Using Twitter to recruit research participants

student-849825_1280Participant recruitment, particularly if you need large sample sizes, can be a difficult and initially daunting task.  Over the last few years, I’ve collected a few different ways of recruiting participants for online studies, so I thought it was about time I brought them together into a blog post in case they can be helpful to anyone else.

One caveat I will add is that I am primarily a psychology/health sciences researcher, so you may find that some methods are tailored more closely to that field – but hopefully these will still give you some starting points even if you are outside the social sciences.  Also, I have only ever used these methods for recruiting relatively heterogeneous general population samples.  If you have very specific inclusion or exclusion criteria, you may find their efficacy slightly different.

One of the most effective channels for me has been in creating and maintaining an academic social media presence, specifically on Twitter.  I love academic Twitter for a whole host of reasons (which could probably fill an entirely separate blog post), but it is also one of the main ways that I have recruited participants to my research in the past.

Studies have found that social media can be an effective vehicle for recruitment to online research, both if you’re looking to recruit a varied sample of participants1 or engage more specialised, hard-to-reach, populations (where requesting retweets of a study URL within established Twitter communities relevant to the population you’re interested in has been shown to create an effect similar to traditional snowball sampling techniques).2  One word of warning, though: Some studies have suggested that samples recruited through social media are more likely to be female and to have a higher socioeconomic status,3 so you need to bear this in mind.

I’m going to talk predominantly about Twitter here, because that’s what I’ve used the most, mainly because the way it works allows you access to anybody, theoretically, whereas your reach on Facebook is, in the main, limited to your friends.  One of the key things about using Twitter for participant recruitment is to have a lot of followers – but you’re not going to be able to create that overnight, and you’re also not going to be able to create that if you only ever tweet calls for participants.

I first heard about using Twitter as a vehicle for participant recruitment when I was a 2nd year undergraduate in 2014 and I was trying to recruit for a sexual fluidity study I was conducting.  I set my account up at that point, but had very few followers and consequently it wasn’t much use for recruitment straight away.  Over time I started to get more followers – I think I’ll write a separate post about the ins and outs of this, but I’m certain a quick Google would give you more information on how to do this if you’re unsure.  In short, the easiest way to get more followers is to a) Follow other people; and b) Post varied content that is going to be interesting to the kind of follower base you’re trying to build – so that means more than just calls for participants.  However, this doesn’t mean that everything needs to be high-brow discussion of research papers:

I digress. So anyway, if you have Twitter and you have a decent following, you’re onto a winner.  If you don’t, both of those things can be rectified with a bit of time and engagement.  Assuming you do have both those things, you can increase the reach of your posts by adding images and relevant hashtags (which have been found to increase how frequently a post is shared by 35% and 16% respectively).4  There are also certain times of the day and week that are thought to be optimal for user engagement,5 although I’m less sure about whether that had much of an effect in my case.

So, to sum up – Twitter can be a raging dumpster fire of unpleasantness, but if you know where to look (and get good at blocking those who ruin the vibe for everyone) then it can actually be a fantastic resource for academics to network and recruit research participants.  It can take a while to get your head around if you’re not used to it, but I’d very much encourage you to create an account and give it a go!

This post is the first in a planned series about recruitment methods – I’ll post the links to the others as they become available.


Standing up for Science resources

In addition to my three-part series reporting on a Standing up for Science media workshop organised by Voice of Young Science (VoYS), below are some resources that have been provided by Sense about Science and the day’s panellists to help researchers to engage in science communication and outreach.

Resources1purpleVoice of Young Science (VOYS) campaigns

Mythbusting and evidence hunting campaigns that have been run by VOYS.  These include projects such as The Detox Dossier (looking at evidence behind claims made by detox products and diets), Haven’t the Foggiest (discussing the evidence behind extreme weather stories) and a letter to the World Health Organisation about homeopathy in developing countries.

Voice of Young Science publications

Standing up for Science (2006)
A lively and informal guide to the media written by VoYS members for other early career researchers

Standing up for Science 2: The nuts and bolts (2008)
More tips for early career researchers on how to talk to the media and stand up for science in public life

Peer review: The nuts and bolts (2012)
A guide to peer review written by early career researchers for early career researchers

Ask for Evidence

The Ask for Evidence campaign, which helps people request for themselves the evidence behind news stories, marketing claims and policies, and the Ask for Evidence ambassadors.

Sense about Science guides

I don’t know what to believe (2005)
Explains how scientists present and judge research using the peer-review process, and how the public can make sense of science stories

Making sense of statistics (2010)
How can you work out what the figures might be telling you?

I’ve got nothing to lose by trying it (2nd edition, 2013)
Every day there are news reports about medical breakthroughs and wonder drugs. How can we make sense of these stories?

Making sense of uncertainty (2013)
In public discussion, scientific uncertainty is often presented as a deficiency of research.  In reality, it’s an essential part of scientific research.

Other links and resources

The Plant Science Panel
50+ independent researchers who will answer questions from the public about plants, agriculture, and the environment

The John Maddox Prize for standing up for science
The prize recognises the work of individuals who promote sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, facing difficulty or hostility in doing so.

How to start Standing up for Science
Article by Dr Leah Fitzsimmons, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham and Sense about Science panellist

Resources1purpleUnderstanding Animal Research
A not-for-profit organisation that explains why animals are used in medical and scientific research.

The Science Media Centre
An independent press office helping to ensure that the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise through the news media when science hits the headlines

Full Fact
The UK’s independent factchecking charity. Provides free tools, information and advice so that anyone can check the claims they hear from politicians and the media.

PSci-com mailing list
A list to provide a forum for discussion of any matter relating to public communication of science and public engagement with science

The Brilliant Club
Charity that exists to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds progressing to highly selective universities

scienceengagementPint of Science
Festival that aims to deliver interesting and relevant talks on the latest science in an accessible format to the public – mainly across bars and pubs

A communications competition designed to engage and entertain by breaking down science, technology and engineering concepts into three minute presentations

Cafe Scientifique
A place where anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in STEM.  Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and theatres.

Three Minute Thesis
Competition to cultivate academic, presentation, and research communication skills by effectively explaining research in three minutes, in a language appropriate to a non-specialist audience

British Science Association Media Fellowships
Provides the unique opportunity for practising scientists, clinicians and engineers to spend 2-6 weeks working at the heart of a media outlet such as the Guardian, BBC Breakfast or the Londonist

Royal Society pairing scheme
Each year, thirty research scientists are paired with UK parliamentarians and civil servants.  They learn about each other’s work by spending time together in Westminster and the researcher’s institutions

STEM Ambassadors
Volunteer your time, enthusiasm and experiences to encourage and inspire young people to achieve more and progress further in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

I’m a scientist, get me out of here
A free online event where school students meet and interact with scientists.  It’s an X Factor-style competition between scientists, where students are the judges.

A group of people that are passionate about celebrating women in science and passing on their love of science to the next generation

The Big Bang Fair
The largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for young people in the UK

Students 4 Best Evidence
A network for students interested in evidence-based healthcare

ArticlespurpleThe secrets of good science writing
Series published by The Guardian.  Articles include How to report from a science conference and How to write a science news story based on a research paper.

Nine ways scientists can help improve science journalism
Article published by The Guardian in 2012

BlogspurpleThe Conversation
Academic rigour, journalistic flair blogs
Blogs from Nature, the home of high impact scientific and medical information

Scientific engagement in the age of social media
Reflecting on the use of social media and blogging to rapidly engage a wide, international, audience

You can find my posts on each panel at the following links:

Part One – Standing up for science: “Be brave, but not foolish”
This post reports on the first panel of the day, featuring three researchers from the University of Warwick who have experience of engaging with the media and the public

Part Two – “Be excited about your work!”: What journalists are looking for from researchers
This post reports on the second panel, featuring three journalists who discussed what they are looking for from researchers who want to engage with the media

Part Three – Standing up for science: The nuts and bolts
This post reports on the final panel of the day, featuring panellists who gave advice and practical guidance about how early career researchers can get their voices heard in the media



Standing up for science: The nuts and bolts

This post is the final part of a three-part series reporting on a media workshop I attended at the end of June.  The workshop was organised by Voice of Young Science (VOYS), and aimed to help early career researchers effectively engage with the media about science and research.

In this post, I report on the final panel of the day: Standing up for science – the nuts and bolts.  This panel featured Luke Walton (@Luke_Walton), international press officer at the University of Warwick; Leah Fitzsimmons (@barbs86uk), postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Birmingham; and Chris Peters (@senseaboutsci), scientific affairs manager at Sense about Science.  The panellists opened by giving some introductory advice and practical guidance about how early career researchers can get their voices heard in the media.

Panel 3b
Panellists offer practical guidance to early career researchers looking to engage with the media (Photo credit: Sense about Science)

Luke began by saying that academics should ‘start from the end’ when they are thinking about engaging with the media – that is, turn an academic paper on its head and focus on the conclusions first.  He said that the press office at your university will manage the process of writing a press release, but that nothing will be sent out without the researcher’s final approval.  He said that if something is about to be published, that is a good time to get in touch with your university’s press office, but equally, you can also approach them about being on a list of experts that can be called upon to comment on the latest news.

Leah then went on to say that many researchers (particularly early career researchers) might think “Who am I to comment on this?”, but advised that if you have expertise in an area and your training gives you enough insight to comment, then you are qualified to comment, even if your research isn’t necessarily on that exact topic.  Luke also noted later on that, when talking about your research, you know more than most other people in the world – stick to what you know, and stick to the facts.

Chris then went on to introduce the Ask for Evidence campaign.  He said that AfE exists to support you in asking for evidence on claims that you see in the media, advertising, and public policy, and that you can see on the website what kinds of things other people have asked about.

Audience 3
Photo credit: Sense about Science

The conversation then turned to how researchers can become involved in science outreach.  Leah said that Twitter is a brilliant vehicle for outreach, and also for finding outreach opportunities.  She said that once you start doing outreach and science engagement, it gathers momentum; whilst you might think you don’t have the time to engage in outreach, once you start making the time you will see the benefits and continue to make time for it.  She said that funding bodies, charities, and learned societies all run outreach events, and members of the audience also noted that there are often local events that are geared around science outreach.

stand up for scienceThe panel then talked about how, with almost anything, you can find a news hook, and Luke advised that the press officer at your university can work with you to find that. Leah noted that, as a researcher, you can get desensitised to the wonder of your research – but there’s a reason why you chose that research area and you’re the best person to identify what’s exciting about it.   She went on to say that it’s an investment in yourself to be able to talk about your research; it’s part of your professional development.  You usually get 4-5 days a year for continuing professional development as part of your PhD – media training is an excellent use of this.  Luke noted that often it’s the ECR who is the one that’s really keen to get engaged with the media – and that that’s more valuable than someone with 30 years of tenure who doesn’t want to engage.  As Ana pointed out, you are experts, even if you haven’t been experts for half a century!

The panellists finished by summing up their advice for researchers:


  • Ask for evidence – and hold to account those who are making these claims
  • Put your name forward as someone who can help with making sense of evidence


  • Contact your Press Officer
  • Read New Scientist!


  • Do something – anything – to stand up for science; we have a responsibility.
  • Science outreach and engagement strengthens your CV
  • Somebody out there inspired you to do what you’re doing – be that person for someone else

This post is the final part of a three-part series.  Part One focuses on a discussion with three researchers who have experience of engaging with the media and the public and Part Two focuses on a discussion with journalists about what they are looking for from researchers.  There is also a separate post listing some fantastic resources that have been provided by Sense about Science and the workshop’s panellists.

“Be excited about your work!”: What journalists are looking for from researchers

This post is the second part of a three-part series reporting on a media workshop organised by Voice of Young Science (VOYS), aiming to help early career researchers effectively engage with the media about science and research.

In this post, I report on the second panel of the day, What journalists are looking for. This panel featured three journalists: Danny Buckland (@DannyBuckland), freelance health journalist; Tulip Mazumdar (@TulipMazumdar), global health correspondent for the BBC; and Wendy Grossman (@WendyG), freelance journalist specialising in computers, freedom, and privacy.  The panellists opened by introducing themselves and their work, and talked about what they are looking for from researchers.

Panel 2

Danny began by saying that essentially, newspapers are unashamedly there to a) make headlines, and b) make money.  He said that there is a huge thirst for scientific and health stories but that if scientists want their story out there, they need to understand that the public may consume it differently to how it was meant.  He said that experts are in demand, so it’s important for researchers to work out how to build that bridge with the media.

Tulip then went on to say that when she is covering a story, she has a responsibility to cover it in a way that is informative and accurate.  She said that reporters are the ones to ultimately decide the content, and that the focus should be on why someone (globally) should care about the story.

Wendy then said that researchers should ask the journalist, “Who is the audience, and what do they want to know?”  This helps you to shape your material so that it is appropriate and engaging.  She said that journalists often have to cut a large amount of material and they won’t necessarily know what is most important, scientifically, so the researcher needs to identify what is most important to get right.  She also said that it is inevitable that there will be articles that make you furious – but don’t be too quick to fire off an angry email.  Journalists want to get things right and won’t usually have deliberately misconstrued what you were saying; if there are factual errors, contact the journalist as things can be changed.

Audience 1
Members of the audience ask questions of the panellists (Photo credit: Sense about Science)

The panel then went on to take questions from the audience – here’s a selection:

Who should researchers approach if they want to get their work into the media?

The panel agreed that local news outlets are a great place to start, as they are more likely to pick it up and will like reporting on research that is coming out of local institutions. They said that it would be a good idea to call the local radio station and ask for their news editor, and then ask whether they have a science and health specialist – and then take that person out for coffee!

Where do you (the journalist) find stories?

The panellists all agreed that if you want to get your research into the media, you should send your work to correspondents who are working in your field, and Tulip added that you should then email them multiple times if they don’t get back to you! Wendy said that journalists also attend academic conferences, so ask the conference organisers which journalists are in attendance and then make sure you make a connection with them. Danny said that journalists are bombarded with too many press releases; he looks at journals and other newspapers (which is why approaching your local newspaper first of all gives you collateral).  He also said that videos are much more compelling.  Tulip said that The Lancet’s press releases are good for this, as they are well formatted and also send pictures and footage that can be used.

How should researchers prepare for media engagement?

excitedPanellists said that you should know what you want to say, and that you should imagine that you need to explain it to a non-scientist friend.  Tulip agreed, and warned that if they are given something that is hard to make sense of, it will go to the bottom of the pile. You need to be able to state the impact of your research in human terms.

The panellists also said to remember that you are the expert – the journalist will only be meeting with you if they are genuinely interested in running with the story.    Tulip agreed, and went on to say that you should be yourself – talk like a normal person, and feel free to be excited about your work!  Wendy also said you should remember that you have been invited; be proud.

Panellists finished by summing up their advice for researchers:


  • Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there
  • Get to know local reporters who are interested in your field


  • Don’t be overly concerned – you’re the expert, and you have something that journalists want
  • Imagine you’ve been asked “So what?” and make sure you include your answer to that in your communication
  • See if you can get your research into a statement like “You’ll never guess what they’ve discovered now…”


  • Follow journalists who are working in your area

This post is the second part of a three-part series.  Part One focuses on a discussion with three researchers who have experience of engaging with the media and the public and Part Three focuses on the nuts and bolts of media engagement.  There is also a separate post listing some fantastic resources that have been provided by Sense about Science and the workshop’s panellists.

Standing up for science: “Be brave, but not foolish”

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a Standing up for Science media workshop organised by Voice of Young Science (VOYS), a network of early career researchers who are committed to taking an active role in public discussions about science.  Their work is part of Sense about Science, an organisation which exists to challenge misrepresentation of science and evidence within public fora.  For instance, one of their current projects, Ask for Evidence, is a public campaign that helps people ask for and make sense of the scientific evidence behind claims that they’ve seen in the news, marketing campaigns or public policies.

This workshop aimed to help early career researchers make their voices heard in public debates about science by hosting panel discussions with scientists and science journalists who talked about how to effectively engage with the media about science and research.

I heart evidence
I was very excited to finally get myself an “I ❤ evidence” badge!

In this post, I report on the first panel, Science and the media. This panel featured three researchers who have experience of engaging with the media and the public:  Deirdre Hollingsworth (@deirdreholl), professor of infectious disease epidemiology (University of Warwick); Nataliya Tkachenko (@FloodSmartCity), PhD researcher (Warwick Institute for the Science of Cities); and Franco Cappuccio, professor of cardiovascular medicine and epidemiology (University of Warwick).  The panellists opened by introducing themselves and giving a bit of a background about their experience of engagement with the media and what they had learned, before opening up to questions from the audience.

Deirdre began by emphasising the need for very clear notes when engaging with journalists either face-to-face or over the phone.  She said that anything you say can be quoted, so it is important to use calm, sensible language that cannot be misconstrued; the journalist writing the article usually doesn’t get to choose the headline, so be careful how you say things as it will be another person choosing the headline based on what you said.  She also said that researchers shouldn’t be surprised by personal questions – journalists will often ask how you feel about the research you’re discussing.

Nataliya then went on to say that you should be prepared for any eventuality, particularly if you’re being interviewed on live television or radio.  Although journalists may provide you with a list of questions that they’re likely to ask, these may change (especially if there are tech issues), so you should be prepared to go off-script.

Franco then highlighted that there are different types of media engagement; written press releases, being asked to comment on your research (or someone else’s) in writing, recorded television or radio (where you may get the opportunity to revise what you said, but you may not!) and live television or radio appearances.  He said that scientists are generally well-received by the media and are usually respected, not attacked.  However, he also advised that when discussing controversial topics, there is the danger of getting drawn into polarised debates.  He said that you shouldn’t fall into the trap of doing a telephone interview off the cuff – if a journalist calls, ask them to call back in a couple of hours as this will give you time to prepare.  If you miss your slot, so be it, but don’t just give an interview that you’ve not prepared for.

Panel 1
Researchers from the University of Warwick discuss their experience of engaging with the media (Photo credit: Sense about Science)

The panel then went on to take questions from the audience – here’s a selection:

Is media communication for everyone?

All the panellists agreed that it is – but said that it is important to make sure that you’ve had the right training.  Franco also acknowledged that not everyone may like speaking on live television, and it is important to recognise that there are different levels of media engagement – just because you don’t want to speak on live TV doesn’t mean that you can’t engage the media through other fora.  He also said that there is no disgrace in saying that you don’t know the answer to a question – that actually, it can build credibility! Nataliya said that for PhD students, media appearances can be looked at like a mini-viva; they are helpful for building confidence for public speaking, they help you to think about your research in different ways and they raise new questions that you may not have thought of.

When is the best time to get training?

The panellists all felt that it should be taken as early as possible – or whenever you can get it for free! Members of the audience noted that some universities offer a certificate of transferable skills as part of their PhD programme, and that media training – including camera work – can be undertaken as part of that.  It was also felt that having media training gives your work more power; scientists are taught to speak and write in scientific language, but they also need to be able to translate that into “human”!

Is how you are responded to by the media based on your field of expertise?

BraveThe panellists agreed that often, media appearances were as a result of global issues related to their field.  Deirdre warned that, when this is the case, researchers may be pushed into answering questions that they don’t want to.  She gave an example of a radio appearance during the swine flu epidemic where she was asked by a listener whether or not they should have the swine flu vaccination (which at the time was still in its early stages where a lot was still unknown).  She said that for difficult questions like this, you need to have answers pre-prepared – e.g. “I’m part of a larger body of work and wouldn’t want to comment”.  She said that researchers need to be brave, but not foolish.  Franco also said that when discussing complex issues, you need to put yourself into the shoes of the person you’re talking to – streamline your message. You need to be able to justify your research to those who are funding you (which is often the public purse) – what changes have you made?

How do we help universities to prioritise engagement?

The panellists gave examples of routes to public engagement that can be useful when the university is not necessarily making it a priority.  For example, Nataliya said that individuals can create their own platforms via blogs and social media to promote their own research, and Deirdre said that learned societies are another good way of getting support with public engagement, and can often offer opportunities or media training. Franco said that charities are another good platform for engagement.

In terms of getting universities more involved, the panellists noted that it is possible to find out (via the internet) the market value of various types of media engagement, and that this can be sold to the university as the monetary value of exposure as well as the academic value. Nataliya also noted that the Research Fish research impact database requests that media engagement is included in submissions.

Panellists were then asked to sum up their advice for researchers who want to engage with the media.


  • It’s a good idea to communicate science – but learn how to do it well
  • You have a choice as to how much you engage
  • When you write a paper, sum it up in 5 sentences and put it on your website
  • If you’re really uncomfortable, don’t do it!
  • You’re in a fortunate position – share it.


  • Take as many media training opportunities as you can
  • Recognise that there are different modes of media engagement – try to identify what yours is (e.g. blogger, public speaker)


  • Engage at a level you feel comfortable with
  • Be proactive – don’t wait for the media to come to you
  • Rehearse for public speaking
  • Remember that media appearances are part of long-term science engagement – the media won’t forget you!

This post is part of a three-part series.  Part Two focuses on a discussion with journalists about what they are looking for from researchers and Part Three focuses on the nuts and bolts of media engagement.  There is also a separate post listing some fantastic resources that have been provided by Sense about Science and the workshop’s panellists.

Banning electronic devices in universities is ableism, not innovation

Students with a wide range of disabilities and specific learning difficulties are known to benefit from using laptops and tablets during lectures as they offer alternative ways of engaging with the teaching material, and much assistive technology has been developed in recent years which aims to bridge the gap between disabled students’ experiences of learning and those of their peers.  Denying students access to such technology is as cruel and excluding as denying a sign language interpreter to a student with a hearing impairment.

Over the weekend, Ryan Balot and Clifford Orwin – two lecturers from the University of Toronto – published a self-congratulatory opinion piece on the Canadian Globe and Mail website about how they have banned electronic devices from their lecture theatres and seminar rooms.  The tone of the piece is nothing short of condescending; the authors clearly believe that this patriarchal-style imposition is warranted – that, left to their own devices, students of today are incapable of using their “glittering laptops and cellphones” for anything but “foolish” pursuits, not like those older, wiser students of yesteryear who are now lawyers, and bankers, and who apparently think differently about life all because they didn’t have WiFi when they were undergraduates.

This imbecilic portrayal of today’s students as shallow time-wasters whose heads are turned by the “glitter” of technology is offensive enough.  However, what really incenses me about this decision is the effect it will have on those students with different access needs.

From the outset, it would appear that accessibility is not high on these lecturers’ agendas – after all, they don’t make it through the first paragraph without bragging about “[n]ever issuing a trigger warning”, seeming to equate this with their “right to teach as one sees fit”.  Much has been written on the appropriateness (or not) of trigger warnings within an academic context, but really, the issue is simple: Trigger warnings are not about avoiding offense, they are about avoiding the re-traumatisation of people who have suffered trauma. You don’t have a right to not be offended – you should have a right not to be re-traumatised during a lecture.

The decision to ban electronic devices from their teaching spaces is a continuation of the dismissive approach to fair access which Balot and Orwin seem to have taken.  Students with a wide range of disabilities and specific learning difficulties are known to benefit from using laptops and tablets during lectures as they offer alternative ways of engaging with the teaching material, and much assistive technology has been developed in recent years which aims to bridge the gap between disabled students’ experiences of learning and those of their peers.  Denying students access to such technology is as cruel and excluding as denying a sign language interpreter to a student with a hearing impairment.  These students are going to be more than “disappointed and bemused” – they are going to be at a significant disadvantage in comparison to their non-disabled peers and they are going to be quite justified in feeling that their lecturers couldn’t give a toss about whether or not they are able to fully access their education.  They certainly won’t feel that they are in an environment in which their thinking “thrives”.

But wait – Balot and Orwin have addressed this (quite adequately, they seem to feel).  As they point out, “university policy requires [them] to allow students registered with accessibility services to use computers”.  That’s right – they’re addressing the disability issue, but only because university policy requires them to.  They go on to state that, consequently, they are allowing such students to use computers, and, to circumvent the confidentiality issue that they have created in which disabled students are now the only ones in the room with an electronic device, they have allowed non-disabled students to use computers as well, if they agree to upload their notes to the accessibility service.  Again though, only because of “university policy”.

The issue with this ‘fix’ – aside from how clear it is that the authors begrudge having to issue it at all – is that it will still exclude disabled students.  Firstly, there will be those who are registered with accessibility services but who have a very real problem with the idea that their disability will soon become public knowledge.  Some may not have even received a diagnosis of a specific learning difficulty (such as dyslexia or dyspraxia) until they began university and will still be getting used to it themselves.  Forget the other students who are allowed a laptop if they upload notes – those will be few and far between. In the main, students in these lectures will be aware that those using laptops and other electronic devices have a disability or specific learning difficulty of some sort.  This will lead at least some disabled students to opt out of using such technology at all so that they are not singled out as being different from their peers.  This will, inevitably, have a disastrous effect on their learning and on their student experience as a whole.

Secondly, there will also be a large group of students within Balot and Orwin’s lectures that are not “registered with accessibility services” for whatever reason – be it because they are having difficulty coming to terms with needing support, or because they have slipped through the net of standardised learning difficulty testing.  Nevertheless, these students may have greater difficulty accessing lectures and other learning environments than their peers, and therefore rely on laptops or other electronic devices to help bridge this gap.  The authors’ blanket decision that only “registered” students can have access to such technology means that they too will be excluded from fair access to learning material unless they can ‘prove’ they are disabled (and are willing to subsequently be publicly ‘outed’ as such).

The authors finish by stating that “research suggests that students learn and remember more when they take notes by hand”.  This is commonly accepted as true (although it would be nice if they pointed you towards which ‘research’) – but it is only the case when all other things are equal.  A student that doesn’t have different access needs may indeed learn more effectively when they take notes by hand.  However, the situation is drastically different for a person with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, who may struggle to read their own writing or to write quickly enough to take a set of cogent and coherent notes.  Under these circumstances, the denial of electronic devices is a cruel blow which only serves to further exclude students who are already significantly disadvantaged and underrepresented in higher education.

What p-values really are – and what they aren’t

I was recently pointed towards this article by Regina Nuzzo, which was published in the science journal Nature in 2014 – and finally got around to reading it this morning.  It’s a really readable commentary on the use of p-values and significance testing in scientific research, and, as an undergraduate who began learning statistics just as the debate about p-values, effect sizes and confidence intervals really began to heat up, a good reminder of the main points behind it all.

Here are a few of my favourites:

1. P-values were never meant to be a definitive test.  Instead, they were devised as a way of ascertaining whether findings were ‘significant’ in the sense of “worthy of a second look” (p.506); part of a process that combines the data with background knowledge of the field to reach a plausible conclusion.

“Researchers need to… bring into their analysis elements of scientific judgement about the plausibility of a hypothesis and study limitations” (p.506).

2. P-values cannot ‘prove’ an underlying reality.  All they can do is provide the probability of such results being seen if the null hypothesis were true (i.e. there really is no effect in the underlying population).  Even if the p-value indicates that this probability is very small, this doesn’t automatically prove that the effect does exist in the population; all it tells us about is the chance of this occurring if the null hypothesis were true (and there is no effect).

3. P-values are not an indicator of practical relevance; statistical significance and psychological significance are not always the same thing.  Instead, we should be looking at effect sizes (and the confidence intervals around them).  Sometimes we obtain incredibly small p-values (particularly with large sample sizes) but the effect sizes are tiny; although statistically significant, the results are not necessarily also psychologically significant.  Reporting effect sizes indicates the size and importance of the effect itself and therefore gives a better picture of the underlying reality.

I think that for current undergraduates, these points are the most important to remember, particularly if you intend on pursuing a career in research.  We are fortunate to be entering the academic world at a time when traditional research methods are being questioned and revised; as a result, we will hopefully become researchers who have a greater understanding of our findings and what these really mean in the populations we are interested in.