Over the last several years, countries across the globe—from the United Kingdom to Japan, Lebanon to Australia—have turned to behavioral science to improve the quality of services that governments provide to their citizens. Commonly called “nudge units,” these offices are charged with leveraging behavioral insights about how people navigate complex decisions and critical transitions in their lives to enhance how policies are designed and implemented.
Simply put, behavioral sciences have entered the mainstream of public policy innovation, development, and implementation. The education sector is experiencing a dramatic expansion of behaviorally-informed strategies to improve student outcomes. From pre-K through tertiary education, researchers and policy makers in communities across the world have implemented a variety of behavioral strategies to improve educational achievement and attainment, both for traditional school-aged youth and for adults who want to finish a degree or credential or acquire new skills and certifications.
Behavioral science approaches to improve education tend to be guided by several core principles. A central strategy is to change policies so that participating in important educational opportunities is the default condition rather than what students have to actively opt in to. Many behaviorally-informed efforts also aim to simplify information to help students and families understand their educational options and make informed choices, and to prompt students to complete important tasks before they miss binding deadlines. In the same way that Netflix uses advanced data science strategies to guide what we purchase, cutting-edge behavioral researchers creatively leverage available individual-level data to provide students and families with personalized pathways that position them for success, and that inform them about beneficial resources and opportunities that students might not otherwise be aware of.
Researchers, educators, and policy makers can begin applying these principles early on in children’s lives, before they have entered formal schooling, with the goal of reducing achievement gaps that are often pronounced even before children have participated in their first day of primary school. Researchers at Stanford University sent parents of three and four year-old children several text messages a week, prompting the parents to practice concrete pre-literacy strategies with their children. The text messages provided simple guidance about skills that parents could practice during their everyday interactions at home. For instance, one text guided parents, “Say two words that start with the same sound, like happy and healthy. Ask: can you hear the “hhh” sound in happy and healthy?” This intervention led to substantial increases in parental engagement with their children, and meaningful improvements in children’s cognitive performance. This innovative application of behavioral insights also demonstrates the increasingly common integration of technology to effectively provide information, encouragement, reminders, and reinforcement for students and parents to engage in important educational activities.
There have also been numerous applications of behaviorally-informed strategies to improve educational outcomes for students in primary and secondary school settings. In Lebanon, behavioral scientists and education experts are developing behaviorally-informed flyers that present simple steps to help Syrian refugee families enroll their children in public school. The flyers prompt parents to pick a specific place and date to enroll their children in school and the messaging starts and ends by priming the internal motivations and social norms of parents to encourage action. In the long-term, the approach could be converted to use dynamically updated information on schools with open spaces and technology platforms to disseminate the information to parents in an even more individualized and timely manner.
Researchers have also leveraged behaviorally-informed outreach to increase parental engagement in their children’s education. In the United Kingdom, for instance, sending parents text messages about their child’s upcoming tests and homework led to an improvement in math performance equivalent to students spending an extra month in the classroom. Similar trials in the United States have also led to stronger grade point averages for both middle and high school students.
Not all behavioral interventions focus on providing families with simplified information, delivered through more effective channels. For instance, important changes to the status quo of how college entrance exams are administered can increase the share of lower-income and underrepresented students who take the exams, and in turn pursue university education. These changes can take the form of having additional testing centers that are closer to where lower-income families live, or changing the default so that all students in a city or state take the college entrance exam at school, rather than requiring students and families to actively sign up for the test.
Other promising developments include the use of short interventions to change students’ mindsets. In Turkey, for example, researchers designed animated videos and class activities for 4th graders to explain how our brains are capable of growth and not fixed, and to think of failure as opportunities to learn and adpapt. After the intervention, students were more likely to persist in attempting challenging tasks and scored higher on low-stakes mathematics and Turkish exams.
In a time when funding for public bodies, development organizations, and schools is stretched thin, the high-impact and low-cost of behavioral interventions present a powerful tool for policymakers and practitioners. These interventions are not a silver bullet and they cannot replace great teachers, excellent curricula, and supportive learning environments at home and in communities. However, they do provide a powerful complement that can help improve access to, engagement with, and success in learning.