“But It Worked in the Lab!” How Lab Research Misleads Educators

In researching John Hattie’s meta-meta analyses, and digging into the original studies, I discovered one underlying factor that more than anything explains why he consistently comes up with greatly inflated effect sizes:  Most studies in the meta-analyses that he synthesizes are brief, small, artificial lab studies. And lab studies produce very large effect sizes that have little if any relevance to classroom practice.

This discovery reminds me of one of the oldest science jokes in existence: (One scientist to another): “Your treatment worked very well in practice, but how will it work in the lab?” (Or “…in theory?”)

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The point of the joke, of course, is to poke fun at scientists more interested in theory than in practical impacts on real problems. Personally, I have great respect for theory and lab studies. My very first publication as a psychology undergraduate involved an experiment on rats.

Now, however, I work in a rapidly growing field that applies scientific methods to the study and improvement of classroom practice.  In our field, theory also has an important role. But lab studies?  Not so much.

A lab study in education is, in my view, any experiment that tests a treatment so brief, so small, or so artificial that it could never be used all year. Also, an evaluation of any treatment that could never be replicated, such as a technology program in which a graduate student is standing by every four students every day of the experiment, or a tutoring program in which the study author or his or her students provide the tutoring, might be considered a lab study, even if it went on for several months.

Our field exists to try to find practical solutions to practical problems in an applied discipline.  Lab studies have little importance in this process, because they are designed to eliminate all factors other than the variables of interest. A one-hour study in which children are asked to do some task under very constrained circumstances may produce very interesting findings, but cannot recommend practices for real teachers in real classrooms.  Findings of lab studies may suggest practical treatments, but by themselves they never, ever validate practices for classroom use.

Lab studies are almost invariably doomed to success. Their conditions are carefully set up to support a given theory. Because they are small, brief, and highly controlled, they produce huge effect sizes. (Because they are relatively easy and inexpensive to do, it is also very easy to discard them if they do not work out, contributing to the universally reported tendency of studies appearing in published sources to report much higher effects than reports in unpublished sources).  Lab studies are so common not only because researchers believe in them, but also because they are easy and inexpensive to do, while meaningful field experiments are difficult and expensive.   Need a publication?  Randomly assign your college sophomores to two artificial treatments and set up an experiment that cannot fail to show significant differences.  Need a dissertation topic?  Do the same in your third-grade class, or in your friend’s tenth grade English class.  Working with some undergraduates, we once did three lab studies in a single day. All were published. As with my own sophomore rat study, lab experiments are a good opportunity to learn to do research.  But that does not make them relevant to practice, even if they happen to take place in a school building.

By doing meta-analyses, or meta-meta-analyses, Hattie and others who do similar reviews obscure the fact that many and usually most of the studies they include are very brief, very small, and very artificial, and therefore produce very inflated effect sizes.  They do this by covering over the relevant information with numbers and statistics rather than information on individual studies, and by including such large numbers of studies that no one wants to dig deeper into them.  In Hattie’s case, he claims that Visible Learning meta-meta-analyses contain 52,637 individual studies.  Who wants to read 52,637 individual studies, only to find out that most are lab studies and have no direct bearing on classroom practice?  It is difficult for readers to do anything but assume that the 52,637 studies must have taken place in real classrooms, and achieved real outcomes over meaningful periods of time.  But in fact, the few that did this are overwhelmed by the thousands of lab studies that did not.

Educators have a right to data that are meaningful for the practice of education.  Anyone who recommends practices or programs for educators to use needs to be open about where that evidence comes from, so educators can judge for themselves whether or not one-hour or one-week studies under artificial conditions tell them anything about how they should teach. I think the question answers itself.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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John Hattie is Wrong

John Hattie is a professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is famous for a book, Visible Learning, which claims to review every area of research that relates to teaching and learning. He uses a method called “meta-meta-analysis,” averaging effect sizes from many meta-analyses. The book ranks factors from one to 138 in terms of their effect sizes on achievement measures. Hattie is a great speaker, and many educators love the clarity and simplicity of his approach. How wonderful to have every known variable reviewed and ranked!

However, operating on the principle that anything that looks to be too good to be true probably is, I looked into Visible Learning to try to understand why it reports such large effect sizes. My colleague, Marta Pellegrini from the University of Florence (Italy), helped me track down the evidence behind Hattie’s claims. And sure enough, Hattie is profoundly wrong. He is merely shoveling meta-analyses containing massive bias into meta-meta-analyses that reflect the same biases.

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Part of Hattie’s appeal to educators is that his conclusions are so easy to understand. He even uses a system of dials with color-coded “zones,” where effect sizes of 0.00 to +0.15 are designated “developmental effects,” +0.15 to +0.40 “teacher effects” (i.e., what teachers can do without any special practices or programs), and +0.40 to +1.20 the “zone of desired effects.” Hattie makes a big deal of the magical effect size +0.40, the “hinge point,” recommending that educators essentially ignore factors or programs below that point, because they are no better than what teachers produce each year, from fall to spring, on their own. In Hattie’s view, an effect size of from +0.15 to +0.40 is just the effect that “any teacher” could produce, in comparison to students not being in school at all. He says, “When teachers claim that they are having a positive effect on achievement or when a policy improves achievement, this is almost always a trivial claim: Virtually everything works. One only needs a pulse and we can improve achievement.” (Hattie, 2009, p. 16). An effect size of 0.00 to +0.15 is, he estimates, “what students could probably achieve if there were no schooling” (Hattie, 2009, p. 20). Yet this characterization of dials and zones misses the essential meaning of effect sizes, which are rarely used to measure the amount teachers’ students gain from fall to spring, but rather the amount students receiving a given treatment gained in comparison to gains made by similar students in a control group over the same period. So an effect size of, say, +0.15 or +0.25 could be very important.

Hattie’s core claims are these:

  • Almost everything works
  • Any effect size less than +0.40 is ignorable
  • It is possible to meaningfully rank educational factors in comparison to each other by averaging the findings of meta-analyses.

These claims appear appealing, simple, and understandable. But they are also wrong.

The essential problem with Hattie’s meta-meta-analyses is that they accept the results of the underlying meta-analyses without question. Yet many, perhaps most meta-analyses accept all sorts of individual studies of widely varying standards of quality. In Visible Learning, Hattie considers and then discards the possibility that there is anything wrong with individual meta-analyses, specifically rejecting the idea that the methods used in individual studies can greatly bias the findings.

To be fair, a great deal has been learned about the degree to which particular study characteristics bias study findings, always in a positive (i.e., inflated) direction. For example, there is now overwhelming evidence that effect sizes are significantly inflated in studies with small sample sizes, brief durations, use measures made by researchers or developers, are published (vs. unpublished), or use quasi-experiments (vs. randomized experiments) (Cheung & Slavin, 2016). Many meta-analyses even include pre-post studies, or studies that do not have pretests, or have pretest differences but fail to control for them. For example, I once criticized a meta-analysis of gifted education in which some studies compared students accepted into gifted programs to students rejected for those programs, controlling for nothing!

A huge problem with meta-meta-analysis is that until recently, meta-analysts rarely screened individual studies to remove those with fatal methodological flaws. Hattie himself rejects this procedure: “There is…no reason to throw out studies automatically because of lower quality” (Hattie, 2009, p. 11).

In order to understand what is going on in the underlying meta-analyses in a meta-meta-analysis, is it crucial to look all the way down to the individual studies. As a point of illustration, I examined Hattie’s own meta-meta-analysis of feedback, his third ranked factor, with a mean effect size of +0.79. Hattie & Timperly (2007) located 12 meta-analyses. I found some of the ones with the highest mean effect sizes.

At a mean of +1.24, the meta-analysis with the largest effect size in the Hattie & Timperley (2007) review was a review of research on various reinforcement treatments for students in special education by Skiba, Casey, & Center (1985-86). The reviewers required use of single-subject designs, so the review consisted of a total of 35 students treated one at a time, across 25 studies. Yet it is known that single-subject designs produce much larger effect sizes than ordinary group designs (see What Works Clearinghouse, 2017).

The second-highest effect size, +1.13, was from a meta-analysis by Lysakowski & Walberg (1982), on instructional cues, participation, and corrective feedback. Not enough information is provided to understand the individual studies, but there is one interesting note. A study using a single-subject design, involving two students, had an effect size of 11.81. That is the equivalent of raising a child’s IQ from 100 to 277! It was “winsorized” to the next-highest value of 4.99 (which is like adding 75 IQ points). Many of the studies were correlational, with no controls for inputs, or had no control group, or were pre-post designs.

A meta-analysis by Rummel and Feinberg (1988), with a reported effect size of +0.60, is perhaps the most humorous inclusion in the Hattie & Timperley (2007) meta-meta-analysis. It consists entirely of brief lab studies of the degree to which being paid or otherwise reinforced for engaging in an activity that was already intrinsically motivating would reduce subjects’ later participation in that activity. Rummel & Feinberg (1988) reported a positive effect size if subjects later did less of the activity they were paid to do. The reviewers decided to code studies positively if their findings corresponded to the theory (i.e., that feedback and reinforcement reduce later participation in previously favored activities), but in fact their “positive” effect size of +0.60 indicates a negative effect of feedback on performance.

I could go on (and on), but I think you get the point. Hattie’s meta-meta-analyses grab big numbers from meta-analyses of all kinds with little regard to the meaning or quality of the original studies, or of the meta-analyses.

If you are familiar with the What Works Clearinghouse (2007), or our own Best-Evidence Syntheses (www.bestevidence.org) or Evidence for ESSA (www.evidenceforessa.org), you will know that individual studies, except for studies of one-to-one tutoring, almost never have effect sizes as large as +0.40, Hattie’s “hinge point.” This is because WWC, BEE, and Evidence for ESSA all very carefully screen individual studies. We require control groups, controls for pretests, minimum sample sizes and durations, and measures independent of the treatments. Hattie applies no such standards, and in fact proclaims that they are not necessary.

It is possible, in fact essential, to make genuine progress using high-quality rigorous research to inform educational decisions. But first we must agree on what standards to apply.  Modest effect sizes from studies of practical treatments in real classrooms over meaningful periods of time on measures independent of the treatments tell us how much a replicable treatment will actually improve student achievement, in comparison to what would have been achieved otherwise. I would much rather use a program with an effect size of +0.15 from such studies than to use programs or practices found in studies with major flaws to have effect sizes of +0.79. If they understand the situation, I’m sure all educators would agree with me.

To create information that is fair and meaningful, meta-analysts cannot include studies of unknown and mostly low quality. Instead, they need to apply consistent standards of quality for each study, to look carefully at each one and judge its freedom from bias and major methodological flaws, as well as its relevance to practice. A meta-analysis cannot be any better than the studies that go into it. Hattie’s claims are deeply misleading because they are based on meta-analyses that themselves accepted studies of all levels of quality.

Evidence matters in education, now more than ever. Yet Hattie and others who uncritically accept all studies, good and bad, are undermining the value of evidence. This needs to stop if we are to make solid progress in educational practice and policy.

References

Cheung, A., & Slavin, R. (2016). How methodological features affect effect sizes in education. Educational Researcher, 45 (5), 283-292.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77 (1), 81-112.

Lysakowski, R., & Walberg, H. (1982). Instructional effects of cues, participation, and corrective feedback: A quantitative synthesis. American Educational Research Journal, 19 (4), 559-578.

Rummel, A., & Feinberg, R. (1988). Cognitive evaluation theory: A review of the literature. Social Behavior and Personality, 16 (2), 147-164.

Skiba, R., Casey, A., & Center, B. (1985-86). Nonaversive procedures I the treatment of classroom behavior problems. The Journal of Special Education, 19 (4), 459-481.

What Works Clearinghouse (2017). Procedures handbook 4.0. Washington, DC: Author.

Photo credit: U.S. Farm Security Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

 

Fads and Evidence in Education

York, England, has a famous racecourse. When I lived there I never saw a horse race, but I did see women in town for the race all dressed up and wearing very strange contraptions in their hair, called fascinators. The picture below shows a couple of examples. They could be twisted pieces of metal or wire or feathers or just about anything as long as they were . . . well, fascinating. The women paraded down Mickelgate, York’s main street, showing off their fancy clothes and especially, I’d guess, their fascinators.

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The reason I bring up fascinators is to contrast the world of fashion and the world of science. In fashion, change happens constantly, but it is usually change for the sake of change. Fascinators, I’d assume, derived from hats, which women have been wearing to fancy horse races as long as there have been fancy horse races. Hats themselves change all the time. I’m guessing that what’s fascinating about a fascinator is that it maintains the concept of a racing-day hat in the most minimalist way possible, almost mocking the hat tradition while at the same time honoring it. The point is, fascinators get thinner because hats used to be giant, floral contraptions. In art, there was realism and then there were all sorts of non-realism. In music there was Frank Sinatra and then Elvis and then Beatles and then disco. Eventually there was hip hop. Change happens, but it’s all about taste. People get tired of what once was popular, so something new comes along.

Science-based fields have a totally different pattern of change. In medicine, engineering, agriculture, and other fields, evidence guides changes. These fields are not 100% fad-free, but ultimately, on big issues, evidence wins out. In these fields, there is plenty of high-quality evidence, and there are very serious consequences for making or not making evidence-based policies and practices. If someone develops an artificial heart valve that is 2% more effective than the existing valves, with no more side effects, surgeons will move toward that valve to save lives (and avoid lawsuits).

In education, which model do we follow? Very, very slowly we are beginning to consider evidence. But most often, our model of change is more like the fascinators. New trends in education take the schools by storm, and often a few years later, the opposite policy or practice will become popular. Over long periods, very similar policies and practices keep appearing, disappearing, and reappearing, perhaps under a different name.

It’s not that we don’t have evidence. We do, and more keeps coming every year. Yet our profession, by and large, prefers to rush from one enthusiasm to another, without the slightest interest in evidence.

Here’s an exercise you might enjoy. List the top ten things schools and districts are emphasizing right now. Put your list into a “time capsule” envelope and file it somewhere. Then take it out in five years, and then ten years. Will those same things be the emphasis in schools in districts then? To really punish yourself, write the NAEP reading and math scores overall and by ethnic groups at fourth and eighth grade. Will those scores be a lot better in five or ten years? Will gaps be diminishing? Not if current trends continue and if we continue to give only lip service to evidence.

Change + no evidence = fashion

Change + evidence = systematic improvement

We can make a different choice. But it will take real leadership. Until that leadership appears, we’ll be doing what we’ve always done, and the results will not change.

Isn’t that fascinating?

Photo credit: Both photos by Chris Phutully [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

Meta-Analysis and Its Discontents

Everyone loves meta-analyses. We did an analysis of the most frequently opened articles on Best Evidence in Brief. Almost all of the most popular were meta-analyses. What’s so great about meta-analyses is that they condense a lot of evidence and synthesize it, so instead of just one study that might be atypical or incorrect, a meta-analysis seems authoritative, because it averages many individual studies to find the true effect of a given treatment or variable.

Meta-analyses can be wonderful summaries of useful information. But today I wanted to discuss how they can be misleading. Very misleading.

The problem is that there are no norms among journal editors or meta-analysts themselves about standards for including studies or, perhaps most importantly, how much or what kind of information needs to be reported about each individual study in a meta-analysis. Some meta-analyses are completely statistical. They report all sorts of statistics and very detailed information on exactly how the search for articles took place, but never say anything about even a single study. This is a problem for many reasons. Readers may have no real understanding of what the studies really say. Even if citations for the included studies are available, only a very motivated reader is going to go find any of them. Most meta-analyses do have a table listing studies, but the information in the table may be idiosyncratic or limited.

One reason all of this matters is that without clear information on each study, readers can be easily misled. I remember encountering this when meta-analysis first became popular in the 1980s. Gene Glass, who coined the very term, proposed some foundational procedures, and popularized the methods. Early on, he applied meta-analysis to determine the effects of class size, which by then had been studied several times and found to matter very little except in first grade. Reducing “class size” to one (i.e., one-to-one tutoring) also was known to make a big difference, but few people would include one-to-one tutoring in a review of class size. But Glass and Smith (1978) found a much higher effect, not limited to first grade or tutoring. It was a big deal at the time.

I wanted to understand what happened. I bought and read Glass’ book on class size, but it was nearly impossible to tell what had happened. But then I found in an obscure appendix a distribution of effect sizes. Most studies had effect sizes near zero, as I expected. But one had a huge effect size, of +1.25! It was hard to tell which particular study accounted for this amazing effect but I searched by process of elimination and finally found it.

It was a study of tennis.

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The outcome measure was the ability to “rally a ball against a wall so many times in 30 seconds.” Not surprisingly, when there were “large class sizes,” most students got very few chances to practice, while in “small class sizes,” they did.

If you removed the clearly irrelevant tennis study, the average effect size for class sizes (other than tutoring) dropped to near zero, as reported in all other reviews (Slavin, 1989).

The problem went way beyond class size, of course. What was important, to me at least, was that Glass’ presentation of the data made it very difficult to find out what was really going on. He had attractive and compelling graphs and charts showing effects of class size, but they all depended on the one tennis study, and there was no easy way to find out.

Because of this review and several others appearing in the 1980s, I wrote an article criticizing numbers–only meta-analyses and arguing that reviewers should show all of the relevant information about the studies in their meta-analyses, and should even describe each study briefly to help readers understand what was happening. I made up a name for this, “best-evidence synthesis” (Slavin, 1986).

Neither the term nor the concept really took hold, I’m sad to say. You still see meta-analyses all the time that do not tell readers enough for them to know what’s really going on. Yet several developments have made the argument for something like best-evidence synthesis a lot more compelling.

One development is the increasing evidence that methodological features can be strongly correlated with effect sizes (Cheung & Slavin, 2016). The evidence is now overwhelming that effect sizes are greatly inflated when sample sizes are small, when study durations are brief, when measures are made by developers or researchers, or when quasi-experiments rather than randomized experiments are used, for example. Many meta-analyses check for the effects of these and other study characteristics, and may make adjustments if there are significant differences. But this is not sufficient, because in a particular meta-analysis, there may not be enough studies to make any study-level factors significant. For example, if Glass had tested “tennis vs. non-tennis,” there would have been no significant difference, because there was only one tennis study. Yet that one study dominated the means anyway. Eliminating studies using, for example, researcher/developer-made measures or very small sample sizes or very brief durations is one way to remove bias from meta-analyses, and this is what we do in our reviews. But at bare minimum, it is important to have enough information available in tables to enable readers or journal reviewers to look for such biasing factors so they can recompute or at least understand the main effects if they are so inclined.

The second development that makes it important to require more information on individual studies in meta-analyses is the increased popularity of meta-meta-analyses, where the average effect sizes from whole meta-analyses are averaged. These have even more potential for trouble than the worst statistics-only reviews, because it is extremely unlikely that many readers will follow the citations to each included meta-analysis and then follow those citations to look for individual studies. It would be awfully helpful if readers or reviewers could trust the individual meta-analyses (and therefore their averages), or at least see for themselves.

As evidence takes on greater importance, this would be a good time to discuss reasonable standards for meta-analyses. Otherwise, we’ll be rallying balls uselessly against walls forever.

References

Cheung, A., & Slavin, R. (2016). How methodological features affect effect sizes in education. Educational Researcher, 45 (5), 283-292

Glass, G., & Smith, M. L. (1978). Meta-Analysis of research on the relationship of class size and achievement. San Francisco: Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development.

Slavin, R.E. (1986). Best-evidence synthesis: An alternative to meta-analytic and traditional reviews. Educational Researcher, 15 (9), 5-11.

Slavin, R. E. (1989). Class size and student achievement:  Small effects of small classes. Educational Psychologist, 24, 99-110.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.