Embedding Experiments: Staking Causal Inference in Authentic Educational Contexts


  • Benjamin A. Motz Indiana University 1101 East 10th Street Bloomington, IN 47405 http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0379-2184
  • Paulo F. Carvalho Carnegie Mellon University 5000 Forbes Ave Pittsburgh, PA 15213 http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0449-3733
  • Joshua R. de Leeuw Vassar College 124 Raymond Avenue Poughkeepsie, NY 12604
  • Robert L. Goldstone Indiana University 1101 East 10th Street Bloomington, IN 47405




Causal inference, Experiments, Research Design, Ethics, A/B testing


To identify the ways teachers and educational systems can improve learning, researchers need to make causal inferences. Analyses of existing datasets play an important role in detecting causal patterns, but conducting experiments also plays an indispensable role in this research. In this article, we advocate for experiments to be embedded in real educational contexts, allowing researchers to test whether interventions such as a learning activity, new technology, or advising strategy elicit reliable improvements in authentic student behaviours and educational outcomes. Embedded experiments, wherein theoretically relevant variables are systematically manipulated in real learning contexts, carry strong benefits for making causal inferences, particularly when allied with the data-rich resources of contemporary e-learning environments. Toward this goal, we offer a field guide to embedded experimentation, reviewing experimental design choices, addressing ethical concerns, discussing the importance of involving teachers, and reviewing how interventions can be deployed in a variety of contexts, at a range of scales. Causal inference is a critical component of a field that aims to improve student learning; including experimentation alongside analyses of existing data in learning analytics is the most compelling way to test causal claims.

Author Biographies

Benjamin A. Motz, Indiana University 1101 East 10th Street Bloomington, IN 47405

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences Cognitive Science Program

Paulo F. Carvalho, Carnegie Mellon University 5000 Forbes Ave Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Human-Computer Interaction Institute

Joshua R. de Leeuw, Vassar College 124 Raymond Avenue Poughkeepsie, NY 12604

Cognitive Science Department

Robert L. Goldstone, Indiana University 1101 East 10th Street Bloomington, IN 47405

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences Cognitive Science Program


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How to Cite

Motz, B. A., Carvalho, P. F., de Leeuw, J. R., & Goldstone, R. L. (2018). Embedding Experiments: Staking Causal Inference in Authentic Educational Contexts. Journal of Learning Analytics, 5(2), 47–59. https://doi.org/10.18608/jla.2018.52.4



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