Research Methods in Context: Experiments and Education

Experiments are the only method educational researchers can use if they wish observe the effects of one specific variable on student behaviour or outcomes (results).

Experiments are probably conducted more by schools themselves to test out things like new teaching techniques before rolling them out to the whole school, and there are also several examples of policy changes providing us with some examples of ‘natural experiments’, as when academies were introduced, they allowed researchers to compare the performance with LEA schools.

Examples of sociologists going into schools to conduct their own research are a lot rarer, and laboratory experiments on how social factors relate to educational performance are rarer still.

This post provides examples of all ‘four types’ of these experiment. It has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology studying the Methods in Context aspect of the specification.

Field Experiments within Schools by schools themselves

There are a number of variables schools might try to change in order to improve student behaviour, performance, or just to enhance student well-being.

Experimenting with setting and streaming, the gender mix of classrooms, different teaching techniques, online learning, or even the length of the lessons themselves are all possible focuses for small scale experiments.

I discuss this more in this post: experiments within schools.

One of the most extreme field experiments conducted recently was by a school in Devon, in which they subjected some of their students to a Chinese style of teaching, involving Chinese teachers, for a three month period. For more on this, please see this post.

Field Experiments by Sociologists within Schools

The classic field experiment relevant to education is Rosenthal and Jacobsnen’s Pygmalion in the Classroom, in which they set out to measure the impact of high teacher expectation on student performance.

They went into a school, and tested a sample of the students, keeping the actual results hidden from the teachers. They then told the teachers that a randomly selected sample of students were especially gifted (when in reality the students had a range of abilities).

The researchers then left the school, returned some months later and re-tested all the students. They found that the ones who teachers had been told were higher ability had improved at a faster rate than the rest.

The conclusion is that this supports the Self Fulfilling Prophecy Theory, however other repeat experiments have yielded different results.

For more details on this experiment, please see this post

Natural Experiments and Education

There have been two notable government policies which have introduced new school types in recent years: Academies and Free Schools.

We now have several years of data to compare the performance of both of these types of school with regular Local Education Authority schools, which is a natural experiment.

We could also do the same at a global level, by looking at the PISA league tables and then looking at what features the education systems of the top performing countries have in common, if any.

Coronavirus has also provided us with an interesting opportunity to measure the effects of online learning on education. Some recent initial studies report that poorer students are negatively impacted more than wealthier students.

Be careful discussing ‘natural experiments’ in an exam, as we are getting into ‘secondary data’ here rather than pure experiments, but there are links!

Laboratory Experiments relevant to education

There are a couple of interesting historical examples:

Charkin et al (1975) conducted research with a sample of 48 university studetns who each taught a lesson to a 10 year old boy.

One third of the university students were told they boy was highly motivated and intelligent

One third were told he was poorly motivated and with a low IQ

One third were given no information

Charkin et al videod the lessons and found that those in the high expectancy group made more eye contact and used more encouraging body language than the low expectancy group.

This seems to suggest support for labelling theory.

Mason (1973) looked at whether negative or positive expectations had a greater effect.

Teachers were given positive, negative or neutral reports on a pupil. The teachers then observerd video recordings of the pupil taking a test, watching to see if any errors were made, and then asked to predict the pupil’s end of year attainment.

Mason found that the negative reports had a much greater impact on the teachers’ expectations than the positive reports.

A much more recent experiment, aired by the BBC, showed how simply having a mobile phone on a desk lowers the test scores of students. For more details on this, please see this post.

(Source Webb et Al A-level Sociology, Book 1)

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