Stop and Think: Learning Counterintuitive Concepts

The ‘Stop and Think: Learning Counterintuitive Concepts’ project aimed to improve science and maths attainment for Year 3 and Year 5 pupils (aged 7-10). The problem it aims to solve is that children’s ability to learn science and maths concepts can be limited because of their tendency to answer with an intuitive response. For example, children are taught that the world is round, yet there is no direct visual evidence to support this idea as the horizon looks flat. Or they might make the mistake of thinking that -5 is larger than -1. These are counterintuitive concepts. Stop and Think is a computer-assisted learning activity that aims to improve a learner’s ability to adapt to such counterintuitive concepts by training them to inhibit their initial response and, instead, give a slower and more reflective answer. The intervention was delivered by teachers to the whole class. It consisted of 30 sessions delivered for a maximum of 15 minutes, three times a week, for 10 weeks at the start of maths or science lessons. The intervention was developed at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience, by a team from Birkbeck University of London, and the UCL Institute of Education.


Cross curriculum



Key Stage 2

Key stage

EEF Summary

This project was funded as part of joint initiative by the EEF and Wellcome to explore how insights from neuroscience can be used to improve education. Evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience research supports the hypothesis that ‘inhibitory control’ is necessary to develop reasoning skills, particularly in maths and science. This is because it can be a challenge for pupils to let go of popular beliefs or perceptions in science; while in maths, it is important to move beyond solutions which seem ‘obvious’ and to uncover formal logical solutions to a problem.

Our trial involved 89 primary schools and 6672 pupils. The independent evaluation found ‘Stop and Think’ had positive impacts on both science and maths outcomes. Pupilswho participated in the programme made the equivalent of +1 additional month’s progress in maths and +2 additional months’ progress in science, on average, compared to children in the lessons-as-usual control group.

These results have high security: 4 out of 5 on the EEF padlock scale.

The trial applied a further test to ‘Stop and Think’. To check whether any impact was the programme specifically, or the result of additional engagement and motivation from having a novel computer-based activity at the start of lessons more generally, schools were offered an alternative computer-based programme that did not include any content from ‘Stop and Think’. The evaluation found that pupils who received ‘Stop and Think’ also made more progress than pupils in this ‘control-plus’ group.

There were two primary outcomes in this trial, measuring maths and science attainment. The evaluator highlights that having two primary outcomes increases the risk – from 5% to 9.75% – that a ‘false positive’ result may be found by chance. This, in combination with the positive maths outcome not being statistically significant, means that the evaluator has not been able to conclude that the programme is effective at raising attainment outcomes overall. However, the EEF takes the view that positive results across the trial in both subjects, and in particular in science – together with the high security rating of the trial – do suggest evidence of promise for ‘Stop and Think’ as a programme. 

The EEF is exploring the possibility of trialling the programme at a larger scale. Any future trial would need to tackle issues with implementation – teachers reported issues with the software and fitting the approach into the school day.

Research Results

Were the schools in the trial similar to my school?

  • There were 89 primary schools in the trial, located across England
  • 90% of the schools were rated Good or Outstanding by OFSTED
  • 15% of the pupils in the study were eligible for FSM

Could I implement this in my school?

  • The Stop and Think programme was delivered by teachers at the start of maths or science lessons.
  • An initial in-school training session was delivered to participating teachers, where a Birkbeck researcher demonstrated how to use the computer programme. This typically lasted under half an hour. Written guidance was also given to each school.
  • The researcher was also available to deal with any follow-up queries by telephone or email throughout the period.
  • Most teachers that responded to the online surveys said that their school did not require any additional resources to run Stop and Think, and that it took between one and five minutes to prepare for each session


Delivered by


Whole Class

Participant group


1 Term

Intervention length

How much will it cost?

The average cost of Stop and Think was £6 per pupil per year when averaged over 3 Years. This estimate is based on the delivery of the intervention to one year group. It is estimated on the basis of the programme software being free, and includes costs of the initial training and ongoing support from Birkbeck provided in this trial for the first year only. The assumption is that schools could use the handbook for the subsequent two years without training. This estimate does not include costs associated with staff time such as training and preparation. Schools estimated, on average, that the time involved in preparing for and setting up Stop and Think was less than five minutes, and the average length of the one-off training at the start of the year was less than thirty minutes. 



Cost per pupil



No. of Teachers/TAs


0.5 Days

Training time per staff member

Evaluation info





Key Stage

Key Stage 2

Start date

January 2015

End date

September 2019

Type of trial

Efficacy Trial

Evaluation Conclusions

  1. Children in the intervention group made the equivalent of one additional month progress in maths and two additional months’ progress in science, on average, compared to children in the control group. The maths result is not statistically significant. This means that the statistical evidence does not meet the threshold set by the evaluator to conclude that the true impact was non-zero. These results have a high security rating. 

  2. The use of two primary outcomes increases the risk that a false positive result may be found through chance. The mixed results between the two outcomes mean that the evaluator is unable to conclude that the programme is effective at raising attainment outcomes. 

  3. The project found no evidence that the Stop and Think programme had an impact on pupils’ general inhibitory control. 

  4. A majority of teachers thought that Stop and Think had a positive impact on the mathematical and science abilities of the pupils in their class. Other impacts of using the programme included pupils taking time to consider their response before answering questions, enhanced confidence and improving engagement in learning.

  5. The majority of teachers did not endorse the roll out of the programme in its current form to other schools. The most common reasons given were the difficulty in fitting delivery into the school day, software problems, pupil engagement, the accuracy of content, quality of animation and some of the content being too easy. 

  1. Updated: 4th August, 2020

    Printable project summary

    1 MB pdf - EEF-learning-counterintuitive-concepts.pdf

  2. Updated: 26th September, 2019

    Evaluation report

    2 MB pdf - Stop_and_Think.pdf

  3. Updated: 3rd August, 2016

    Project Protocol

    748 KB pdf - EEF_Project_Protocol_Learning_counterintuitive_concepts_Final.pdf

  4. Updated: 31st January, 2018

    Project Protocol (AMENDED)

    775 KB pdf - Neuroscience_-_Counterintuitive_Concepts_Protocol_AMENDED.pdf

  5. Updated: 18th June, 2018

    Statistical Analysis Plan

    432 KB pdf - Neuroscience_-_Counterintuitive_Concepts_SAP.pdf

Full project description