The University of Newcastle, Australia

Evaluating education across the years

Special education researcher Dr Kerry Dally investigates issues that help students, from primary to tertiary level, get the most out of their learning.

Kerry Dally Image

It was during her early career as a special education teacher in a preschool that Dr Kerry Dally became concerned about the number of children presenting with marked attention problems. This was around the time that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) had become prominent in diagnosis and Dr Dally was interested in how these children with attention deficits were going to fare at school.

“The children were often referred to me with behaviour problems but when you took a close look at what was happening they actually just had an inability to stay focused. I suspected they were going to have learning difficulties when they got to school because of this inability to sit and complete a task and listen to teacher instructions. I wanted to see what impact that attention deficit could have on their learning once they got to school,” Dr Dally said.

“The issue of how to manage children with ADHD was dominating the teaching field at the time. People were focused on giving children medication as well as an emphasis on phonics to promote reading, but I was seeing that the children couldn't benefit from phonics instruction unless they were in a small group because they couldn’t stay engaged in a typical, distracting whole class environment.”

This focus on the relationship between attention and early predictors of reading success prompted Dr Dally’s PhD - a longitudinal study following 140 kindergarten children up to grade two.

“I was looking at the influence of phonological awareness and attentive behaviour and what was having the bigger impact on children’s reading. Was a deficit in attention affecting children’s reading or was it a lack of phonological awareness skills?” she questioned.

The results showed that children who were not succeeding at reading by year two had attention difficulties from the beginning.

“It was their inattentive behaviour that was disrupting their reading progress over and above phonological awareness skills. It is important to recognise this early on as these children often learn best with small group instruction rather than whole class instruction,” Dr Dally said.

“I found that we could perhaps prevent some of these behaviour problems from escalating if children could have more individual learning or small group teaching in the early years of school, because there is a very close link between reading difficulties and behaviour problems.”

Teaching values

Dr Dally’s next project involved testing and measuring the impact of values education on school students and school ambiance. It followed a Federal government initiative aimed at ensuring all public school children were learning common human values such as respect honesty, integrity and responsibility.

“Our project looked at how schools were teaching values explicitly to children. Teachers would explain what the values looked like; how do we show we are responsible, what does it mean to be respectful; and often the children would say back to the teachers, ‘If you yell at us, you are not showing respect’. One of the biggest changes that the teachers noticed was in their own behaviour. They became much more conscious of how they were role modelling for students,” she said.

“We could certainly see this implicit learning that students were doing and the explicit valuing of children showing respect and responsibility.

Dr Dally and her colleagues conducted a survey with students from Kindergarten to Year 6 and she said the results showed that values education had a profound impact on children’s awareness of their own behaviours and made class rooms and schools more harmonious.

“We found that children felt safe and secure at school and they felt that their teachers cared about them. Students wellbeing improved and they learned to self regulate rather than needing to be reprimanded by teachers.”

“It created a greater focus on children working together and teachers noticed when students were being kind to each other, this had a ripple effect. Teachers also noticed children starting to resolve their own playground conflicts.

Doctoral learners and thesis feedback

In a shift in focus from primary students to tertiary students, Dr Dally’s latest project investigates the impact of examiner feedback on doctoral learners and thesis outcomes.

Dr Dally says that the school environment is very externally focused with teachers driving the learning, however at the doctoral level the learning is much more self-directed.

“My interest is in what qualities does a higher degree student require to benefit from this self regulated environment. A lot of it relies on the student to be self motivated,” she said.

Funded by the Australian Research Council, the project delves into the feedback loop where thesis examiners provide feedback to PhD candidates.

“We are questioning how the PhD candidates receive the feedback on their thesis and what they do with it. Do they dismiss it? Or do they take it on board and adopt the role of being a life long learner?” Dr Dally asked.

Dr Dally and her colleagues are interviewing people who have already obtained their PhD and finding out how they responded to the examiner feedback regarding their thesis.

“Were they receptive, did they learn from it and how much did it change their final thesis? We’re also looking at the processes within universities and at what stage the feedback is given to the candidate and whether they have to prepare thesis revisions or a response to it.”

“Our big question is: is the feedback loop working? It’s about motivation and autonomy - are the PhD candidates willing to act on examiner comments and are the university processes allowing them to make decisions about how to respond. Or do they rely on their supervisor and the research committee to tell them what needs to be done,” Dr Dally said.

Results from the study will be reported to universities across Australia to develop consistency and beneficial ways for graduates to be involved in the process.