The Steps of Cognitive Science Research as Explained by Actual Researchers

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators

By Alison Pritchard and Erin Jones
February 28, 2017



Both law and professional ethics drive teachers to seek out research regarding “what works” for students. While teachers may consume research from education and other related fields, such as cognitive neuroscience, they are rarely given a behind the scenes look at how this research comes to life. It is easy to feel a disconnect between the findings researchers produce and the instructional practice in which teachers engage.  But what if we could ask two actual research scientists about the research process and how it works? Dr. Alison Prichard, Program Director of the Neuropsychology Research Lab and Erin Jones, Manager of Research Operations in the Department of Neuropsychology at Kennedy Krieger Institute, offer teachers an insider’s look at the research process that can help teachers better support their students through understanding the research and corresponding literature that determines “what works” for students.  


There is a very specific process that underlies research, which can seem overwhelming. In the Neuropsychology Research Lab, our team works together to work through the stages of research on each of our studies. In order to illustrate the research process, we would like to walk you through one of our recently completed studies, “Academic Testing Accommodations for ADHD: Do They Help?” This study examined the effectiveness of testing accommodations for students with ADHD.

Research starts with a question

Psychologists within our Executive Function Outpatient Clinic often recommend accommodations for students who they evaluate and diagnose with ADHD. However, we realized that we don’t know whether the accommodations  we recommend for kids with ADHD actually work. So, we designed a study to begin to answer the question: Do testing accommodations help kids with ADHD?

Review current related research findings

After a review of current empirical literature (i.e., other research studies), we determined that although there is considerable research regarding the effectiveness of various accommodations for students with learning disabilities, there is limited research that addresses the effectiveness of testing accommodations specifically for children with ADHD. It is important to review reputable research sources; we often use vetted literature databases such as PubMed, PsycINFO, and ERIC to find appropriate articles.

Refine your question

Many research questions with clinical and/or educational relevance start out very broad (e.g., do accommodations work?); however, you can’t address all aspects of a broad question within a single study, so it is usually necessary to narrow your question down to something more specific. For example, in our study, we narrowed down our question to examine testing accommodations only, and specifically among older elementary and middle school-aged children with ADHD. We also decided to study the five most commonly offered testing accommodations:extended time, more frequent breaks, use of calculator, read-aloud, and reduced distractions. As part of refining your research question, you also need to do the following:

  1. Identify your independent and dependent variables
    In our study, the independent variable was whether or not the student was offered an accommodation; the dependent variables were scores on annual standardized tests of reading and math achievement (the Maryland School Assessments).
  2. Identify an appropriate sample
    Make sure your sample is representative of the population in which you are interested. We recruited students in 3rd through 8th grades who were diagnosed with ADHD and who took the Maryland School Assessments reading and math achievement tests in 2012.
  3. Formulate a testable hypothesis
    We hypothesized that students with ADHD who were offered accommodations would perform better than students with ADHD who were not.
  4. Consider possible confounds
    There may be a number of variables beyond those in which you are interested that may affect the outcomes of your study. For instance, we were concerned that overall intelligence and the severity of the students’ ADHD symptoms might skew some of our findings. Therefore, we controlled for these confounds in our statistical analyses by using statisticsto factor in the extent to which intelligence and ADHD symptom severity impacted our dependent variables.
  5. Design your study
    A lot of different factors go into how a study is designed. Ideally, studies are designed in the way that provides the most certainty that the outcomes are accurate and not due to confounding variables or problems with sampling.However, study design is also dictated by practical considerations, such ashow much money and time you have to conduct the study andhow many participants you can recruit. Our study utilized a correlational design, as we were not able to randomly assign students to receive accommodations.

Find collaborators

It is often helpful work with others who have interest or experience in the same area of research or field. Collaborators can help you refine your research questions further, recruit participants, analyze your data, and interpret your findings. In the present study, psychologists collaborated with an educator in order to better understand the basis and implications of our findings.

Create an IRB application

All research studies have to be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) which is a committee that ensures research is done ethically. Sometimes this can be a tedious process, and it is often helpful to involve collaborators in developing an IRB application. If you’ve ever participated in research, you might have completed a consent form. 

Recruit participants

This sounds a whole lot easier than it is because it is important to avoid bias and other ethical concerns, while finding people who actually want to participate in your study. We recruited study participants using flyers placed within the community and from among the clinical population at Kennedy Krieger Institute. Whether or not teachers can participate in research studies largely depends on their school district and their schools on an individual level. Check with your school to find out if it participates in any research studies.

Collect your data

This is the fun part! Often data are collected by trained research assistants. This process can be time-consuming depending on how intensive your project is and how many participants you have. For our study, we had 96 participants. We asked their parents to complete some behavior ratings, and then we accessed their school records to determine whether they were offered accommodations, as well as their scores on the Maryland School Assessment.

Analyze your data

This is the really fun part!! This is how you answer your research question. You will use statistics to determine if your findings are significant. We found that none of the testing accommodations had a significant impact on Maryland School Assessment reading or math scores.

Interpret your findings

Now you can figure out whether or not your hypothesis is confirmed. We hypothesized that being offered accommodations would result in higher test scores, but this is not what we found, so our hypothesis was not confirmed.

Present your findings

You want people to know about your very important research, so you should share your findings by writing a paper to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, creating a poster to be presented at a conference, or giving a talk to a group of stakeholders, such asparents of kids with ADHD, fellow teachers, other researchers, psychologists. Our findings were published in Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal last year.

Develop your next study

Often researchers will follow up on questions that were raised during the study and design limitations that may have had an impact on their. For example, although approximately half of the students with ADHD in our study were offered accommodations, we don’t know whether they actually utilized them. In our next study, we would like to examine students who received accommodations versus those who did not.

Research is exciting because, among many things, it provides us with an opportunity to explore new practices and refine existing ones.  We encourage teachers to become involved in research through participation in studies, immersion into up-to-date peer-reviewed literature, and  exploration of new ideas by continuing to ask new questions. All of these things can help teachers support their students by providing them with useful tools and information to better their classroom practice.

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