Small 'Nudges' Can Push Students in the Right Direction

"Nudges" are low-cost interventions meant to influence behavior by changing how or when choices are offered. Research is showing that when used with students, nudges can get positive results.

By Sarah D. Sparks

Be they toddlers, teenagers, teachers, or parents, people don’t like being told what to do, and research has shown one of the quickest ways to lower motivation is to try to force people to make changes—even if they agree with the end goal.

“Given the fact that the greatest returns of education come with a delay of months (or even years), it seems currently, schools lack adequate incentive schemes to make pupils perform well,” concluded a team of behavioral economists led by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt for a recent discussion by the Center on European Economic Research.

That’s why Levitt and other education researchers increasingly are exploring “nudges"—low-cost interventions that work to influence behavior by changing how or when choices are offered. These interventions usually involve small, cheap-to-implement changes, and some have shown significant results.

For example, Stanford University motivation researcher Carol Dweck said nudge interventions show promise in helping students and the adults around them develop a strong academic growth mindset, the belief that academic skills are not fixed but can be improved through effort. “We’ve discovered over time there are so many triggers in the environment that put any of us into more of a fixed mindset,” Dweck said. “Change is about recognizing when that happens and knowing how to trigger an environment that encourages a growth mindset.”

Here are five areas in which behavioral nudges are gaining ground.

Making the (Advanced Placement) Grade

“Small Changes Make a Big Difference: How Behavioral Science Improved Participation in Advanced Placement”

Nearly 300,000 students with potential to earn college credits through Advanced Placement courses never take the tests, according to the College Board, which runs AP.

The group found that high scores on the PSAT, generally given in 10th grade, are the strongest predictor of whether a student will pass an AP course with a high enough grade to earn college credit—but many students who score well on the PSAT don’t go on to take an AP course. That’s why College Board piloted a change to the way it reports students’ scores on the PSAT: for students with high scores, it added a message detailing their potential to succeed in an AP course.

In a pilot study of 400 10th graders in the Oakland, Calif., district, the group found among students with the same PSAT scores, those who received the personalized message were 49 percentage points more likely to participate in AP courses than those who got a standard report of their score. Those students were also significantly more likely to take and pass more AP tests with higher scores.

Text Your Way to College

“Freshman Year Financial Aid Nudges: An Experiment to Increase FAFSA Renewal and College Persistence”

From filing financial-aid paperwork on time to finding help moving to campus, the challenges for low-income high school graduates don’t stop when they get accepted to college. As many as 20 percent of low-income high school graduates accepted to college don’t end up enrolling.

Researchers Benjamin Castleman of the University of Virginia and Lindsay Page of the University of Pittsburgh developed a set of personalized text messages that automatically reminded high school students of upcoming college deadlines, with links to the needed forms and live help from counselors. A separate set of automated texts reminded community college freshmen to complete re-enrollment and financial-aid update forms each year.

The high school program cost $7 per student, and the community college program cost $5 per student, but they both show significant benefits. High school students who received reminder texts were 7 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than those who didn’t, 70 percent versus 63 percent. And 68 percent of community college students who got the reminders completed their sophomore year, 14 percentage points higher than those who didn’t. For students with high school grade point averages below 3.0 out of 5, the benefits were even bigger; their likelihood of enrolling in college and staying through at least their second year was at least 20 percentage points greater if they received reminder texts.

Fewer Suspensions, More Respect

“Brief Intervention to Encourage Empathic Discipline Cuts Suspension Rates in Half Among Adolescents”

Students and parents aren’t the only ones who can benefit from small interventions.

Stanford University researchers Jason Okonofua, David Paunesku, and Gregory Walton randomly assigned half the teachers at five middle schools to complete a short online activity designed to encourage them to empathize with and respect students while disciplining them.

Students of teachers who finished the activity were suspended at half the rate of other teachers’ students over the course of the year, 4.8 percent versus 9.6 percent. Moreover, previously suspended students reported feeling significantly more respected when their teachers did the activity.

Student Mental Health

“Preventing Symptoms of Depression by Teaching Adolescents That People Can Change”

The 9th-grade year is often rough for students, but University of Texas at Austin researchers found a short writing assignment can help buffer students’ mental health during the transition to high school.

Adriana Sum Miu and David Yeager randomly assigned incoming freshmen to read a text and write a short reflective essay on evidence that people’s social characteristics and skills change and improve over time.

Nine months later, the researchers found students who had not received the intervention reported 40 percent more symptoms of depression and anxiety than they had at the start of the study—about typical for the start of high school. But students who had taken part in the exercise showed no increase in negative symptoms during that time.

School-Attendance Boosts

“Connecting With Families to Improve Students’ School Attendance: A Review of the Literature,” “What Is Attendance Texting?”

In elementary school, students don’t cut class; if they aren’t in school, it’s likely because their parents couldn’t get them there.

University of Pittsburgh researchers, working with the United Way of Allegheny County, devised a text-messaging system to both remind parents of the importance of getting their children to school on time and to help them do so. When a student misses school, parents get a text message showing how much school their child has missed so far and asking if the family needs help. Parents could reply to get assistance with before-school programs, transportation, or other supports.

In a pilot, 40 percent of the targeted students improved their attendance, and nearly a third who previously had been chronically absent—missing 10 days or more the prior year—moved out of chronic absenteeism.

Since the pilot in 2013, the United Way has expanded the program in a Be There campaign to 43 districts including Pittsburgh’s public schools.

What Makes a ‘Nudge’?

  • Interventions based on analysis of human behavior, including the habits, routines, and biases in normal decisionmaking
  • Cheap or free to implement (e.g., sending an email, changing seating arrangement)
  • Does not require or forbid an action (As Cass Sunstein put it, “Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”)
  • Generally used at the time a person makes a decision

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as Small ‘Nudges’ Can Push Students in the Right Direction