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Blog post Part of special issue: Independent researchers: The challenges of accessing ethical approval

The 2020 Revision Census: The ambition and ethics of large-scale independent research

William Wadsworth, Independent Researcher, Founder and Director of Learning at Exam Study Expert

What do our children spend their time doing when they put in all those hours studying for big exams? Cognitive psychology tells us that the techniques they choose can have a substantial impact on their results. So are students investing revision time wisely? I’ve set out to answer that question as an independent researcher – a study with a big question to ask, and which promises to offer considerable benefits to teachers and students once we understand the answer. Only the delicate matter of ethical approval stands as a possible stumbling block, given the unique status of independent research in the UK.

The cognitive psychology of effective learning and memorisation is at a crossroads. We have robust evidence that techniques like retrieval practice and spaced learning have a profound and positive impact on students’ ability to learn information and, in turn, to do well in tests and exams (for reviews see Roediger & Butler, 2011; Kang, 2016). Previous articles on the BERA Blog have commented on the challenge of getting evidence-based practice adopted (Younie, 2017), and anecdotally we think there is much work yet to be done to help students adopt effective ways of learning.

‘We lack up-to-date, large-scale data on how students today are learning and to what extent they make use of effective study techniques, but our project – which aims to do just that – lacks an obvious channel through which to seek ethical approval for UK fieldwork.’

However, the mission to accelerate the adoption of such best-practice is flying blind. We lack up-to-date, large-scale data on how students today are learning and to what extent they make use of effective study techniques. Enter the 2020 Revision Census: a research project setting out to survey up to 100,000 students across the UK on how they approach their studies and revision. The ethical rub lies in the fact that although I have collaborated with some of psychology’s most respected tenured academics in designing the study, none of us are UK-based. We therefore lack an obvious channel through which to seek ethical approval for UK fieldwork.

In lieu of a formal approval process to follow, we have sought independent review and feedback on our methodology from the National Childrens’ Bureau’s research ethics advisory group, and have ensured our approach is in line with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) framework and BERA’s own Ethical Guidelines (2018). While these steps help to reassure us that we are ‘doing the right thing’ and taking all appropriate measures to safeguard the interests of our participants, such as getting the right consent, they stop short of affording us the formal ‘approved’ status that academic journals would typically seek in order to publish findings.

Were we in New Zealand, researchers such as myself would have access to the New Zealand Ethics Committee, which provides ethical approval for independent research (for a fee). The lack of such a system in the UK is to our detriment: there is an ethical problem if good research remains unpublished and is therefore unable to benefit schools and young people. I hope that we may be able to work toward meeting this need, perhaps with a BERA-run panel modelled on the New Zealand committee, or perhaps by opening up independent researchers’ access to an existing university review panel. It is vital that we find a solution because, as I hope this case illustrates, non-university-affiliated academics can make useful contributions to education research, helping to build our understanding of how best to educate our children in 2020 and beyond.

If you would like to find out more about bringing the 2020 Revision Census to a school you work with, please contact me at There is no cost to participate, and each partner school will be provided with data on how their students are learning today, helping them to measure and accelerate the adoption of best-practice revision strategies.


British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2018). Ethical guidelines for educational research (4th ed.). London. Retrieved from

Kang, S. H. K. (2016). Spaced repetition promotes efficient and effective learning: Policy implications for instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 12–19.

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27.

Younie, S. (2017, October 30). Evidence-informed practice – much talk and little action [blog post]. Retrieved from