

    What else should education be equalizing? Another huge source of undeserving differences is the biology we are born with: our inherited DNA. However, for that source, there are almost no empirical studies. Research using genetics is even frowned upon in some educational circles – I believe because people have the wrong impression that the impact of genetics can’t be changed. (It can, and sometimes is easier than the impact of our experiences during upbringing. Think how hard it is to change a racist view or a smoking habit!) Genetic research can inform us about potentially vulnerable students, schools that need more investment, and which educational interventions work best (by taking genetic diversity into account, as already done in clinical trials for a new therapy or vaccine) (Harden & Koellinger, 2020). And, as I will show here, genetic studies can also tell us about how well the great equalizer is doing.

    We probably all agree that, for example, a child born blind should be able to get special education on braille and expand their opportunities in society. Eyesight is not the only trait influenced by genes. One especially important trait is intelligence: the ability to think rationally, understand complex ideas, and adapt to new situations. Intelligence encompasses multiple cognitive processes that we care about in our societies: attention, spatial navigation, quantitative/math reasoning, reading comprehension, working memory, and long-term memory (Nisbett et al., 2012). And scores in measures of intelligence (although obviously limited) are highly predictive of a person’s future, including income, employment, happiness, and longevity (Deary et al., 2021).

    My main research area is the gene-environment interplay in cognitive abilities – in other words, I want to know the impact of certain lived experiences on the way we think and learn, and how much this depends on our different genetic backgrounds. On multiple studies, I and others have shown that intelligence is highly influenced by genes and, at the same time, malleable to experiences (Sauce & Matzel, 2018). And formal education is an important type of experience; over the years, it brings large gains to children’s  intelligence (Ritchie & Tucker-Drob, 2018). However, these gains are not necessarily the same for everyone. 

    A tricky obstacle in my research area is that children are also developing from brain maturation and from experiences outside of schools. If we want to evaluate the great equalizer, we need to isolate the effect from schools.

    Do the cognitive gains from schooling depend on differences in genetic predispositions?

    In a study (still in preprint) with my colleagues Nicholas Judd and Torkel Klingberg, we isolated the effect of schooling by using a neat statistical technique: the regression discontinuity design. It makes use of the “natural experiment” that is the arbitrary age cut-off for school grades. Think about it: children who are one day younger than the cut-off have (comparatively) one full year less of schooling but only one day less of brain maturation and learning experiences outside of school. For children two days younger, one full year less of school but two days less of everything else, and so on. So, we can compare these children to estimate the impact of schooling by itself.

    We used a large sample of 6500 children representative of the United States in sex, race, ethnicity, SES, and urbanicity. (The sample comes from the ABCD initiative funded by the NIH). These children took multiple cognitive tests for intelligence measures. To look at genetic effects, children were genotyped and we calculated their polygenic scores. It’s an index that puts together thousands of DNA regions associated with differences in cognitive performance, educational attainment, and mathematical ability (Lee et al., 2018). This allowed us to give a score to each of our participants, which represents their genetic propensity for higher or lower intelligence.

    With all of that in place, my colleagues and I could test potential interactions of schooling and the polygenic scores for intelligence – in other words, check if schooling gains in intelligence depended on children’s genetic predispositions. The bad news is that schooling is not narrowing the gap that arises from preexisting genetic inequality (though at least it’s not widening the gap either). We found evidence of zero genetic interactions with schooling. The good news is that we also found the average impact on intelligence from two years of schooling to be larger than the average impact from genetic predispositions for intelligence or socioeconomic status. That impact of schooling was about the same as the combined effect of brain maturation and every other experience that the children had. That’s huge! These results imply that education has the power and potential to close gaps between children (even though it’s not right now). It has the power to be the great equalizer.

    Keep in mind that our study was in children from the US under the American school system. Would the same results generalize to Europe? We don’t know yet. The European system certainly has some distinct features – some in favor of the equalizer (such as lower inequalities) and some potentially against the equalizer (such as splinting children earlier into different educational paths based on test scores).

    My take-home message is: The evidence so far  tells us that education is not a great equalizer for genetic predispositions in intelligence. Similar to what other fields of research found out for starting wealth. If we want education to be a better force of equity, then more attention should be paid to children struggling due to their genetic differences. Our school systems can and must do better.

  • Interview with Prof. Iroise Dumontheil

    Your research interest lies in executive functions. What is the role of executive functions, and why is it important to study them in childhood and adolescence? 

    Like many concepts in cognitive neuroscience or psychology, there is no fixed definition of executive functions. They broadly refer to a set of cognitive processes that allow us to interact with the world in a goal-directed manner and that are called on when we are faced with situations where routine behaviours or automatic thoughts are not sufficient. Within this umbrella can be found cognitive processes such as working memory, which corresponds to the maintenance and manipulation of information in a mental workspace – in the spotlight of thoughts – and inhibitory control, which allow us to stop a dominant, automatic response or ignore distraction. Executive functions rely predominantly on fronto-parietal brain networks, which exist already in infancy, but continue to mature throughout childhood and adolescence, and lead to improvement in performance on executive functions task. For example, on average, children go from being able to repeat two numbers backwards at age five years old to 4 or 5 numbers at age 14/15 years old. Individual differences in executive functions associate with a whole range of outcomes, including academic outcomes, and executive functions are impaired in a number of neurodevelopmental disorders. There has been, therefore, a lot of interest in better understanding executive functions development and how it may be fostered. 

    What is the role played by the rostral prefrontal cortex in executive function development? 

    The precise function of the rostral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC) is still unclear. During my PhD, working with my supervisor Prof. Paul Burgess at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, we were interested in further studying the function of this brain region, which lies right at the front of the frontal cortex, behind the forehead. In terms of cytoarchitecture, this brain region seems to have low neuronal cell density and high connectivity, and it has been proposed that this may allow it to process more abstract information, somewhat disconnected from the environment and from the present time. Increased activation (measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging) in RPFC has been observed when we are retrieving information from the past (episodic memory) or remembering to do something in the future (prospective memory), but also when we reason about relations, which is a key element of tasks that measure “fluid intelligence.” So, the maturation of this brain region and its interaction with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex likely support the maturation of these aspects of higher cognition into adolescence and early adulthood.

    In what ways do executive functions relate to academic achievement? 

    Individual differences in working memory in particular, but also inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility, are associated with academic achievement. In a broad way, executive functions allow children and adolescents to stay still, avoid distractions, remember instructions, concentrate on the teacher in class, and do their homework at home. More specifically, working memory allows children to keep words in mind when reading a long sentence, numbers when carrying out arithmetic calculations, or imagine the possible outcomes of a science experiment.

    Is there a way to improve executive function development in children and adolescents? 

    Because of the strong association between individual differences in executive function and academic achievement, this has been a hot topic in the last two decades. The research suggests that executive functions, such as working memory, can be trained through repeated practice of, e.g., specifically designed games that get harder and harder as children progress. However, these improved executive function skills do not consistently transfer to improvement in academic outcomes or everyday functioning. In fact, children with poorer working memory to start with may not be the ones who benefit most from training, suggesting there may be some intrinsic functional constraints that have limited their working memory in the first place. These results have been disappointing, and recent research has focused on implementing training within a specific context of, e.g., maths, to facilitate transfer. Another approach has been to try to train the use of executive functions, rather than executive functions themselves, in a particular context. For example, in a Centre for Educational Neuroscience project called UnLocke with researchers from my own institution, Birkbeck, and UCL Institute of Education, we designed the Stop & Think intervention, which aims to train primary school children to stop and think when solving maths and science problems to avoid giving an intuitive, but incorrect, answer.

    What are the remaining questions in the field of executive function development today?

    So many! As I mentioned to start with, we still do not have a clear definition of executive functions. While it is an umbrella term that covers a lot of different cognitive processes, is there a “core” or “common” executive function? This relates to the proposal that a fronto-parietal multi-demand network supports performance in a range of tasks, possibly because it allows the maintenance of task rules, by my former postdoctoral supervisor, Prof. John Duncan. There are suggestions that executive functions may be less differentiated in early childhood, with a gradual specialisation observed both in terms of behaviour and brain function during the course of development. However, direct evidence is still scarce. Finally, a distinction has been made between “hot” executive function, when emotions and rewards are implicated, and “cold” executive function when they are not. Whether this distinction is meaningful and how executive function may support emotional regulation or be affected, over the course of development, by emotional reactivity and reward sensitivity is another key question.

  • Christel Klootwijk - Academic Motivation During the COVID-19 Pandemic

    Christel Klootwijk started her PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in October 2021. Her PhD research will mainly focus on children’s development of prosocial behavior and is supported by the Ammodo Science Award 2020. She is supervised by Prof. Dr. Paul van Lange, Prof. Dr. Nienke van Atteveldt, Dr. Jellie Sierksma, and Dr. Nikki Lee. Before joining the VU, Christel followed the Research Master Psychology (specialization Developmental Psychology) at Leiden University and worked as a research assistant at CHANGE Leiden. One of her main projects as a research assistant focused on adolescents’ academic motivation and social and emotional well-being during the first COVID-19 school closure.

    You recently published an article on academic motivation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you briefly describe how the study was set up?

    I set up this study as a research assistant at Leiden University together with i.a. dr. Anna van Duijvenvoorde during the first COVID-19 school closure in the Netherlands. We decided to monitor the daily academic motivation of high school students (12-16 years) as well as their social interactions (support from and conflict with peers and parents) and mood through a daily diary study during this unprecedented situation. We collected data for a total of 20 days in May and June 2020, on both physical and online school days. 

    What were your main findings?

    We found that adolescents reported lower academic motivation on online as compared to physical school days. However, when taking perceived parental support into account, we saw that this pattern was especially evident for adolescents with lower mean levels of parental support. Additionally, we found that, in general, positive mood was positively related to their academic motivation. This held for both within-subject and between-subjects positive mood, i.e., adolescents were more motivated for school on days that they reported higher levels of positive mood compared to their own average level, and adolescents with higher mean levels of positive mood than the sample’s average were also on average more motivated for school.

    How do you explain the role of parental support in academic motivation?

    Our study suggests a buffering factor of parental support for the overall negative association between online education and academic motivation. Speculatively, parental support is especially important for adolescents’ academic motivation during online education as they may need more parental help compared to a situation of regular education. Parental support may positively affect adolescents’ academic motivation by stimulating feelings of relatedness and competence in their school work, but it may also indirectly influence motivation by positively affecting mood and mental health. Although examining these relationships was beyond the scope of this study, future studies should further investigate this potentially essential role of parental support in online education.

    Based on your findings, how do you think school closures should be treated in the future to maximize student well-being and academic motivation?

    Our findings shed light on the potential consequences of school closure on academic motivation, especially for adolescents who feel less supported by their parents. Therefore, when making decisions about potential future school closures, these consequences should not be overlooked. Additionally, as we show the important role of positive mood for academic motivation, promoting mental well-being may help adolescents who are struggling with their academic motivation during online education.

    Do you have any suggestions for how future research should approach the study of academic motivation during the Covid-19 pandemic?

    Future research should further explore mediation and bidirectional relationships between academic motivation, social interactions, and mood. Additionally, our study showed some first potential consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, but future studies should also assess the possible long-term effects of school closure.

  • Prof. Nienke Van Atteveldt - How Learning Essentially Changes the Brain and Why this is a Good Thing

    (Disclaimer: This piece was originally published in Unesco MGIEP’s Blue Dot magazine and is published here with their permission)

    One important feature of learning is that it changes the brain. Whenever a child (or an adult) learns something new, some slight changes occur in the chemical and physical properties within the responsible neural networks. This is also called brain plasticity, as the brain’s organisation is not fixed but malleable.  Which changes occur exactly depends on which neural networks are being used. Connections between neurons that are used a lot become stronger and faster, and this is how we learn. Following from this, teaching can be seen as evoking such changes in the brain. Now, while working in the interdisciplinary team of UNESCO MGIEP’s International Science and Evidence based Education Assessment (Duraiappah et al., 2021), I have come to realise that this feature of learning – its material basis if you will – is not as straightforward as I assumed with my neuroscience-mindset.. In fact, framing learning in this way can be perceived as concerning, and this makes the dialogue between educational neuroscientists and the ‘critical neuroscience’ perspective extremely important. In this article, I will try to explain how understanding the neuroscience of learning can be useful for teachers and learners, either directly or more indirectly, and I hope to take away some misunderstandings, to facilitate this constructive dialogue. 

    A clear example of how learning changes the brain comes from the work of Stan Dehaene and colleagues on how learning to read transforms the brain. By comparing the brains of literate and illiterate people, they showed how profoundly the brain changes with reading instruction, both in visual and in language-related neural mechanisms (Dehaene et al., 2015). A relevant question is how such insights can be used to improve learning and teaching, and foster child development towards flourishing. 

    An example of neuroscience studies useful for education are neuroimaging studies that show a better prediction of learning difficulties, and of which treatment is effective for whom, over and above behavioural indicators (Gabrieli, 2016). Moreover, neuroscience can contribute to our knowledge about what are optimal learning conditions, for example in terms of sleep, nutrition, etcetera (Thomas et al., 2020). More indirectly, insights in how the brain learns and develops can influence beliefs and attitudes. For example, a better understanding of protracted adolescent brain development may stimulate teachers to provide more guidance with planning or simply to be more patient and understanding. Similarly, a better understanding of individual differences (i.e., diversity) and learning disabilities may reduce stereotypes and negative attitudes.

    Clearly, there are also many challenges. A main challenge is that the conditions under which most neuroscience studies take place are not naturalistic, but rather, situated in artificial laboratory environments and tightly controlled to measure an isolated process. In other words, most studies suffer from low ‘ecological validity’, making it hard to translate the findings to real-life learning situations. Different approaches are being taken to include more realistic contexts in neuroscience studies (van Atteveldt et al., 2018). For example, developments in portable neuroimaging devices, such as mobile Electro-Encephalography (EEG), enable measuring neural processes in naturalistic contexts such as working classrooms (Janssen et al., 2021). Another approach is to embrace input from diverse stakeholders and disciplines, creating a new, transdisciplinary science (Youdell et al., 2020) which is much better able to increase understanding of learning and development by including different angles to address the same questions. 

    Another challenge is the abundance of misunderstandings and ‘neuromyths’. Much has been written about neuromyths (e.g., Howard-Jones, 2014), so I will be brief. It is a fact that there are many persistent misconceptions about the brain (e.g., we only use 10% of it) and about brain research (e.g., a brain scan can show whether a child is gifted, has autism, etc.). An underrepresented side of such misconceptions are the more sceptical ones. One misunderstanding I would like to counter here is that educational neuroscience is essentially a reductionist effort. Most of my neuroscience colleagues would agree that child development cannot be reduced to one level, but rather, multiple complementary levels of change

    are equally important and dynamically interact during development (van Atteveldt et al., 2021). Importantly, interactions across levels can lead to emerging properties that are missed when these levels are considered separately. The brain is just one of these levels, one piece of the puzzle. Neuromyths and more sceptical misunderstandings can be harmful as they can promote overly optimistic as well as overly pessimistic views about brain research and its potential contributions.

    A constructive dialogue and more interdisciplinary collaboration, including a range of stakeholders, are important to prevent such negative side effects of miscommunication.

    Let me come back to the second part of the title. Why is changing the brain a good thing? Old habits die hard; if school is the place where children learn the skills needed to live in good standing with each other and with nature, the gains can be high. Children have this learning potential because of the high plasticity of their young brains. But this is by no means the same as letting schools “sculpt” or “control” children’s brains – the reality is far too complex for this to happen. Instruction during lessons at school is only a fraction of daily-life experiences and biological maturation processes that are continually ongoing in children. As mentioned above, child development and learning are the result of a complex interplay of changes at a range of levels, from the weight of neural connections to the social environment and cultural norms in which a child’s life is embedded. Moreover, as has been a longstanding realization, development is shaped both by ‘nature’ (e.g., genes) and ‘nurture’ (e.g., environment). This complexity shows that it is an illusion that we can unlimitedly “sculpt” children’s brains. An overemphasis on malleability is referred to as the “nurture assumption” (Sokolowski & Ansari, 2018), in which the biological basis of individual differences is largely ignored, leading to inflated expectations of interventions to improve learning ability. Still, even with tempered expectations of the possibility to sculpt brains, it is wise to have an ongoing dialogue on ethics, especially with the rise of commercially available tools to train and stimulate brains (Williamson, 2019).

    To conclude, sculpting brains into an ideal mould is not something that educational neuroscience strives to achieve. Rather, we aim to solve a piece of the complex puzzle. By aligning the goals of schooling with what we need for a better world, skills and attitudes can be scaffolded for, hopefully, a majority of children to build not only cognitive but also social and emotional competencies, and the attitudes and values needed to take care of others and of our planet. As long as we have a constructive interdisciplinary dialogue, knowledge from neuroscience can contribute to reimagining education for the future, as one out of multiple levels of understanding child development in a complex world.

  • The Main Takeaways from the Diversity Day Seminar

    Current selection practices have led to decreased diversity in the student body of health professions education (HPE) programs. This finding is concerning because diversity ensures the quality of health education and increases patient satisfaction. The current lack of diversity has been linked to the increasingly selection-based enrolment at HPE programs, which has resulted in individuals with parents on social welfare and individuals with a migration background having lower odds of being selected. In addition, the lack of diversity is perpetuated by the fact that minority students lack a sense of belonging at medical universities. Our speakers propose several potential solutions starting from targeted recruitment strategies, increasing the number of minority role models, and finally ending with a suggestion to engage in conscious dialogues.

    From High School Student to Medical Student 

    Diversity and inequality of opportunity in selection for university Health Professions Education (HPE) programs

    Selection has led to increased inequality in university-level health professions education (HPE) programs. Lianne Mulder, along with her research team, has investigated the consequences of the change from a hybrid lottery/selection procedure to the 100% selection-based process on the diversity of the student body in HPE. In a retrospective multicohort study, they followed three cohorts of 16-year-old high-school students (2008, 2012, 2015) for three years. The findings showed that in the 2008 cohort (lottery & max. 50% selection), female applicants and those with parents in the top 10% of the wealth distribution had higher odds of being selected. With increasingly selection-based enrolment programs, additional determinants of admission became clear: individuals with parents on social welfare and individuals with a migration background had lower odds of being selected. The socioeconomic background of the student could not explain this migration background-related disadvantage. Finally, with entirely selection-based enrollment, children of medical professionals had a higher chance of being selected into the program.  

    Looking at the precursors of the lack of higher education diversity, the researchers found that most of the diversity is lost at the entrance of the pre-university track in high school (VWO), resulting in a (potential) eligible pool which is not representative of their peers.

    Potential implications were also discussed, such as the need in primary and secondary education for removing the barriers in the transition to pre-university education. Lianne Mulder proposed some of the ways this could be achieved: recruiting a representative applicant pool with targeted recruitment efforts and adopting equitable admissions policies. However, such equitable admissions policies are not yet legally permitted in the Netherlands. Lianne Mulder, together with her team and a diverse group of experts and stakeholders, is working on a recommendations report for policy changes in this direction.

    From Medical Student to Doctor 

    Motivation and academic performance of ethnic medical students

    Motivation is an essential determinant of well-being and success among medical students. In a comparative study, Dr. Isik and her collaborators showed that autonomous motivation (driven by intrinsic rewards) was higher in non-Western students in pre-clinical and clinical education. In contrast, the controlled motivation (driven by extrinsic rewards) of Western students was higher than Dutch students. However, greater autonomous motivation of non-Western students did not lead to higher GPA. To find possible mediators of this relationship, the team investigated differences in students' study strategies and found that the achieving tragedy was a mediator between autonomous motivation and GPA for Dutch students but not for non-Western or Western minorities. The team conducted a focus group study in this population to zero in on the possible influences of motivation in ethnic minority students. One of the most prominent findings was that students lack a sense of belonging to the medical network, and they lack role models from ethnic minorities. As potential solutions to these issues, ethnic minority students wished to be facilitated in building and maintaining networks, having role models (teachers/mentors) from migration backgrounds, and receiving guidance in communication skills. 

    Dr. Isik proposed practical implications for creating a better learning environment for minority students. These included: improving the inclusive environment, raising cultural awareness and competence, guiding the students, providing more clarity on what is expected of them, and recruiting representative role models. 

    Living up to the unhidden prejudices about race and diversity in medical education and health care systems

    Dr. Jamiu O. Busari is careful about defining the difference between equity and equality. He defines equality as the equal treatment and availability of health care services to all people, which carries the goal of achieving fairness. However, it is limited by the assumption that everyone has the same starting point and needs the same things. On the other hand, equity in a medical setting is achieved by taking into account the factors that may influence health (e.g., employment, housing, transportation, education, socioeconomic status, food access). 

    According to Dr. Busari, the definition of diversity - "all possible ways in which people differ from each other" - is also amenable to change. The changeability, however, is dependent on an individual's environment at any particular moment in time. The changeable aspects of diversity, for example, include economic status, marital status, profession, and religious beliefs and are referred to as secondary dimensions. The unchangeable aspects include characteristics such as our DNA, ethnicity, race, biological parents, and physical deformities and constitute the primary dimensions of diversity.

    What interests Dr. Busari in the issues concerning diversity are those mechanisms driving these processes, such as privilege and hence, the importance of us understanding our privilege(s). According to the coin model of privilege, at any given time, each of us is either privileged or oppressed within a specific context or system of inequality. Although some of these privileges are earned, and others are not. Therefore, according to Dr. Busari, it is essential to be aware of our (un)earned privileges and how we apply these in practice. 

    The main message from Dr. Busari is that understanding these notions is crucial in the move from inequality to justice. We must understand that providing equity is not sufficient for this transition. We need to enable the process such that the disadvantaged ones are placed on an equal playing field with those who are opportune. To achieve this, we need to exercise critical consciousness. That is, to engage less in discussions and more in dialogues - cognitive, affective, and experiential interactions that would enable us to achieve an authentic understanding of equity and social justice.

  • Dr. Marjolein Camphuijsen and Professor Dr. Melanie Ehren - Mainstream and Supplementary Education: How to Make the Marriage Work?

    Dutch students increasingly participate in educational activities outside school hours, often with the aim of improving their performance in the regular education system. Examples include tutoring, test- and exam training, homework assistance, and extra support for specific learning needs. While these forms of supplementary education are sometimes provided by schools themselves, in other instances, external actors -including private for-profit companies or charitable organizations- are offering these types of schooling. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the provision of supplementary education, now publicly funded through school-based block grants to repair learning loss. Many schools and parents rely on supplementary education to improve children’s outcomes, but the collaboration between the mainstream and supplementary education sector is not a straightforward one. In this blog, we discuss some of the benefits and pitfalls of a growing supplementary education sector and offer three takeaway messages that could potentially ‘make the marriage work.’

    Defining supplementary education

    Supplementary education is education that schools or other parties -with or without costs for parents- organize outside school hours and that support students in their regular education programme (Bisschop, van den Berg & van der Ven, 2019; Elffers et al., 2019). In public debates, as well as in the international academic literature, supplementary education is often referred to as shadow education, which has been defined as supplementary educational activities that students follow after school at their own expense in order to improve their learning and school performance (Elffers & Jansen, 2019). Educational activities that are organized free of charge, for example, by charitable organisations, in an attempt to support children's education, are generally not regarded as shadow education. Nonetheless, this definition is increasingly subject to debate, in part due to the variety of supplementary education activities that have emerged, as well as the different goals that are being pursued and the different groups that are targeted. These sometimes partly do and sometimes partly do not fall under the formal definition of shadow education. As a result, we consider the term supplementary education more encompassing.

    A thriving industry

    The exact amount of supplementary education accessed by numbers of students is difficult to establish. There is, however, ample evidence that the private supplementary education industry is thriving. For example, between 2015 and 2017, the total revenue of companies that offer tutoring, test- and exam training, and homework assistance increased from 48.5 million to 69.2 million (Bisschop, van den Berg & van der Ven, 2019). Moreover, Statistics Netherlands estimates that household expenditure on supplementary education increased from 189 to 284 million between 2015 and 2018.

    Should we be worried about the growth of supplementary education?

    The answer to the question lies in the quality of the service and who is able to access it. When organized sensibly and effectively, supplementary education might prevent slow learners from falling behind and thus help reduce unequal outcomes both in classrooms and in the broader society. At the same time, supplementary education might not only be beneficial for students’ self-confidence, motivation, and performance but could simultaneously relieve teachers’ workload. This might, in particular, be the case when schools that themselves struggle to provide additional support engage with external actors to make sure the needs of all students are met.

    Nonetheless, supplementary education can also have very problematic dimensions. At least in the case of paid-for activities, research shows that such forms of supplementary education are mostly used by students from privileged backgrounds to improve exam results and gain a competitive advantage over their peers. In contrast, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who need additional tutoring and support often do not access supplementary education or make use of free offers. As a result, there is a real risk that social inequalities are maintained or exacerbated by paid-for forms of supplementary education, in particular when there exists a quality difference between free and paid-for activities. Other risks that are often mentioned relate to the adverse effects on the mainstream schooling system when core educational tasks are delegated to supplementary education providers or when teachers leave for jobs in the supplementary sector resulting in a hollowing out of the mainstream system. Moreover, scholars have pointed towards the potential negative effects of supplementary education on children’s mental health as a result of an increase in hours devoted to school work, increased pressure to perform well, as well as psychological anxiety when not relying on supplementary education.

    Mainstream and supplementary education: how to make the marriage work

    We present the following takeaway messages to ensure overall positive outcomes of supplementary education in support of the public system:

    1. Track and monitor supplementary education. Without good data about the scale, size, quality, and nature of supplemental education and who is accessing it, any discussion about potential benefits or pitfalls of supplementary education remains largely anecdotal. Good policy and improvement of practice requires information.
    2. Regulate quality of supplementary education. In the mainstream system, school quality is regulated and monitored through school inspections, where parents can use inspections reports and information provided by the school to ‘vote with their feet’ and choose a high-quality school. Such regulation and monitoring is also put in place to ensure a minimum standard of quality. For supplementary education, such regulation is largely absent as parents are expected to ‘vote with their feet’ when services are not up to standards. However, many parents are unable to make an informed decision or lack the information to change provider; services are often also paid for through external funding and offered by schools or municipalities who are not monitoring quality (e.g., part of COVID-related catch-up programmes). Quality control of individual tutors and/or agencies by a knowledgeable agency is needed to improve practice.
    3. Ensure the mainstream system can meet the needs of all students. Ideally, there is no need for supplementary education when schools can meet the needs of all students and ensure equal opportunities for high learning outcomes. Relying on external partners to provide additional support and teaching will fragment the system and might also put an additional burden on schools and teachers. They now have to take into account that learning of some of their students is taking place outside of their span of control and this requires additional time and effort for coordination and alignment of teaching and curriculum coverage. Where the mainstream system cannot meet the needs of all students, there should at the minimum be a provision for disadvantaged students to access similar cost-free supplemental education as their more advantaged peers.

    To conclude

    The growth in supplementary education has given rise to a public debate on the desirability of this trend. In many respects, there still exists a lack of sufficient empirical evidence to provide a clear direction for policy and practice in response to the growing reliance on supplementary education in the Netherlands. This highlights the need for more research focused both on the drivers and the implications of supplementary education. At the same time, it is crucial to reach a collective agreement on what should be part of the mainstream education system and what can be provided through supplementary education. This will clarify what is and can be expected of schools and provide direction for policy and practice.

     

    References

    Bisschop, P., Berg E. van den, Ven, K. van der, Geus, W. de, & Kooij, D. (2019). Aanvullend en particulier onderwijs. Onderzoek naar de verschijningsvormen en omvang van aanvullend en particulier onderwijs en motieven voor deelname. Amsterdam: SEO Economisch Onderzoek; Utrecht: Oberon. 

    Elffers, L. & Jansen, D. (2019). De opkomst van schaduwonderwijs in Nederland: Wat weten we en welke vragen liggen nog open? Retrieved on 27 October 2021 from: htps://www.nro.nl/sites/nro/fles/migrate/ rapport-schaduwonderwijs-Elfers-Jansen-2019.pdf

    Elffers, L., Fukkink, R., Jansen, D., Helms, R., Timmerman, G., Fix, M., & Lusse, M. (2019). Aanvullend onderwijs: leren en ontwikkelen naast de school: een verkennende schets van het landschap van aanvullend onderwijs in Nederland. Nationale Wetenschapsagenda.

  • Jacqueline Zadelaar - Social Influence on Decision-Making in Adolescence

    Decision-making, social influence, and adolescence

    When making decisions, people may rely on information they themselves can extract from the situation as well as on information provided by others. For example, when answering a multiple-choice exam question, a student may rely on their own knowledge of the subject and careful inspection of the question, but they may also peek at the answer of their neighbor. Information provided by others may benefit decision-making by providing additional knowledge or insights, but it may also be detrimental when the other person is less knowledgeable or has different priorities than the decision-maker.

    Adolescence is a developmental stage in which social influence has a prominent role, helping develop social skills and coping mechanisms (Berndt, 1992; van Hoorn et al., 2016), shaping interests and social identities (Welborn et al., 2016), but also stimulating risk-taking behavior (Blakemore & Robbins, 2012; Shepherd et al., 2011). The stereotype is that adolescents are particularly susceptible to social influence, especially peers, though scientific findings on the subject are inconsistent (Sumter et al., 2009). We investigate this phenomenon by focusing on cognitive mechanisms driving-decision making under the social influence, examining individual differences and age-related changes in both the extent and manner in which social influence guides decision-making.

    Distinguishing between decision mechanisms

    To get a complete picture of if and why adolescent decision-making is more susceptible to social influence, we studied the mechanisms behind it. In doing so, we distinguish between the extent to which individually attained information and information provided by others affect decision making, and the manner in which the decision maker uses either or both types of information to reach a decision (i.e., decision strategies). For example, some people may employ a strategy wherein they only ever consider one type of information while others adopt a strategy in which they consider each type of information one after another, and yet others may integrate both types of information to reach a decision. By distinguishing between extent and strategy of information use, one prevents mistaking one for another – something that could distort findings by inflating the effects of interest. Through an innovative Bayesian hierarchical mixture modeling approach, both mechanisms can be estimated simultaneously and on an individual basis. Additionally, this model only requires a single decision task to be administered rather than separate versions with and without a social influence component, as is common in this type of research.

    Adolescents not more susceptible to social influence

    We hypothesized the increased sensitivity to social influence in adolescence to be explained by a shift in decision strategies. Specifically, we expected a shift between childhood and adolescence from a strategy relying solely on individually attained information to strategies relying on

    information provided by others as well. However, in a large sample of 9- through 14-year-olds, no such strategy shift was observed, nor was there an increase in the extent to which either type of information influenced decisions. This speaks against the controversial view of adolescents’ heightened sensitivity to social influence, at least pertaining to early adolescence. In light of this, absence of the expected age-related shift in decision strategy seems logical.

    Notable individual differences in strategy use were observed. Youngsters either relied solely on individually attained information or on both types of information to make decisions, either sequentially or integratively. No one relied solely on information provided by others, a finding in agreement with the phenomenon of ‘egocentric discounting’ – a tendency to value ones’ own insights and opinions over those of others (Rader et al., 2017; Yaniv & Kleinberger, 2000). Given the qualitatively distinct manners in which social influence affects decision-making in different strategies, these findings suggest that research looking exclusively at the extent to which social influence affects decisions may provide an overly simplistic view of this phenomenon.

    Implications and future research

    In the current study, both the decision-maker and the influencer were anonymous. While this translates to certain real-life situations (e.g., online decision-making), different effects may be expected in different decision formats (Deutsch, 1955; Rader et al., 2017). Future research, starting with a recently launched master thesis project, will systematically vary and compare decision-relevant factors such as anonymity, reliability of the social influencer, as well as decision objectives. By mapping out the developmental trajectory of decision mechanisms under social influence in a variety of contexts, we aim to better understand real-life decision making as well as providing an overview of the effects associated with different decision task characteristics.

    Contact information

    Name: Jacqueline Zadelaar Email: j.n.zadelaar@vu.nl

    Article: Zadelaar, J. N., Agelink van Rentergem, J. A., Schaaf, J. V., Dekkers, T. J., de Vent, N., Dekkers, L. M. S., Olthof, M. C, Jansen, B. R. J., Huizenga, H. M. (in press). Development of decision making based on internal and external information: A hierarchical Bayesian approach.

    Literature

    Berndt, T. J. (1992). Friendship and friends' influence in adolescence. Current directions in psychological science, 1(5), 156-159.

    Blakemore, S. J., & Robbins, T. W. (2012). Decision-making in the adolescent brain. Nature Neuroscience, 15(9), 1184–1191. http://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3177

    Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The Journal Of Abnormal And Social Psychology, 51(3), 629.

    Rader, C. A., Larrick, R. P., & Soll, J. B. (2017). Advice as a form of social influence: Informational motives and the consequences for accuracy. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(8), e12329.

    Shepherd, J. L., Lane, D. J., Tapscott, R. L., & Gentile, D. A. (2011). Susceptible to Social Influence: Risky “Driving” in Response to Peer Pressure. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(4), 773–797. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00735.x

    Sumter, S. R., Bokhorst, C. L., Steinberg, L., & Westenberg, P. M. (2009). The developmental pattern of resistance to peer influence in adolescence: Will the teenager ever be able to resist?. Journal of adolescence, 32(4), 1009-1021.

    Welborn, B. L., Lieberman, M. D., Goldenberg, D., Fuligni, A. J., Galván, A., & Telzer, E. H. (2016). Neural mechanisms of social influence in adolescence. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(1), 100-109.

    van Hoorn, J., van Dijk, E., Meuwese, R., Rieffe, C., & Crone, E. A. (2016). Peer influence on prosocial behavior in adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(1), 90-100.

    Yaniv, I., & Kleinberger, E. (2000). Advice taking in decision making: Egocentric discounting and reputation formation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 83(2), 260–281. https://doi.org/10.1006/obhd.2000.2909

  • Interview with Dr. Cor van Montfort

    You have been working on an evaluation of the new legislation concerning early childcare in the Caribbean Netherlands. Could you tell us more about it?

    To be precise, I did not work on the evaluation of the new legislation. Instead, I worked on the ex-ante assessment, where I looked at the concept of the new law, and I looked at the childcare program, called Bes(t)4kids, that has been running for three years and will be running for three more years until the new law is implemented. BES stands for the BES islands, an acronym for Bonaire, St. Eustatia, and Saba, three small islands in the Caribbean that are a part of the Netherlands. A consultancy firm is going to evaluate this program during the next three years. Thus, I looked at the plan that the consultancy bureau made to follow and monitor the program for three years. That is also an ex-ante way of looking at things.

    Before we go forward, could you explain the new legislation to our readers?

    The new legislation wants to make childcare more affordable, more safe, and of better quality. These are the three goals of the new legislation. Child care was quite expensive on the islands, and the government has decided to invest in solving this issue. They also want to make childcare safer. By safety, I mean safety in the buildings. There are many buildings in which childcare is provided. Sometimes they are old and not very safe for the children. Thus, the Dutch government wants to invest in the safety of these buildings. However, safety also has to do with social safety and safe environments in which the children can play and learn. Higher quality means the professionalization of the staff of the child care organizations. These three elements are the core of the new law.

    The Dutch government wants to do this because it takes childcare as a crucial aspect in the development of young children. The theory behind the policy is that it is imperative to provide children, from the beginning, with chances and opportunities in a society. If this basis is lacking, children will have problems for the rest of their lives. This is the theory behind this quite massive investment.

    What are the most critical findings from your pre-evaluation?

    There are three things. What the new law is proposing in terms of structure when we are talking about the roles and responsibilities of all the parties - the Dutch government, the inspectorate, the childcare organizations - is quite clear. However, there is one issue with the structure: the new law pays almost no attention to governance. They do not pay attention to the quality of the governance of the child care organizations. In my view, that is a critical factor. Professional management and professional leadership are critical. However, the law says (almost) nothing about this issue. My advice was to pay more attention, both in the program that is already running, and the new law, to the governance of these organizations.

    The main problems, or questions, that arise are on what I call the Process, Behavior, and Culture. The Dutch government wants to operate and act on an equal level with people on the islands, to consider them equal to us. That is a problem because the Dutch government pays,

    the Dutch government has made the policy, the Dutch government can put many people on this topic. From the perspective of the islands, it is almost impossible to act in an equal way with this Big Brother. The Dutch government wants to do so, but the perception on the islands is different. This is the dilemma of equivalence between the big Dutch government and the small islands. How can they communicate with each other on an equal basis when one party is huge and another very small and dependent on Big Brother?

    There are two more dilemma’s. The second dilemma is: On which topics do you need or want to have uniform standards on quality? Does every island and every childcare organization use the same standards? On what topics do you want to have more diversity between the islands? Both the Dutch government and the islands themselves are searching for a balance between what is uniform and what requires diversity.

    The third dilemma is between establishing the new structure of the law, which will be implemented within three years, and the problems of “here and now.” How do you solve the problems here and now? This is a problem for the islands, they have to act in an in-between space between the old law and the new law that is coming. There remains a gray zone in which they have to act and solve their acute problems.

    These three dilemmas are challenging to deal with both for the Dutch government and the islands.

    What are some of the solutions for these dilemmas?

    Concerning the dilemma of structure vs. issues “here and now,” I advised to come together and discover the issues that need to be solved and think about why they can not be solved within the current legal framework.

    On the issue of equivalence between the parties, I advised the Dutch government to try to be clear on which topics they require uniformity, for example, for the quality of childcare. It has to be more clear to the islands on which issues they can make their own choices and on which issues they have to follow the rules.

    Could you tell us more about how the new legislation is perceived on the islands?

    The goals of the program and the goals of the new legislation are supported by the islands. The people on the islands can recognize the problems on the islands: they can see that it is too expensive and that the new law can make it less expensive; they can see that the quality can be improved; the professionalization process is appreciated. However, what can be improved is the interaction and communication between the Dutch government and people on the islands.

    What are the possible implications of this legislation on the children in the Caribbean?

    The intentions of the law are enormous. The theory behind the law is very ambitious. It starts with childcare and ends with preventing poverty. One of the comments that I make in the

    evaluation is that it may be better to shrink the policy theory and focus on performance rather than the outcome of poverty and equal opportunities.

    What is happening now is that childcare IS becoming more affordable, safer, and more professional than it was four years ago. Most of the people I have spoken with think that the program is a success in that way. What they are thinking about now is how to maintain these gains for the longer term. This is why good communication between the islands and the Dutch government is so important. There are many examples of positive experiences on the islands. Hence, my advice is to share the good news and be positive about what is already happening.

  • Blog from Paula Dekkers-Verbon Supporting the child-caregiver attachment bond through a specially designed playmat

    Blog from Paula Dekkers-Verbon
    Supporting the child-caregiver attachment bond through a specially designed playmat 

    Parents can struggle with connecting to their young child with visual disabilities. Therefore, the ‘Social Relations and Attachment’ Academic Lab Bartiméus-Vrije Universiteit has, in collaboration with Eindhoven University of Technology and By-wire.net, developed a playmat called the Barti-mat. This multisensory, interactive mat provokes child-led play, which helps parents engage in sensitive and responsive interactions with their child. Eleven child-parent dyads participated in an effect study last year. Results were promising: children showed elevated joy and improved arousal while playing on the Barti-mat, and parents displayed more sensitive mirroring behaviour. In this blog, Paula Dekkers-Verbon, scientist-practitioner at the ‘Social Relations and Attachment’ Academic Lab, describes the rationale behind the Barti-mat and its evaluation. 

    The need for special play material

    Child-leading play is an easy and enjoyable way to connect to young children. Caregivers can, for example, mirror the baby in movements or sounds, like clapping or parroting sounds. Through this mirroring play, the child recognizes itself, feels understood, and the dyad experiences joy. Also, sensitive and responsive parents naturally mirror the inner world of the child by voicing what the child is experiencing and feeling. This mirroring of the affective states helps the child to regulate its emotions and to feel safe. However, parents of a child with a visual impairment have more difficulty exhibiting these sensitive and responsive behaviours, due to the scarce and confusing signals the child sends out. For example, a blind child turning its ear towards the sound of the parental voice is a sign of paying attention, but the parent can interpret this ‘looking away’ as a signal of lost interest in the interaction.

    Sharing (or joint) attention also connects young child-parent duos. Making eye contact, looking at the same object and pointing, are all behaviours that are less (or not) possible for children with visual disabilities. Joint attention in a child with visual impairment is more subtle (e.g., a child turning its body a certain direction) and therefore requires more effort and sensitive responsivity of parents. The increased difficulty in connecting to a child with visual disabilities leads to a greater chance of developing an insecure caregiver-child attachment relationship.

    Meet the Barti-mat

    The Barti-mat was developed to help parents playfully connect to their child with visual impairment. This large, colourful mat with different textures is appealing for young children to explore. The mat allows parents to follow up on the child-led play that naturally arises. The soundbox is programmed with eight sets containing four sounds (e.g., nature sounds, deep-sea animals). A sound can easily be triggered by gently touching one of the four big coloured blocks with integrated sensors. The volume is customizable, and the 3D-printed sound box with magnets can be removed for cleaning the mat.

    Effect study and implementation

    In the spring and summer of 2020, eleven child-parent dyads were willing to test the Barti-mat in their home setting. Dyads were requested to do eight rounds of 3-minute-play together, alternating between the Barti-mat and their own toys. Aged 9 months to 4 years with a maximum developmental age of 3 years, children generally enjoyed playing on the mat and laughed frequently, even more than when playing with their own toys. Children were also in a more optimal state of arousal while playing on the Barti-mat: they were less under- and over-aroused.

     Four out of eleven children had a developmental age of 6 months or younger. Parents already displayed many sensitive and responsive behaviours to attune to their child’s needs. However, when playing on the Barti-mat, parents generally were even more able to voice the affective states of children. This finding can be explained by the type of play the Barti-mat elicits: the sensory-stimulating, open-ended play facilitates parents to engage in sensitive mirroring behaviours more compared to playing with other (mostly individualistic) play material. Interestingly, parents themselves did not realize they showed more mirroring behaviours, emphasizing the subtleness and subconsciousness of sensitive responsivity. 

     Twelve Barti-mats were adopted by two expert organizations on visual impairment (Bartiméus and Koninklijke Visio) and are integrated into the home-based early intervention sessions for young children with visual impairment. The interactive playmat is widely applicable. Due to the open-ended play, there are no age restrictions for the Barti-mat. In addition, the Barti-mat can be used by parents who are proficient in relationship-focussed play but also by parents that are novice to this kind of interaction. For more information on the Barti-mat, please visit: https://www.by-wire.net/barti-mat/

     Dyzel, V., Dekkers-Verbon, P., Toeters, M., & Sterkenburg, P. S. (in press). For happy children with a visual or visual-and-intellectual disability: efficacy research to promote sensitive caregiving with the Barti-mat. British Journal of Visual Impairment.

  • Attachment measures and feasibility of use in clinical practice by Lianne Bakkum

    Attachment measures and feasibility of use in clinical practice by Lianne Bakkum

    I recently passed my PhD defence at the University of Cambridge. During my PhD, I dived deep into a widely-used instrument for measuring adult attachment representations: the Adult Attachment Interview (George et al., 1996). This hour-long semi-structured interview includes questions about relationship experiences with parents and other caregivers in childhood. My research focused on the category of “unresolved loss and trauma”, which describes disoriented or confused discourse about past loss or childhood abuse, such as irrational beliefs that a deceased person is still alive in the present.

    Becoming a certified coder of the Adult Attachment Interview

    To become a certified coder of the Adult Attachment Interview, one must take part in a two-week training institute and complete three rounds of reliability tests. The reliability testing process takes about 1,5 years, assuming that the coder in training passes each reliability test. Coding an interview may take up to 10-12 hours, depending on the length and complexity of the interview. In addition, the interview needs to be carefully transcribed according to specific guidelines. As Van IJzendoorn (1991) mentioned about three decades ago, the Adult Attachment Interview is probably among the most labour-intensive instruments in the behavioural sciences.

    Thesis research: Discovering ways to develop a less labour-intensive version of the “unresolved state of mind” coding system

    One of the chapters in my thesis described a study on the psychometric validity of the indicators of unresolved loss and trauma. The coding system has initially been developed on the basis of 88 interviews with caregivers and has been used by researchers for decades. However, the indicators of unresolved loss or trauma have not been psychometrically validated in independent study samples. In my research, I explored the extent to which these indicators contributed to the overall classification. Using individual participant data from the Collaboration of Attachment Transmission Synthesis (CATS), we pooled together a dataset of more than 1,000 Adult Attachment Interviews..

    Using machine learning techniques, we investigated the contribution of 32 individual indicators of unresolved loss and trauma to the overall classification. It was of great help that LEARN!-colleagues Chris van Klaveren and Ilja Cornelisz brought in their expertise for this paper. We found that two indicators contributed strongly to the classification, and that 22 out of 32 indicators did not occur frequently enough to be included in the analyses. Of these rare indicators, seven occurred only once in the entire sample of 1,009 interviews. We concluded that it does not make much sense for coders to keep looking for these rare indicators in interview transcripts, and emphasised the need for future methodological innovations to develop and validate optimised versions of the coding system. While the use of secondary data comes with many benefits, new data are needed for prospective hypothesis- and validity testing.

    Other studies: Making attachment measures feasible for use in clinical practice

    Optimised versions of attachment instruments may contribute to the feasibility of training and coding,and make the use of these measures less time-intensive. Another benefit of cut-down measures is that they may be more feasible for use in clinical practice. A recently validated, cut-down attachment measure is the Atypical Maternal Behavior Instrument for Assessment and Classification, brief version (AMBIANCE-Brief, Madigan et al., 2018). This assessment for disrupted caregiver behaviour originally contained 150 indices and is coded based on video-recorded caregiver-child observations. The brief version has been reduced to 45 indices and can be coded live (e.g., during home visits). The AMBIANCE-Brief has recently been tested for use by community practitioners, who underwent a 2-day training and a 3,5-hour reliability session. Eighty-nine percent of the participants met reliability standards (Madigan et al., 2021).

    Within our own section of Clinical Child and Family Studies, Mirte Forrer (scientist-practitioner) has been working under the supervision of Mirjam Oosterman and Carlo Schuengel on an application (OK! Opvoeder-Kind Interactie; English: caregiver-child interaction) for professionals working with families, to aid assessment of caregiver sensitivity during home visits. The app presents professionals with a decision tree, including questions such as: “Do you find the caregiving behaviour more insensitive or more sensitive?” and provides an outcome of caregiver sensitivity. Professionals can use this as a direction for further conversations with the caregiver, and for professional reports. The OK! app has been tested for reliability and validity and will soon be ready for implementation.

    To conclude, the next steps for the field of attachment research would be to investigate and validate optimised versions of attachment measures to make these more feasible for professionals working with children and families. Ways of optimising these measures may be discovered using large (secondary) datasets and rigorous methods, and optimised versions may be validated through repeating cycles of collecting new data and reliability and validity testing.

    Lianne Bakkum’s research page

  • Mariëtte Huizinga speaks about her research on executive functions and her current projects

    Mariëtte Huizinga speaks about her research on executive functions and her current projects

    Since the beginning of her academic career, Dr. Mariëtte Huizinga has been dedicated to studying the development of goal-directed behavior in children and adolescents. More specifically she examines the development of executive functions and their role in educational achievement. While she started with fundamental research, she is currently focusing on interventions to improve executive functions. In her position at the VU as an associate professor, she works on two large research projects. In the interview, she tells us more about those research projects and her motivation to study executive functions.

    Your main research focus is the development of executive functions. What are executive functions and why are they important for learning?

    Executive functions are a highly complex construct. It is an umbrella term that describes various cognitive processes to carry out goal directed behaviour. Our executive functions allow us to adjust rapidly to changing situations. It is therefore especially important for demanding and novel situations in which we can’t use automatic behaviours. Core functions that fit under the umbrella of executive functions are for example, working memory, inhibition, or cognitive flexibility. A frequent misunderstanding is that we cannot see executive functions – they are brain processes. What we can see however, is the behavior as a consequence of executive functions. If your executive functions are well developed, you are for example capable to plan your homework, show up on time or stick to deadlines. Deficits in executive functions on the other hand, can negatively affect your school success and can cause difficulties in your social and cognitive development. Those functions are consequently, very important for success in school and that’s why also teachers picked up on this topic.

    What is the critical age for developing executive functions?

    We can see that young children find it more difficult to show goal directed behaviour but the older they get, the better they become in using these executive functions to guide their behaviour. The development of executive functions takes long, into late adolescence and young-adulthood. One hypothesis is that this has to do with the development of a particular brain region. Research showed that the development of the prefrontal cortex is related to executive functions. Compared to other brain areas, the prefrontal cortex develops slowly – all the way into adolescence. That is one of the reasons why we think that executive functions develop so slowly.  However, recent research has shifted the attention towards the influence of environmental factors. Especially, to the role of school and classroom environment as a developmental context for promoting children's executive function and, in turn, their cognition and behaviour.

    You are currently working on a research project to study the effectiveness of different interventions to foster executive functions. What are you doing there exactly?

    I am co-advisor in some projects of a colleague from KU Leuven (Dr. Dieter Baeyens), in which we examine the effect of teacher-student interactions on the development of students' executive function skills. Many interventions/programmes were developed to foster executive functions and we can see that most of them are not effective – they lack durable and transferable effects. However, the quality of teacher-student relationship is related to the development of EF. Still, we do not know the direction of this association. To investigate this, my colleagues and I first did a large literature review of experiments and interventions that aim to improve children's executive functions by manipulating the teacher-student interaction. We are about to start the next phase of the project.

    What do you mean by ‘manipulating the student-teacher interactions’?

    In a design, so-called microtrials, we directly and briefly investigate theoretical hypotheses concerning the effect of teacher-student interaction on specific executive functions. Microtrials are randomized experiments with focused environmental manipulations to investigate specific mechanisms of change. An important topic encompasses the investigation of which dimension of teacher-student interaction (i.e. emotional, instructional or organizational support) holds the potential to improve executive functions. So, we teach teachers to focus on one specific method and subsequently observe the quality of the interaction between the teacher and student. With the help of these observations and questionnaires, you subsequently investigate how the executive functions in children improve. We are currently setting up our own microtrials in which we hope to go a step further. In the end, we aim to study if different combinations of dimensions might be more effective for some students than for others. We hope that with this research we can align the interventions more to individual needs and differences to improve the effectiveness of the intervention. 

    You are also working on a project focusing on study choice of VU students. What is this study aiming for?

    As part of the matching procedure for arriving students, the VU uses a questionnaire. However, the results of this questionnaire don’t really give good insight into the match between the student and the study chosen and in the meantime 20% -30% of the students drop out or switch after the first year. I am the project leader of a new project with the main aim to develop a new questionnaire, the so-called Study Choice Check. We want to get better insights into - among others - the interests, motivation and goal-directed behavior skills of the students. By having more insight, we hope to increase the quality of the match between the incoming students and the studies they have chosen thereby decreasing the number of drop-outs or switching students. We have just finished the data collection and are about to start the data analysis. I am very curious about the results which we can hopefully present at the beginning of 2022.

    What inspires you to study executive functions and keeps you motivated?

    I find it very interesting to observe children and adolescents in their development to become their own selves. I did my Master with one of the pioneers in the field, Dr. Marilyn C. Welsh. Her research really inspired me and motivated me to pursue a PhD on the development of executive functions. At this time, my research was very fundamental. I find it also very important to make this fundamental knowledge more applicable and useable in a classroom setting. To do so, together with Dr. Diana Smidts, I for example developed the Dutch adaptation of the Behaviour Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF) for children between ages 5 and 18. We also wrote a book on the development of executive functions, especially for parents and teachers. To examine ways to foster childrens’ and adolescents’ executive functions – and thereby their behavior and cognition - is very rewarding.

    Where would you be if you wouldn’t have pursued a career in academia?

    I don’t know if I wouldn’t have ended up in academia anyway. In the early nineties I ended up in Psychology – a study that I greatly enjoyed. If I would have been 18 years old by now, I would have been very attracted to the interdisciplinary study Conservation and Restoration at the UvA. Here you combine academic knowledge and technical skills to preserve art. Art has always interested me, especially the ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of art. So yes, this study would have been a serious competitor. In the early nineties, it did not yet exist in this form. So that’s why it was and still is Psychology.

  • Blog Melvin Vooren

    About me 

    Melvin Vooren is a post-doctoral researcher in the field of education sciences at ACLA since June of this year. Melvin has a background in economics, specifically education economics. On January 21st, he will defend his PhD thesis entitled “Essays on Human Capital Formation and Active Labor Market Policies” at the University of Amsterdam. Together with Chris van Klaveren and Ilja Cornelisz from ACLA, Melvin is working on the Comenius Project “Plan for Success”. This is a joint project with VU analytics and the study advisors from the Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences (FGB) and the School of Business and Economics (SBE). The goal of this project is to give FGB and SBE undergraduate students more autonomy in their study planning. In this interview, he will explain more about the project, as well as his research interests.

    What is the Comenius project about?

    Dutch universities have been struggling with attrition and study delay for years. Since the end of the 1990s, Dutch universities have been using academic dismissal policies (in Dutch: bindend studieadvies) in the first year of bachelor programs to reduce attrition and delay in later years. The idea behind this is that by dismissing poor-performing students during the first year of the program, this will decrease attrition and delay in later years. However, interventions to improve study success in later years are scarce and evidence on their effectiveness is limited.

    How is the Comenius project going to improve study success?

    The aim of the Comenius project “Plan for Success” is to increase study success in later years by giving at-risk students more autonomy in their study planning in year two. At-risk students are students who have failed one or more courses in year one. The idea is that by giving them personalized predictions on the probability of passing a course, at-risk students can make a more informed decision on the number of courses they take up at the same time in year two. Our hypothesis is that taking more than two courses at the same time decreases the probability of passing the individual courses, because students will have to divide their time over more courses. In addition to the number of courses to take up, students must decide which courses they prioritize in year two. The Plan for Success platform helps students in their study decisions by feeding back a personalized probability of success for each course in each study plan. A study plan is a combination of courses in a specific period. This feedback is visualized as a percentage ranging between 0 and 100 percent.

    How are these personalized predictions computed?

    Through VU analytics, we have access to a range of data on the student level. Next to several personal characteristics such as age, gender, and information on the student’s previous education, this includes data from the student enrollment and grade administration. This includes performance indicators in year one, such as grades on the individual courses and the number of accumulated credits. We have developed a Machine Learning model that estimates the probability of passing a course. This model has been trained using data from earlier cohorts to provide out-of-sample predictions for the current 2021-2022 cohort. These out-of-sample predictions are calculated with personalized data from the participants. The participants can select courses from a set of courses that includes those from year two and the courses from year one that they have not yet successfully finished. When they select their courses, the participants get to see their personal predicted success rates based on their own personal situation.

    What other research projects are you working on?

    My main research interests are causal inference and out-of-sample predictions. I am interested in health, educational, and labor market outcomes. Currently, I am also working on a project about academic dismissal policies during the Covid-19 crisis together with Chris van Klaveren, Ilja Cornelisz, and Martijn Meeter from ACLA. I am also collaborating on a project about informing workers about their retirement plan through online seminars at a large Dutch pension fund.

     

    Contact details

    Melvin Vooren

    FGB ACLA

    M.Vooren@vu.nl

  • Widening participation in the honours programme

    Honours programmes (HP) are widely offered across the Netherlands to talented and motivated students. Unfortunately, only students with a higher GPA are eligible to participate in the honours programme [1]. There is an assumption that talented students are alike, but starting points are not the same for everyone as some of the students come from less privileged backgrounds and lack of diversity could affect the motivation and participation of such students [2,3]. Selection process like in HP hinders the process of fostering diversity and equity within education. A recent article published at advalvas.vu.nl, titled ‘wie is er bang voor de culturele barometer diversiteit?’, touches upon this issue. The article has stirred conversations on fostering a more diverse and equitable population within the education system.

    Programmes like HP could help in widening participation not only in terms of the number of students but also equal representation from under-represented groups (those from lower-income families, ethnic minorities, first generation students (first in the family to participate in higher education)). Therefore, the student’s selection process for HP needs a re-evaluation to make it more effective, diverse and equitable.

    Why honours programme?
    Honours programmes aim at providing high-achieving and motivated students additional educational opportunities ‘that are more challenging and demanding than regular programs’[4]. Most writing in the field of honours programme premised on the fact that all talented and motivated students will pursue the honours programme. Studies have shown that the honours programme strongly contributes to the research and skills development of the students [5].  It helps the student to build critical thinking skills and creativity.

    But the report shows that there is a lack of representation of students from a non-traditional background in the honours programme. This indicates that the process of fostering intellectual diversity and creativity, which is one of the aims of the programme, is being affected [4]. Therefore, further research is needed in order to examine what factors are playing a role in motivating and demotivating students from participating in the programme. This will also help us to get more insight into what is needed in order to make the programme more accessible and equitable.

    Honours programme research
    In our, Motivation for Honours programme research project, we examine honours students motivation for participation in the honours programme at two universities, VU and UVA. The research especially focuses on the motivation of non-traditional students for the honours programme. Non-traditional students are those who are under-represented in higher education and whose participation may be limited by the lack of socio-economic resources [3].  They include first generations of higher education students (first in the family to participate in higher education), students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, male and ethnic minorities. This research aims to provide an in-depth understanding of how inequalities and lack of diversity are further marginalising the vulnerable section of society. The findings from the research could be valuable to make effective interventions.

    Who do we want to interview in our research?

    • Honours programme students from VU and UVA.
    • Both students with traditional and non-traditional (as defined above) backgrounds.
    • This will help us to show and compare motivation and factors involved in participating in the honours programme in both groups.
    • Students who were eligible to participate in the honours programme but did not enrol.

    The current COVID-19 pandemic might influence the research interview process, therefore we are flexible in conducting both online and face-to-face interviews with the students at their convenient time.

    For more information, please visit our survey, available at: https://vumc.datacoll.nl/sulkrdclpw?l=en

    If you have any questions or would like to participate in our interviews, then we suggest that you put your questions directly to the research team via this email: onderzoekvanonderwijs@vumc.nl

    [1] Wolfensberger, M. V. (2004). Qualities honours students look for in faculty and courses.

    [2] Wouters, A., Croiset, G., & Kusurkar, R. A. (2018). Selection and lottery in medical school admissions: who gains and who loses?. MedEdPublish, 7

    [3] Wouters, A. (2020). Getting to know our non-traditional and rejected medical school applicants. Perspectives on medical education, 9(3), 132-134

    [4] Wolfensberger, M. V., Eijl, P. V., & Pilot, A. (2012). Laboratories for educational innovation: Honors programs in the Netherlands.

    [5] Jansen, E. P. W. A., & Suhre, C. J. M. (2015). Factors influencing students’ perceptions of graduate attribute acquisition in a multidisciplinary honours track in a Dutch university. Higher Education Research & Development, 34(6), 1138-115.

  • Blog Martijn Meeter & Van Vu: Academic motivation: so many theories, so many words

    Blog Martijn Meeter & Van Vu: Academic motivation: so many theories, so many words

    Psychology has too many words. Usually, wordiness is not that bad of a thing (like Trump claiming to have the best words in the world), but for psychology, it is a curse. This is because psychology’s words do not refer to things, they refer to concepts that, with so many of them, can become nebulous. Do short-term memory and working memory refer to the same thing, or not? Articles tend to refer to the one or the other, but is that just preference or do those papers actually investigate different things? This has become such a fog that investigators themselves have resolved to just ignore the distinction. The same holds for selective attention and spatial attention, grit and conscientiousness, temporal preparation and temporal attention, and surely more examples exist.

    It also holds for the field of academic motivation, which has proven very apt at recruiting new words. These may refer to the same thing as other motivation terms, but that may also denote something else. The driving force behind the recruitment of words is theoretical progress – which is of course in and of itself good. To take the first example given above, the term “short-term memory” was introduced when a new framework for short-term remembering was introduced, Baddeley and Hitch’s (1974) working memory theory. The introduction of a new term was apt because Baddeley and Hitch had a wholly different idea about short-term memory than was common before. However, the old term did not die and after a decade or so one needed history lessons to understand the difference between the two.

    The same occurs in the field of motivation. Whereas early versions of self-determination theory (SDT) popularized the earlier distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, newer iterations focus more on that between autonomous and controlled motivation. While for students of SDT the relation between these two dichotomies is clear, others at more distance may observe four terms being used with unclear meanings. The word ‘motivation’ itself is also not as clear as it seems – already in 1981 102 definitions of it had been proposed in scientific papers (Kleinginna & Kleinginna, 1981 ).

    What makes the situation for academic motivation worse than that in other fields, is that the delineation of what should count as a theory of motivation is fluid. In a consensus definition, motivation is that which energizes behavior (Kleinginna & Kleinginna, 1981). So academic motivation would be that which energizes academic behavior – i.e., learning and studying. Being interested can drive a student to learn, so theories of interest formation are arguably theories of academic motivation. Similarly, attribution theories of motivation describe factors that can strengthen or impair one’s wish to study (i.e., attributing success to work vs attributing it externally), and therefore would count. The case for metacognition theory as a theory of motivation is somewhat less clear-cut. Metacognition is thought of as a set of skills, not energizers, but these skills do affect whether one studies or not. They have therefore been included in reviews of academic motivation theories (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002 ).

    For a recent paper, we made a list of theories that others have treated as prominent ones of academic motivation. It can be found here, with for each theory a short summary. In all likelihood, it is highly incomplete, and we’d welcome any suggestions for additions.
    What is already clear, however, is that many theories have used words that denote overlapping concepts (technical term for this problem: Jingle-Jangle fallacies; Marsh, 1994 ). Such as self-efficacy and self-concept, interest, flow and intrinsic motivation, locus of control and attribution of success. Yes, they mean subtly different things, but is scientific progress served by keeping those distinctions alive until one needs a history lesson to grasp them? As researchers, we’d probably do ourselves and educational practice a huge favor by going through our vocabulary with a thick broom.

  • What it's like to study school climate in the US

    What it’s like to study school climate in the US

    Nicolette van Halem & Alissa Postpischil

    Crossing borders can result in great discoveries. Although the travel restrictions with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic are still in place, researchers are crossing borders on a daily basis; not only are they crossing the borders of different disciplines, but also the borders of different cultures. Disciplinary and cultural diversity can encourage us to think more creatively and to come up with ideas that bring us as a society forward. How do we keep this international exchange ongoing, how can we promote it further?
     
    We, as the research institute LEARN!, promote it by celebrating our international research in a series of conversations with researchers who research outside the Netherlands. On the 15th of April, Nicolette van Halem reflected on her experiences during her research on school culture in an urban fringe district in Southern California and how this international exchange helped her to grow as a person and as a researcher. Although the US and the Netherlands are both western cultures and do not appear too different at first sight, Nicolette experienced several cultural barriers and found out quickly that those would affect her research plan in surprising ways. When looking into theory, Erin Meyer states that the US and the Netherlands diverge mainly on the cultural dimensions of evaluating, deciding and disagreeing (see Figure below). In the conversation with Nicolette, we discussed these cultural differences in light of her own experiences.

    Figure 1. Erin Meyers cultural dimensions (2018). A comparison between the US and the Netherlands. 

    The difference in giving and receiving feedback and the importance of a good relationship
     
    Before arriving in the United States, Nicolette had her research plan sorted. She started the collaboration with the impression that her American colleagues were on the same page. Only after arrival, she realized that the research partners were hesitant about sharing particular data, which substantially impacted the initial plans. While she was used to direct feedback from her supervisors in the Netherlands, she experienced first-hand that in the US the feedback was more indirect and a contrasting opinion would be covered in compliments. At the same time, the same communication style allowed for constructive conversations about shared research interests and seminal directions for innovative and multidisciplinary research. It also shifted the attention to the benefits of the partnership on the long term.
     
    What showed from Nicolette her experience is that the specific context of the University and the schools in Southern California also deviate from the global trends described by Erin Meyer. Erin Meyer describes in his cultural dimensions that both the Netherlands and the US tend to be very task-oriented and not as much relationship-oriented in the workplace. Nicolette experiences are rather different. To illustrate, she was invited to a thanks giving party of the chair of the department before they started talking about research. Another example is the strong emphasis on moving in the pace of the schools (instead of the research planning) to ascertain deep levels of trust with the school leaders. It was of great importance to her colleagues to first build a warm relationship and a foundation of trust before moving on with the work. The focus in the department on researching culture, climate, and relationships in school may have contributed too.
     
    Race on the forefront of the US research agenda as well as in daily life
     
    Another topic that was discussed in the conversation with Nicolette is a difference in how researchers in the Netherlands and the US sensitize towards issues related to race, culture, and ethnic background. These issues are at the forefront in the US and were regularly topic of discussion in the department that Nicolette visited. An example is the acknowledgement of land and the attention for the inclusion of native Americans in Higher education. Another example is the ‘Partners at Learning’ project that connects students with underrepresented primary and secondary school pupils. If you are interested in reading more about these topics, you can look up the research of the faculty at the Department of Education Studies at the University of San Diego, California.
     
    Receiving funding to start your own collaboration with US colleagues
     
    Nicolette received the funding for her research position in the US through network activities and shared contacts. Meeting the US partners at an international event was a first important step in discussing the opportunities, timing, and financial resources available to start a research collaboration. A shared passion for school improvement efforts and research-practice partnership catalysed these conversations. About 6 months after meeting each other, concrete preparations for the 12-month period abroad were set in motion.
     
    If you plan to start a collaboration with US colleagues on a research project or conduct research in the US, try to find a local partner first. Local partners can provide you with a network of schools and sometimes have possibilities to finance projects. But even if they do not have the financial means to support your project, US foundations look for projects that include local partners. Whether you would like to apply at the Steve Jobs foundation, Bill & Melinda gates foundation, Spencer or William T. Grant foundation, it will increase your chances when you apply together with a local partner. If you are planning to do a research trip to the US, the Fulbright Schuman foundation or the Marie Curie fellowships are good starting points.
     
    If you are interested in starting a collaborative research project in the US, contact Nicolette van Halem or Prof. Melanie Ehren as they can provide you with many more tips to make it a success.

    Authors: Nicolette van Halem & Alissa Postpischil