Can increased activity in PE lessons boost learning in school?
Can increased activity in PE lessons boost learning in school?
Credit: Steve Scott. This image comes from Shutterstock

New research to test ways of improving learning in schools

Two new trials led by Oxford University will investigate whether teenagers would do better in their exams if they could sleep in and start school later, and whether physical fitness can improve academic achievement.

The research is part of a multi-million pound programme, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, to investigate a variety of ways neuroscience might improve teaching and learning in the UK.

Thousands of pupils across England will take part in a series of randomised controlled trials with the aim of providing more robust evidence about how neuroscience relates to learning and support teachers and schools keen to use the science.

Professor Russell Foster, Director of the Oxford University Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, and Professor Colin Espie, Professor of Sleep Medicine, will lead a trial of later school start times, along with a sleep education programme, to assess their impact on teenagers' educational achievement.

Professor Foster said: 'Recent advances in our understanding of the neuroscience of sleep has shown that the body clock of teenagers is delayed. This biology, along with the impact of social media and other sociocultural influences, delays bed and wake times and greatly shortens sleep. Our project will be the first large-scale randomised control trial to explore whether a later start to the school day, along with educational programs regarding the importance of sleep, will have a positive impact upon both academic performance and overall health in the teenage population.'

We think that making PE lessons more active could boost subsequent lesson performance and academic outcomes over a longer time.

Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg

The project will involve around 31,800 pupils in Years 10 and 11 at 106 secondary schools around the country for a period of two years. Schools will be randomly allocated to groups to test the effect of moving start times to 10am and provision of sleep education sessions on the students' GCSE grades.

In another study, Professor Heidi Johansen-Berg from the University of Oxford will lead a trial to look at the effect of medium-to-high cardiovascular activity on academic attainment, using brain imaging to investigate the correlation between them.

It will involve around 10,000 year 8 pupils in schools in Oxfordshire.

Professor Johansen-Berg said: 'Children are living increasingly sedentary lives and there is considerable scope for increasing their activity levels. We all know that exercise is good for the body, but research suggests that it's also good for the brain. We therefore think that making PE lessons more active could boost subsequent lesson performance and academic outcomes over a longer time, but the only way to know for sure is to test the idea. I'm looking forward to working with schools to find out more.'

The two Oxford University-led projects are among six projects awarded grants totalling almost £4 million.

Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education and Learning at the Wellcome Trust, said: 'Our growing understanding of how the brain acquires and processes information has great potential to improve teaching and learning. We know that many teachers are keen to try new approaches based on neuroscience; however, we have so far lacked evidence about what will actually be beneficial to their students. We are delighted to be able to support an exciting range of projects that will test the benefits of educational approaches informed by neuroscience and help to build the evidence base on how to improve educational outcomes.'

Dr Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), said: 'We're delighted to be researching these cutting edge strategies based on the latest knowledge in neuroscience. Our mission at the EEF is to narrow the attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals and their more affluent peers. By funding large scale controlled trials of these interventions and using independent evaluators to assess them we hope to develop a significant body of evidence that can be used by teachers and school leaders to improve attainment, especially for disadvantaged pupils.'

Source: Wellcome Trust