Education research: Interview with Dan Greene

Daniel Greene
If you’d like to work in education research and design to make a difference, how should you go about it? We recently asked Dan Greene for his thoughts. Dan is a member of our community and graduate researcher at Stanford specialising in online education.

Note: the opinions below are Dan’s own.

What do you work on?

I do randomized controlled trials in online courses. You can find out more about my lab’s work at I love my work – it’s really fascinating, I think it’s relatively impactful, and I think I can translate it to even more impactful areas after I finish my PhD. But it took me a while to find my niche.

What are good PhD topics?

A PhD is training in research. You should think of it as building a skill-set of discovering knowledge. You’ll inevitably want to broaden at first, and look at lots of different things, but keep in mind that you get the most value from it by building specific, tangible, demonstrable skills and expertise in specific things.

Education is a very very broad “field”, and I think it’s useful to distinguish between research topics, data collection techniques, analysis techniques, and intervention techniques. These can be combined to create new and exciting research flavors! For example, my flavor is “academic motivation + surveys and online course data + randomized controlled trials and machine learning + social psychological interventions.” These are the things you want to choose early and become expert in.

Here are some examples of likely high-impact topics, pulled off the top of my head. I think most of the high-impact topics in education research are in the realm of social psychology, educational psychology, and neuroscience, and are focused on increasing human motivation, productivity, and well-being.

  • Brain training regimens for improving attention, working memory, intelligence, etc.
  • Early childhood education (James Heckman has demonstrated that this gets great long-term returns for society)
  • Education and cognitive health for the elderly
  • Community college education (CCs support tons of students and get little research attention)
  • Generalizable principles of academic motivation
  • Specific motivational roadblocks that create experiences of threat for a target population (e.g. the feeling you don’t belong; see work by Greg Walton)
  • Metacognitive skills like time management, self-control, and study skills
  • Parenting education
  • Public health education (see Development Media International for a promising example)

Another plus for working in social psychology is that you can develop expertise in areas related to persuasion and attitude change. These topics transfer nicely to work that involves encouraging more people to promote social change – clearly a high-impact endeavor! That’s my bias though. You could also become an education-focused economist and then port your skills to other economic work, or just make money and give it away, etc.

What skills are good to focus on?

Here are some good data collection techniques. With few exceptions, I highly recommend going a quantitative route because of the leverage you get from large-scale digital data-sources. There’s just SO much potential to collect and analyze huge amounts of data, it’s a pity to focus on traditional ethnographic or other qualitative methods, except as a stepping-stone to something more quantitative.

  • Survey design
  • Experimental design
  • Psychometrics and educational assessment design
  • Passive data collection and web scraping through the internet
  • Using online course data (grades, site usage patterns, etc.)
  • Basic interview / focus group work (again, used as a stepping stone)

Here are some good analysis techniques – again, technical is a safe bet! If you can, I recommend learning to use R over other analysis software if possible.

  • Linear regression
  • Data visualization/graphing (ggplot2 in R)
  • Any data mining or machine learning methods are amazing
  • Network analysis
  • Economics models (I don’t know much about this)

Finally, here are some intervention techniques, if you end up doing some kind of intervention work:

  • Social-psychological “wise” interventions (see Greg Walton’s work for an example)
  • Online course modules, interactive simulations, or apps
  • TMS or other methods of brain stimulation, if you do brain stuff
  • Text-message reminders or other “just-in-time” methods

In addition, no matter what you do, you will want to be top-notch at working in teams, writing and speaking clearly, organizing your ideas, processing and organizing academic papers you read, etc. These are general researcher skills that are indispensable in many careers.