QuickSmart: A programmatic research endeavour*
* the QuickSmart team (Professor John Pegg, Associate Professor Lorraine Graham, Ms Jenny Thomas, Ms Eve Croeser and Ms Noelene Raymond) were awarded the inaugural University of New England Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Research in 2009.
QuickSmart can be considered applied research that is "undertaken to acquire new knowledge but directed towards a specific, practical aim or objective"(p.8). This program of research does not represent a single research activity. Underpinning and informing QuickSmart is a longitudinal programmatic coordinated set of research projects that are aimed at understanding and addressing numeracy and literacy under-performance evidenced by middle-school students across Australia.
It is the position of members of the SiMERR National Centre that making meaningful progress in a contested and difficult area of social science enquiry requires longitudinal and programmatic research. In our view, this is the only justifiable and efficient way to move the field and practice forward. The significance of the QuickSmart research program is that the research questions of most interest evolve as the activity continues, with deeper and more complicated issues addressed as the quantum of data allows for increased sophistication in the techniques used. Likewise, the issues addressed offer deeper insights into the activity as the research program continues (e.g., what are the mechanisms of deliberate practice and feedback within the QuickSmart lessons? Why does performance uniformly improve for QuickSmart students in schools that implement the program in the second and subsequent years?)
The research data are collected from schools that typically make up learning communities comprising a cluster of between 10 and 15 schools. These clusters are spread throughout the states and territories of Australia. Funding for the research comes from federal and state education authorities and schools, and competitive research grants as well as through philanthropic and business education sponsors.
Researchers within the SiMERR National Centre use the QuickSmart data in a systematic way for theory development concerning the real social problems that accompany the need to support students in today's classrooms in different locations, under different funding arrangements, with varying levels of support mechanisms. There are logical connections and progressions within the developments and findings of QuickSmart from cluster to cluster that evolve over each year. As new learning and practice emerges the resulting ideas are continually trialed and evaluated.
These research drivers result in the "creation of new knowledge and the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings. This ... includes synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it leads to new and creative outcomes."(p.8)
The research that informs QuickSmart is focused particularly on cognitive processing, the conditions necessary to be in place for students to gain facility with lower-order tasks or basic academic skills, and the potential complementary effects of the improved mastery of these skills on higher-order learning processes.
Accordingly, the initial research funded in 2001 had three overall goals that still guide our programmatic research endeavours:
- to investigate the nature of improved fluency on the acquisition of basic academic skills;
- to observe whether improved fluency with the basics has any effect on the performance of more demanding academic tasks, such as comprehension and mathematical problem solving, as reflected in students' performance on state-wide tests or standardized achievement tests; and
- to monitor longitudinally the retention or further development/ refinement in QuickSmart students of both basic and higher-order skills.
Ongoing Research Aims of the QuickSmart Program of Research
Given the increase in the number of schools interested in implementing and refining QuickSmart programs, the initial research goals have evolved and been greatly expanded. Currently, QuickSmart programmatic research aims to:
- Develop a deeper understanding of the role of working-memory load in information processing, and how this is implicated in literacy and numeracy problems students encounter.
- Develop detailed descriptions of cognitive obstacles that preclude low-achieving students attaining acceptable standards of literacy and numeracy.
- Understand ways that learning obstacles might be approached, once identified, in a variety of learning contexts with the expectation that over time these would be addressed.
- Prepare detailed profiles of individual students, documenting their development in literacy/numeracy over the period of an academic year and seeking patterns of similarity across large cohorts of students.
- Gain insights into how the procedures developed for individual application in small-class settings through QuickSmart may be generalised to suit whole or part classroom situations.
- Explore ways of adapting the technology used in QuickSmart to assist classroom teachers and support personnel to identify and target particular problems that students face in areas of literacy and numeracy.
- Develop a set of design features that can be used by teachers and support staff to support learning disabilities in the areas of literacy and numeracy.
- Collect, analysis and interpret pre- and post-test data collected for each intervention group as well as from 'comparison students', using two forms of assessment, namely: (i) the Computer-based Academic Assessment System (CAAS) tests of accuracy and speed of recall and recognition of basic literacy tasks or numeracy facts and (ii) independently prepared tests in the form of state-wide tests or standardised achievement tests to provide information about the transfer of basic facts to more complex academic and cognitive tasks
Since QuickSmart has been implemented in an increasing variety of schools for ten years, the focus of research has also developed to consider:
- Ways to improve the provision of QuickSmart training by a deeper analysis of the results highlighting difference in approaches of clusters/schools achieving greater learning growth from their students.
- Documenting the occurrences of 'learnable' features that are evident after students have graduated out of the program.
- Further assessment of 'self-factors' such as student self-efficacy, self-confidence, and scaffolded risk taking that are an important part of the QuickSmart research framework.
- Linking the qualitative and quantitative data associated with particular learning obstacles.
- Developing models for taking evidence-based interventions to scale across numbers of schools in different sectors, jurisdictions, states and territories and the models of success that underpin their implementation.
- Creating closer links between student learning theory and educational neuroscience.
There is a systematic element to the QuickSmart research that precisely fits the definition of "creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge ... and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications"(p.8). This creative use of new knowledge informs the investigation of the implementation of QuickSmart as an evolving program by clusters of schools that are guided by research evidence. Our approach is systematic, particularly in the processing of information that is informing the development of new programs and the work of SiMERR's Higher Degree Research (HDR) students. For example current analytic research completed in 2010:
- has provided evidence on the optimal length of a QuickSmart program by examining results from a 20-week versus a 30-week program., and
- the magnitude of learning gains have been examined by investigating the results obtained by the students of instructors who have completed their first year of professional development compared to those still completing this professional development requirement.
In the case of HDR students, the recipient of the Learning Difficulties Australia Tertiary Student Research Award for 2008 was Anne Bellert, a Ph D candidate at the SiMERR National Centre. Anne submitted her thesis (The Effects Of Improved Automaticity In Basic Academic Skills On Test Performance: A Study Of Learning Difficulties In The Middle-School Years), which uses the QuickSmart intervention, in May 2011. In making this Award the Judging Committee noted the particular strengths of this research in terms of its broader application for intervention for students with learning difficulties in a classroom situation, with a specific focus on mathematics intervention.
The information acquired from working with the QuickSmart program has also sparked and informed the development of other intervention programs focusing on different areas of learning difficulty, with students outside of the Year 5 to Year 8 range, in different topic areas, and with links to tertiary study.
Acknowledgement: Quotes are taken from Higher Education Research Data Collection, Specifications for the collection of 2010 data. Research Funding and Policy Branch, Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, January, 2011