Designing Optimal, Data-Driven Policies from Multisite Randomized Trials

Psychometrika. 2023 Dec;88(4):1171-1196. doi: 10.1007/s11336-023-09937-2. Epub 2023 Oct 24.


Optimal treatment regimes (OTRs) have been widely employed in computer science and personalized medicine to provide data-driven, optimal recommendations to individuals. However, previous research on OTRs has primarily focused on settings that are independent and identically distributed, with little attention given to the unique characteristics of educational settings, where students are nested within schools and there are hierarchical dependencies. The goal of this study is to propose a framework for designing OTRs from multisite randomized trials, a commonly used experimental design in education and psychology to evaluate educational programs. We investigate modifications to popular OTR methods, specifically Q-learning and weighting methods, in order to improve their performance in multisite randomized trials. A total of 12 modifications, 6 for Q-learning and 6 for weighting, are proposed by utilizing different multilevel models, moderators, and augmentations. Simulation studies reveal that all Q-learning modifications improve performance in multisite randomized trials and the modifications that incorporate random treatment effects show the most promise in handling cluster-level moderators. Among weighting methods, the modification that incorporates cluster dummies into moderator variables and augmentation terms performs best across simulation conditions. The proposed modifications are demonstrated through an application to estimate an OTR of conditional cash transfer programs using a multisite randomized trial in Colombia to maximize educational attainment.

Keywords: Q-learning; clustered data; conditional cash transfer program; heterogeneous treatment effects; multilevel data; optimal treatment regimes; optimal treatment rules; personalized learning; weighting.

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Humans
  • Policy*
  • Psychometrics
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Design*