Small Sample Methods for Multilevel Modeling: A Colloquial Elucidation of REML and the Kenward-Roger Correction

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156 Scopus citations


Studies on small sample properties of multilevel models have become increasingly prominent in the methodological literature in response to the frequency with which small sample data appear in empirical studies. Simulation results generally recommend that empirical researchers employ restricted maximum likelihood estimation (REML) with a Kenward-Roger correction with small samples in frequentist contexts to minimize small sample bias in estimation and to prevent inflation of Type-I error rates. However, simulation studies focus on recommendations for best practice, and there is little to no explanation of why traditional maximum likelihood (ML) breaks down with smaller samples, what differentiates REML from ML, or how the Kenward-Roger correction remedies lingering small sample issues. Due to the complexity of these methods, most extant descriptions are highly mathematical and are intended to prove that the methods improve small sample performance as intended. Thus, empirical researchers have documentation that these methods are advantageous but still lack resources to help understand what the methods actually do and why they are needed. This tutorial explains why ML falters with small samples, how REML circumvents some issues, and how Kenward-Roger works. We do so without equations or derivations to support more widespread understanding and use of these valuable methods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)661-670
Number of pages10
JournalMultivariate Behavioral Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 3 2017


  • Kenward-Roger
  • Restricted maximum likelihood
  • explanation
  • mixed model
  • tutorial

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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