Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Refreshment Review

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With headlines like “Drinking water improves exam grades”1 and “How to do better in your exams: Drinking a glass of water can boost your results by a grade”2 in all the top newspapers and news websites, it would hard to dismiss their claims. However all of the articles simply regurgitate and reiterate the exact same press release from the British Psychological Society, in which this research was presented at their annual conference this month3.

The research was interesting because it seemed to claim that by simply encouraging students to take water in to the exam with them they would be able to improve their exam grades. The BBC’s article on this research included the following statement: “Also, supplementing with water is a really cheap way students and educators can help get better results.” They went on to claim the results could be due to the benefits of hydration and stress relieving qualities of water.

This research extrapolates from an observation in a small number of subjects, and it is a typical leap of ‘correlation must mean causation.’ The study did not suggest the far more likely reason that students who take water in to their exams do better than students who don’t, which simply boils down to preparation. Students who take a mature approach to their studies are likely to study in a more structured and efficient manner, and are likely to be very prepared for the exam. Part of being prepared for an exam would be thinking of every eventuality and organising yourself to take everything you might need in to the exam with you, and that would include taking water.

This explains the observation that the percentage of students taking water increases in second and third year of university, because students are learning how to prepare for exams and are becoming more organised. If the researchers honestly thought that the water was the cause of the improved grades then they would carry out a randomised trial, where they took a group of students and randomly assigned half of the students a bottle of water to take in to the exam and then determine if there was a significant difference. What is more frustrating is that this research has taken the media by storm, but has not been critically analysed and peer reviewed before hand, as it has not yet been submitted for publication. Peer reviewing of such research would highlight the need for increased numbers of study subjects and the implementation of randomised trials, before releasing claims that water can improve exam grades, as this is likely to be a fallacy. 

E Markham (2012). Refreshment Review Blogspot

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