Preventing depression in secondary school pupils

Helen Christensen and colleagues conducted a cluster randomised trial to investigate the effectiveness of an intervention for the prevention of depression in secondary school pupils.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, reported on the results of a trial of the SPARX-R programme, a gamified online cognitive behaviour intervention that is delivered to pupils prior to facing a significant stressor – in this case final secondary school exams.

A total of 540 final-year pupils from 10 secondary schools in Sydney, Australia, took part and clusters at the school level were randomly allocated to SPARX-R or the control intervention (lifeSTYLE, an online interactive control programme). Interventions were delivered weekly in class under teacher supervision, in seven 20- to 30-minute modules. Symptoms of depression were measured by the Major Depression Inventory (MDI).

Pupils in the SPARX-R group showed a greater reduction in MDI scores than those in the control group, both post-intervention and at the 6-month follow-up. Effect sizes were small post-intervention (+0.29) and at the 6-month (+0.21) and 18-month follow-ups (+0.33).

Source: Preventing depression in final year secondary students: school-based randomized controlled trial (November 2017), Journal of Medical Internet Research, vol 19 (11).

Impact of secondary school mindfulness programmes

Catherine Johnson and colleagues carried out a randomised controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness programme (called “.b mindfulness” for “Stop, Breathe and Be!”) to measure impact on self-reported measures of anxiety, depression, weight/shape concerns, well-being and mindfulness.

Five hundred and fifty-five pupils in four secondary schools in South Australia participated (mean age = 13.44 years). Pupils were assigned using a cluster (class-based) randomised controlled design to one of three conditions: the nine-week mindfulness curriculum, the nine-week mindfulness curriculum with parental involvement, or a control (business-as-usual) curriculum.

The evaluation found no differences between the mindfulness groups with or without parental involvement and the control group at post-intervention or at the six- and twelve-month follow-up. The researchers conclude that further research is required to identify the optimal age, content, and length of programmes delivering mindfulness to teenagers.

Source: A randomized controlled evaluation of a secondary school mindfulness program for early adolescents: Do we have the recipe right yet? (September 2017), Behaviour Research and Therapy, Vol 99

Unpacking the evidence on cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory – the theory of how the human brain learns and stores knowledge – is supported by a number of randomised controlled trials and has significant implications for teaching practice.  A report from the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in New South Wales, Australia, examines the existing research on cognitive load theory and what it looks like in practice. The first part of the report explains how human brains learn according to cognitive load theory, and outlines the evidence base for the theory. The second part examines the implication of cognitive load theory for teaching practice and describes some recommendations that are directly transferable to the classroom. These include:

  • Worked example effect – pupils are shown a problem that has already been solved (a “worked example”), with every step fully explained and clearly shown. Pupils who are taught using lots of worked examples learn more quickly than pupils who are asked to solve the problems themselves.
  • Modality effect – evidence suggests that working memory can be sub-divided into auditory and visual streams, so presenting information using both these methods of communication can increase working memory capacity – for example, when using a diagram and text to explain something, the written text can be communicated in spoken form.

Source: Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand (August 2017) Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation

Baby simulators lead to tears

A study by Sally Brinkman and colleagues presents the first randomised controlled trial assessing the effectiveness of infant simulator programmes on teenage pregnancy in Australia.

The Virtual Infant Parenting (VIP) programme uses dolls that mimic the need of a baby in terms of feeding and diaper changing through crying, and are meant to show the challenges of looking after a real baby. The infant simulators were given to 1,567 girls aged 13 to 15 years old in the intervention group (28 schools), while 1,267 girls of the same age in the control group (29 schools) received the standard health education curriculum. Participants were followed until they were age 20 via data linkage to medical records.

The study showed that the infant simulator programme did not reduce the risk of pregnancy in teenage girls. Compared with girls in the control group, a higher proportion of girls in the intervention group recorded at least one birth: 97 (8%) of 1,267 girls in the intervention group vs. 67 (4%) of 1,567 girls in the control group. After adjusting for potential confounders, girls in the intervention group actually had a higher overall pregnancy risk than those in the control group (relative risk 1.36).

Source: Efficacy of Infant Simulator Programmes to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy: A School-based Cluster Randomised Controlled Trial in Western Australia (2016), The Lancet

Gamers score higher on PISA than social media climbers

A recent study by Alberto Posso at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology examined the pattern of teenagers’ internet usage and its relationship to their reading, maths, and science scores on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

PISA is an international survey used to analyse educational systems based on 15-year-old students’ performance in reading, math, and science in randomly chosen schools. The PISA survey also collects information on how often teens use technology and for what purpose, as well as household information such as parents’ education and occupations.

After analysing the scores of 12,000 Australian high school students in the most recent 2012 survey, and after controlling for differences such as socioeconomic status, parents’ education, and other variables that might affect students’ educational outcomes, teenagers who played video games on a regular basis scored 15 points above average in maths and reading and 17 points above average in science, while teenagers who used social media daily scored 4% below average in maths. The article discusses the possible reasons for this disparity, including the fact that certain video games require students to apply academic knowledge to progress to higher levels. Social media use, however, reinforces little academic knowledge and can eat into studying time.

Source: Internet Usage and Educational Outcomes Among 15-Year-Old Australian Students (2016), International Journal of Communication

Schools need more than just autonomy to improve standards

A new report from Australia’s Grattan Institute uses data from two international surveys conducted by the OECD – the Programme for International School Assessment (PISA) and the Teaching and Learning International Survey – to explore a number of issues around standards, including whether giving schools more autonomy can improve achievement.

The report concludes that the link between high autonomy and high performance is weak. Instead, the world’s best-performing school systems articulate the best ways to teach and learn, then implement reform through high-quality systems of teacher development, appraisal, and feedback, among other policies. Autonomous schools in Australia and other countries, they say, are no better at implementing these programmes than are centralised schools.