The Bloomsbury Colleges | PhD Studentships | Studentships 2020 | The relationship between executive function skills, technology use, and educational outcomes in a cohort of 6,000 UK adolescents
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The relationship between executive function skills, technology use, and educational outcomes in a cohort of 6,000 UK adolescents

Principal supervisor: Professor Andy Tolmie, Department of Psychology and Human Development, UCL Institute of Education

Co-Supervisor: Professor Michael Thomas, Department of Psychological Science, Birkbeck, University of London

Award includes tuition fees and a stipend of £17,009 including London Weighting (at 2019/20 rates, so slightly higher for 2020 entry)

100% FTE for 3 years, from September 2020.

Project Description:

This PhD studentship project will involve secondary data analysis of the relationship between adolescent executive function skills, technology use (mobile phones and gaming), and educational outcomes. It will use data from the SCAMP (Study of Cognition, Adolescents, and Mobile Phones) cohort, a Department of Health funded project led by Mireille Toledano at Imperial College, on which Michael Thomas is a co-investigator, and to which Andy Tolmie is educational advisor. The project will take place in the context of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, a cross-institution research centre spanning UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck, of which Michael Thomas and Andy Tolmie are both members, and in collaboration with staff at Imperial. Data have been collected at two time points on technology use, health, lifestyle data, and cognitive abilities of 6,000 11-14-year-old adolescents living within the M25 area. Sensitive measures of cognitive skills were collected for: cognitive control (“executive functions”), intelligence, speech processing, visuospatial attention, and focus/distractibility, skills that mostly continue to develop across adolescence. An application has also been made to the Department for Education for further data on the cohort, including GCSE results, within-school academic assessments, SEN information, and school attendance. This will yield the largest dataset in this area ever collected for a young adolescent age group – a group that has been less studied compared to early and mid-childhood. Executive function skills, the main focus of the cognitive battery, continue to develop across adolescence and have been linked to educational achievement, both cross-sectionally and longitudinally. Differences in executive function skills are also linked to mental health issues, though the direction of causality remains unclear. Analysing the link between the existing SCAMP cohort data and educational outcomes will allow us to answer the following questions:

  1. Does technology use make teenagers more distractible, impacting on educational outcomes?
  2. Do smart phones serve as study aids, improving academic achievement?
  3. Are early executive function skills a direct predictor of educational outcomes? Is this a general effect or specific to particular outcomes? Which tests are most sensitive, and therefore capable of providing a basis to identify children who need extra help?
  4. Do early executive function skills predict later health behaviours (alcohol, drugs, diet, sleep), which subsequently impact on educational outcomes?

As well as receiving generic training in research skills in line with the UK Researcher Development Framework, the successful candidate will be offered training in the use of linear mixed modelling and structural equation modelling, to evaluate the relationship between the key measures of executive functioning, technology use, and educational outcomes, particularly focusing on technology as moderating or mediating factors. Analyses will explore the combination of large-scale cross-sectional and longitudinal data. As first supervisor, Andy Tolmie has made extensive use of factor analysis, regression modelling and path analysis, is well-versed in structural equation modelling and multilevel modelling, and recently published (as first author) a text book on quantitative analysis covering all of these areas. Michael Thomas has published influential papers on the use of trajectory analyses to understand constraints on cognitive development, as well as intervention studies impacting educational outcomes. The supervision team will discuss a specific training needs plan appropriate to the student and project with the selected candidate. NB recruitment will be limited to Home/EU students except in cases where the applicant has funding available to cover the difference in costs between the Home/EU and International fees.

Subject Areas/Keywords:

Key References:

Best, J.R., Miller, P.H., Naglieri, J.A., 2011. Relations between executive function and academic achievement from ages 5 to 17 in a large, representative national sample. Learn. Individ. Differ. 21, 327–336. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2011.01.007

Dumontheil, I., Klingberg, T., 2012. Brain activity during a visuospatial working memory task predicts arithmetical performance 2 years later. Cereb. Cortex 22. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhr175

Snyder, H.R., Miyake, A., Hankin, B.L., 2015. Advancing understanding of executive function impairments and psychopathology: bridging the gap between clinical and cognitive approaches. Front. Psychol. 6, 328. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00328

St Clair-Thompson, H.L., Gathercole, S.E., 2006. Executive functions and achievements in school: Shifting, updating, inhibition, and working memory. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. (Hove). 59, 745–59. doi:10.1080/17470210500162854

Toledano, M. B., Mutz, J., Röösli, M., Thomas, M. S. C., Dumontheil, I., & Elliott, P., 2019. Cohort profile: Study of Cognition, Adolescents, and Mobile Phones (SCAMP). International Journal of Epidemiology, 48(1), 25–26,

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principal Supervisor:


Further information about PhDs in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at the UCL Institute of Education is available from:

Application forms and details about how to apply are available via the same link.

Closing date for applications is:      
10 February 2020