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Education Research Highlights From 2015

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2015 was a great year for education research. fMRI technology gave us new insight into how exercise can improve math ability by changing the structure of children's brains (#13 below). We saw how Sesame Street's 40-year history has made an impact on preparing young children for school (#7). Several studies reinforced the importance of social and emotional learning for students (#2, 5, and 9). Two must-read publications were released to help educators understand how students learn (#4 and 11). Here are 15 studies published this year that every educator should know about.

1. Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Learning

A classroom's physical learning space makes a difference in how well students learn. In this study of 27 schools in England, researchers found that improving a primary classroom’s physical design, including lighting, layout, and decorations, can improve academic performance by as much as 16 percent (although too many decorations can be a distraction).

2. The Benefits of Being Kind Last From Kindergarten to Adulthood

Kindness matters. Kindergarten students who share, help others, and show empathy are more likely to have personal, educational, and career success as adults, finds this study that tracked 753 children from 1991 to 2010.

3. Theatre Programs Help Students With Autism

Did you know that participating in theatre programs can help students with autism learn to play in groups, communicate with others, and recognize faces? These are the findings of a study by researchers from Vanderbilt University.

4. The Science of Learning

If you’re looking for an excellent review of research on how students learn, check out The Science of Learning. Drawing from cognitive science, this report breaks down the research into six principles with a full reference list and teaching tips.

5. Investing $1 in Social and Emotional Learning Yields $11 in Long-Term Benefits

We know that SEL has tremendous benefits for student learning, but what are the long-term economic benefits? Researchers analyzed the economic impact of six widely-used SEL programs and found that on average, every dollar invested yields $11 in long-term benefits, ranging from reduced juvenile crime, higher lifetime earnings, and better mental and physical health.

6. Low-Income Students Now a Majority

51 percent of the students across the nation’s public schools now come from low-income families.

7. Sesame Street Boosts Learning for Preschool Children

Sesame Street was introduced over 40 years ago an educational program to help prepare children for school. Examining census data, researchers discovered that preschool-aged children in areas with better reception did better in school. Children living in poorer neighborhoods experienced the largest gains in school performance.

8. Don’t Assign More Than 70 Minutes of Homework

For middle school students, assigning up to 70 minutes of daily math and science homework was beneficial, but assigning more than 90-100 minutes resulted in a decline in academic performance. Read more about the research on homework.

9. Mindfulness Exercises Boost Math Scores

Mindfulness exercises help students feel more positive, and a new study found that it can also boost math performance. Elementary school students that participated in a mindfulness program had 15 percent better math scores, in addition to several emotional and psychological benefits.

10. Boys Get Higher Math Scores When Graded by Teachers Who Know Their Names

In this Israeli study, middle and high school students were randomly assigned to be graded anonymously or by teachers who knew their names. Despite performing worse than girls in math when graded anonymously, boys had better scores when teachers knew who they were.

11. Top Psychology Principles Every Teacher Should Know

How do students think and learn? The American Psychological Association sought to answer this question with the help of experts across a wide variety of psychological fields. The result: 20 science-backed principles that explain how social and behavioral factors influence learning.

12. To Help Students With ADHD Concentrate, Let Them Fidget

Since hyperactivity can be a natural state for students with ADHD, preventing them from fidgeting can hurt their ability to stay focused. For tips on how to let students fidget quietly, check out 17 Ways to Help Students With ADHD Concentrate.

13. The Neuroscience Behind Exercise and Math Ability

Research shows that exercise has a positive effect on learning, but studies generally tend to be observational. With the use of fMRI technology, however, researchers have gained new insight into how people learn. A team of scientists examined the brain structures of children and found that when young children exercise, their brains produce a thinner layer of cortical gray matter, which can lead to stronger math skills.

14. The Benefits of a Positive Message Home

Getting parents more involved in their child’s education is a great way to boost student learning. When teachers sent short weekly messages to parents with tips on how their kids could improve, it led to higher-quality home discussions and cut course dropout rates by almost half.

15. When Teachers Collaborate, Math and Reading Scores Go Up

Teaching can feel like an isolating profession, but this new study shows that working in groups -- especially instructional teams -- can boost student learning.

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Junaid Mubeen's picture
Junaid Mubeen
Head of Product at Whizz Education

Many thanks Youki; this is an incredibly helpful list! Can you give some sense of your criteria for choosing these studies over others, and also how one can quickly and reliably gauge how credible they are within the research community (e.g. by reputation of journal, peer review...)?

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Hi Junaid,

Thank you! As you mentioned, I generally look at a journal's reputation and whether it's peer-reviewed to gauge how credible a study is. More specifically, I look for a journal's impact factor, which is the average numbers of times that an article is cited by other journals over a 2-year period. Here's an example, from one of the most-cited journals in education research:

Its impact factor is 3.897. I generally look for an impact factor of at least 1.0.

This is a handy website for looking up a journal's impact factor: Impact factors are also often shown on a journal's website.

For non-journal research (such as reports or white papers), I generally look at the quality of the report and the publishing organization. A good report will have citations, such as The Science of Learning ( Also, a publication from a well-known organization such as the American Psychological Association will typically be high-quality (

A journal's impact factor or a report's publishing organization will let me know how credible the research is, but it won't let me know how much of an impact it has on our audience. For that, I look at other forms of Edutopia content. For example, many of the studies on this list are shared with our audience through our "Did You Know" image series:

By seeing how popular the image is and by reading the comments, I can gauge how well-received the research is.

Also, I regularly read Edweek, Mindshift, Hechinger Report, and other publications to stay up-to-date on educational trends. ASCD Smartbrief is an excellent, free resource that curates education news.

Hope that answers your question -- let me know if there's anything else I can help you with!

Junaid Mubeen's picture
Junaid Mubeen
Head of Product at Whizz Education

Thank you for your informative reply Youki - worthy of a post in itself! Research is thrown at the education community with too little attention paid to the variation in quality and rigour. It doesn't help that there does not appear to be a consensus within the community on what constitutes sound research. Your summary is very useful as a filter and one I'll be sure to keep in mind as I browse through claims of evidence.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Hi Chris,

Thanks for sharing your analysis of the study. Your discussion of outlier data points is fascinating, and I hope that the authors respond to the comment you left on the article's website. If the study authors revise or retract their article, I'll update my list accordingly.

Shawn Canney's picture
Shawn Canney
English Teacher- PBL American Discourse and Drama and ADE 

This is a great list! Thanks for putting it together.

Nadean's picture

Another GREAT book is The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain
by Dr.Kevin D. Washburn

M. Shane Tutwiler's picture
M. Shane Tutwiler
Educational researcher and stats lecturer at Harvard

Solid list. However, I worry about making global recommendations when many of these studies were conducted on non-representative samples that don't generalize to the "population at large."

DonBuchanan's picture

Good compilation, and a solid methodology for inclusion of articles. Any thoughts on turning this into a regular feature ("top 3 education articles this month?"). I spend 3-4 hours weekly plowing through Journal TOC's Alerts to share with educators, but am finding few systematic reviews or other knowledge synthesis work.

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