What have longitudinal studies ever done for us? A beginner’s guide is here

Alison Park.

Earlier this year the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) launched its Longitudinal Studies Strategic Review – commissioned to assess the value and future needs of longitudinal research in the UK.

The review clearly recognised the importance of the UK’s portfolio of longitudinal studies, highlighting some of the key insights that have been realised through research using their data. It also rightly asked questions about how we can best promote the use of longitudinal data, and what training and capacity building can best help ensure that these valuable resources get used as much as possible.

The review recognised that, although individual studies can (and do) do a great deal to help their data users, there is considerable value in resources that apply to a range of longitudinal studies rather than just one.

This is an area we have been working hard on at CLOSER, a centre at the IOE that brings together eight world-leading longitudinal studies. We could see that, although there is existing provision for more experienced students and researchers, there is little available for those who are new to the studies. So we have focused our efforts on materials aimed at this group – which includes students early in their studies or researchers outside academia.

These discussions led us to develop CLOSER’s Learning Hub. The Hub provides accessible and engaging online content to help people who are new to longitudinal studies. Information is available in a variety of forms, including text (which can be downloaded), quizzes and – newly launched this week – five bite-sized animations summarising  key information about longitudinal studies.

The topics included in the Hub include:

  • An introduction to longitudinal studies– for example, different types of longitudinal studies and what we can learn from them,
  • Study design– for example, where the samples come from and how data is collected,
  • Research case studies– which focus on a particular paper that makes use of longitudinal data,
  • A training dataset, based on the 1958 National Child Development Study, and suggested teaching exercises,
  • An interactive comprehensive glossary of key terms.

Users can work through any – or all – of these areas in turn. Or, if they want to focus on a particular topic area, an ‘explore by topic’ section allows them to look at why longitudinal data might be used to study a particular issue.

Jigsaw puzzle

Take bullying for example. In this section, the Hub provides selected evidence from different longitudinal studies on the topic. Did you know, for example, that the scarring effects of bullying are visible 40 years later and that children with special educational needs are twice as likely to be bullied at school? You can find out more about the longitudinal evidence that underpins these findings here.

This section also summarises what information the studies collect on bullying (and how they do this), and sets out the advantages and challenges of using longitudinal data to investigate this area. There are currently three explore by topic sections (bullying, health behaviours and mental health and wellbeing), and more will be added soon.

Our next major launch will be a section about longitudinal data analysis that will lead users through different approaches to the analysis of longitudinal data, making use of our training dataset. We expect to make this available in time for the next academic year.

Once you’ve watched the animations, take a tour through the Learning Hub, and see how much you’ve learned by trying our quiz here.

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Posted in Evidence-based policy, Social sciences and social policy, young people

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This blog is written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education.

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