Impact, like a drop in the ocean.
I really disliked exams, and I’m really glad I don’t have to do another one (well, as far as I know). I used to get really nervous, even in the weeks before when I was revising, and I seemed to have blanked the actual experience of sitting in an exam hall from my memory. I think the holy grail for students of all ages, especially at this time of year, is an easy and innocuous quick fix to increase your exam performance. Well, according a news release on Wednesday, the answer has been with us all this time. “”http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=119335&CultureCode=en">Bring water into exams to improve your grade", proclaims research presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference this week.
The observational study looked at 447 students across a number of years taking their exams at the University of East London. The results suggested that around a quarter of the students took bottles of water into exams with them, and after taking into account academic ability, these students showed an improvement of around 5% in their exam grades. While the researchers admitted that they didn’t know precisely why this might have occurred, suggestions included “theory is that information flows more freely between brain cells when they are well hydrated” and that “water consumption may also alleviate anxiety, which is known to have a negative effect on exam performance”.
Compelling stuff, but there are a few things that bother me about this report. For one, I think the PR machine has jumped the gun this time – the results haven’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet, they’re just from a conference presentation. As such, it isn’t clear what precisely was controlled for. Given that the study was observational, the answer to that question is probably ‘not much’. Which means that any speculation about psychopathological and physiological interactions and effects is a bit pointless really; we don’t know that such effects explain the results any more than saying that people who are generally more prepared for exams will probably be more likely to bring water with them. It’s also worth pointing out that nowhere in any of the press releases does it say that the students actually drank the water. Just that they brought a bottle in with them. Hmmm.
Perhaps I’m being unfair – it’s quite clearly a PR gaff and they should have waited until the full study was published. Normally, I would have let it slip, but something in the final paragraphs in the BBC article raised my hackles. Not the old “Future research is needed to tease apart these explanations” gambit (really? I thought we’d done with all that testing and science malarky now). Nope, it was the point that “There are also implications for policy makers in terms of the availability of water on campuses”. Impact statement: tick.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for thinking about how your research might actually contribute something meaningful to a population broader than your scientific readership. But aren’t things getting a bit ridiculous now? Do we have to justify absolutely every piece of research in terms of immediate and direct impact on policy? What does that even mean any more? We’ve got a case in point right here – what are the implications for policy makers, exactly (and who are these policy makers)? Making water more widely available on campus doesn’t necessarily mean that students are going to bring more of it into exams. Or do we need to start forcing water bottles into their hands as they walking in to the exam room? Perhaps a little water fountain at each desk, or an intravenous drip?
I’m probably being a bit over-grumpy about it all; I just worry that in the drive to tick more boxes to get funding, scientists are having to come up with meaningless statements to justify their research in a wider context, and really, that doesn’t benefit anybody.