Education Can’t Stop During the Pandemic—and Neither Can School-Based Research

How have months of social distancing and remote learning, compounded by a national reckoning with racism, affected students, their families, and teachers?

How has students’ academic growth been affected by a lack of access to technology and broadband internet at home?

How, in their instruction this fall, are teachers supporting students experiencing trauma?

These are the types of questions that would, under normal circumstances, inform behavioral scientists’ research. But the same unprecedented confluence of events that has raised these worthwhile questions prevents most typical approaches to research. Studies have been put on hold. Research designs have required retooling. Funding has been redirected or canceled.

Just as educators have had to rethink instruction during a pandemic, researchers have been forced to reflect on their systems, protocols, and the very nature of their research questions.

Just as educators have had to rethink instruction during a pandemic, researchers have been forced to reflect on their systems, protocols, and the very nature of their research questions. Earlier this month, a group of education researchers noted that “there exists little research directly related to the effects of pandemics on education or the best ways for schools to respond to the current crisis.”

Most large school districts are teaching remotely this fall, but need research to help them understand what’s working and what’s not. What can behavioral scientists do to help in these circumstances? Here are three recommendations for conducting research during and after the pandemic.

1. Use design thinking to monitor and understand students’ and educators’ rapidly changing needs

Right now,schools are in the midst of completely reimagining how they instruct and engage with their students. These decisions are likely to result in long-term changes to our nation’s educational model. Research can help only by asking the right questions. The five steps of design thinking—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—offer a path to identify the issues that adolescents are facing and, once identified, find evidence-based solutions for them.

Just recently I was on a video call with a researcher talking to a student about their study. The researcher excitedly shared their idea on how to get students to use Facebook less often. Zara, a student ambassador whose job it was to give critical feedback to researchers, didn’t miss a beat—“Facebook! I don’t use Facebook. My mom uses Facebook!”

Indeed, empathizing with the needs of students is more important now than ever in this quickly evolving world.

2. Leverage tools and technology to incorporate student and teacher voices

All this uncertainty can make it feel overwhelming for behavioral scientists trying to determine where to start.

The best first step: listen to students and teachers. Set up video calls to find out what challenges they are facing, ask what they’re thinking about, and explore where you can support them via research. And continue to use video calls throughout the research cycle to connect with educators and students to elevate their perspective.

Another way to access students’ and teachers’ perspectives is by asking them, using quick and easy surveys like the Qualtrics’ Return to Learn pulse. These simple tools can give researchers immediate feedback on students’ well-being and where their school communities may need additional support to navigate the current events. Research can then be designed to investigate important questions about how best to provide support where students need it most.

3. Identify preexisting research infrastructure

As they grapple with the various challenges of 2020, schools are unlikely to start a new research initiative. Rather than trying to build new partnerships, behavioral scientists could work with established research infrastructures, such as laboratory schools like Brooklyn Lab. Scientists can also work with local Research–Practice Partnerships (RPPs) like University of Chicago Consortium and Houston Education Research Consortium, which due to strong long-term partnerships with schools do a phenomenal job of conducting timely and meaningful research.

I’ve also had the chance to help build new research infrastructure in my role at Character Lab, a nonprofit founded to advance scientific insights that help kids thrive. In 2018, we launched the Character Lab Research Network, a consortium of schools and researchers working together to develop research activities that lead to insights. The Research Network shoulders the legal, logistical, and technological burdens that typically fall to scientists and schools. The collaboration currently includes 80 scientists and 95 schools, representing more than 100,000 students, and to date, we have facilitated 37 fully powered research studies, informed by 132 pilot studies, and 232 interview sessions between researchers and students. Our virtual research platform makes timely and inclusive research possible at scale—and seems especially suited for our current environment.

So many things—gyms, theaters, restaurants—have come to a near standstill to fight COVID-19. But we cannot allow the coronavirus to hinder the well-being of a generation of students. We need evidence-based solutions for youth that match the dynamic, complex issues that they face every day. We need everyone—behavioral scientists, educators, leaders, and parents—to support research that will ultimately contribute to all children thriving. We must start building toward a tomorrow that our youth can look forward to today.