Research projects

The researchers in Synapse Lab are at the front of international research on motivation and learning, and run randomized control trials in collaboration with educators, businesses and government.

  • Resilient: Improving youth well-being, motivation and academic achievement through social and emotional learning

    Quality education is one that fosters the social and emotional development, as well as the academic development of each child. Social and emotional competencies are important, as they are closely linked to an individual’s well-being (Panter‐Brick & Leckman 2013). Additionally, they are critical for motivation in school, academic success and labor market participation (OECD 2015). James Heckman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, summarizes an extensive empirical literature and argues that programs teaching children social and emotional skills is one of the most effective ways of increasing their chances of success in school, and that children from disadvantaged families will benefit the most from such programs (Heckman & Kautz 2012).

    ROBUST will empirically investigate if middle schools can improve youths’ social and emotional competencies, and thereby enhance students’ well-being, motivation and school achievement. We will conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) with at least 100 eighth-grade classrooms (n=2500 students), in which eighth-graders (14 years old) in treated classrooms participate in a social and emotional learning intervention called ROBUST. ROBUST consists of a scientifically based curriculum, and an accompanying professional development.

    Based on international empirical research on how to enhance youths’ social and emotional competencies, ROBUST fosters competencies in social relationships, emotional regulation, problem solving, and motivational enhancement. We measure intervention-effects by assessing students' social and emotional competencies, well-being, motivation and school achievement at pre-intervention, at the end of the one-year intervention, and in a one-year follow-up. During the year of implementation, we conduct an extensive implementation and process evaluation, in order to understand why or why not the intervention is effective.

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  • Two Teachers in the class

    The empirical evidence on effect of teacher-student ratio on students’ academic achievement is mixed. Although there are compelling findings demonstrating a positive effect of increased teacher-student ratio on student learning, several studies conclude that there are no effects of teacher-student ratio on student achievements. Studies also show that when teacher-student ratio increases, teachers often fail to optimize the opportunities to provide more individualized support. 

    Two teachers in the class is a group randomized controlled trial investigating individual and complementary effects of teacher-student ratio and professional development for teachers. Two Teachers follows one intervention class and one control class in 150 schools in 9 Southern Norwegian counties, from August 2016, until they leave upper secondary school.

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  • The Agder Project

    Many European countries, including the U.K., France, Germany, and all Nordic countries invest heavily in universal preschool programs. The investments in universal programs are largely motivated by research demonstrating that preschool programs can boost child development and have long-term impacts on school achievement and adult labor market participation. However, despite an enormous policy interest in universal preschool, we have limited understanding of the conditions under which universal preschool is effective. Specifically, one quality concern is the relatively non-specific and unstructured curriculum of many universal preschool programs. This gives childcare centers a large degree of freedom with respect to pedagogical content, which can give rise to large differences in learning across centers.

    The Agder-project tests an intervention that introduces a comprehensive structured curriculum for five-year olds into the universal preschool context of Norway. The intervention consists of a nine-month comprehensive curriculum with age-appropriate intentional skill-building activities in mathematics, language, executive functioning and social skills. A playful learning approach permeates all the activities, and the curriculum emphasizes a warm and responsive child-teacher relationship. This new curriculum is accompanied by teacher training in how to implement it.

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  • Playful learning

    Many children arrive at the start of their formal schooling falling behind on cognitive and socio-emotional skills that are critical for school adjustment. Despite Norway’s generous welfare system, there is a substantial gap in learning outcomes between children of advantaged and disadvantaged families. Due to the pedagogical practice in many preschools, we may be missing a key opportunity to narrow these gaps.

    The framework plan of Norwegian daycare centers (Rammeplanen) consists of important values and principles for good teacher practices that are meant to stimulate children’s skills, creativity and sense of wonder. However, it does not fully reflect international empirical evidence from the early childhood education and care literature, linking an intentional practice with key curricular foci to successful child development. Moreover, there are limited scientifically based tools and resources, on which teachers in the Norwegian daycare context can rely when creating an intentional practice with a curricular foci.

    Playful Learning aims to help Norwegian preschool teachers develop a more intentional and systematic practice stimulating skills that are critical for adjusting to school and for later-life success, and investigate how this change in practice affects child development. We investigate effects of the intentional practice intervention in an RCT with 96 participating daycare centers.

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  • U-Say

    Work places are becoming increasingly knowledge intensive with rapid developments in computer technology and automation. Job descriptions are constantly changing and employees need to be constant learners. As such, education and competencies for lifelong learning is becoming increasingly important for labor market participation, and for the productivity of the economy. With the labor market’s increasing need of learning competencies, it is of great concern that many youths in Norway do not complete high school education or graduate from high school with very low skills.

    Inspired by the growth mindset research in psychology, this project hypothesize that there is systematic under performance in the Norwegian education system due to cultural conditions; many children are socialized into a fixed mindset, believing their intelligence or talents are fixed traits. These believes lead them to give up easily when facing challenges. This is in contrast to students with more of a growth mindset, who believe that their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

    Based on protocols from psychology, we develop a computer program that communicates the growth mindset message to first year high school students. The program teaches students about research in neuroscience that demonstrate the brain’s potential to grow and change. We investigate impacts of the computer program on academic achievement in a randomized controlled trial with more than 10000 students.

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  • School in motion

    Regular physical activity is an important factor for the physical and mental health of children and adolescents. Physical activity levels drop through adolescence, and many youths do not meet the minimum physical activity recommended to achieve health benefits. Data from national mapping studies in Norway show that while about 90% of 6-year-olds satisfy the recommendations for a minimum of 60 minutes daily activity of at least moderate intensity, only half of 15 year olds are sufficiently active. Data from the Young Data Survey in 2018 shows that a large proportion report mental problems and challanges in adolescence. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common challenges, and girls are more afflicted than boys. Development of models where physical activity can affect both physical and mental health, as well as learning and learning environment is thus highly relevant.

    School in motion (ScIM)  is a school-based, three-arm cluster randomized controlled trial (RCT) recruiting adolescents from lower secondary schools in Norway. A total of 2084 14- year-olds from 29 schools were included, yielding a participation rate of 76%. The project is carried out on behalf of the Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training, and is part of an effort to create a better knowledge base for future work with physical activity in secondary schools. It defined in the “Public Health Report – Mastery and Opportunities”. 

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  • On Track

    Reading difficulties (RD) constitute the most frequent cause of special needs education in Norway, and the number of students who receive special needs resources increases steadily from Grade 1 to Grade 10. This situation stands in a sharp contrast to the proven effectiveness of reading interventions provided to students at risk of reading difficulties early in the schooling.  Consequently, to reduce personal and societal costs, educational policy has signalled a shift from late to early interventions. However, the practice field have expressed uncertainty on how to implement these intentions.

    In the On Track-project we develop and test the efficacy of an early intensive reading intervention for students at risk of reading difficulties. We investigate effects of the scripted intervention in a group randomized controlled trial with 19 participating schools. We assess the children’s achievements in literacy and reading motivation pre-intervention, post-intervention, and in a one- two- and three-year follow up. In addition to the assessment organized by the researchers, we also investigate effects on official mapping tests conducted by schools.

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