Digital learning

  • 2020

COVID-19 has accelerated use of digital learning platforms by schools, colleges, universities, and independent learners. This offers an unprecedented opportunity to democratise learning by making high-quality education more widely available.

However, the education technology (EdTech) sector must continue to innovate to support positive learner outcomes. Online courses often have lower completion rates than in-person learning. One study – looking at Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) – found that dropout rates can be as high as 96%. Likewise, remote learning during school closures has been far lower than during normal schooling – with 90% of UK teachers reporting that pupils did less or much less work than usual, for example. 

How behavioural insights can help

Without a live teacher to motivate learners and track their progress, digital platforms must find other ways to maintain users’ interest – this is where behavioural insights can help. A behavioural approach can identify areas of low engagement on digital learning platforms and rapidly test application of behavioural principles to boost engagement and outcomes. 

Previous behavioural science studies have revealed a host of approaches that boost engagement with digital learning – for example:

  • Support with study planning can boost online course completion by 29%.
  • Prompts to reflect on the benefits of achieving study goals and on how to overcome obstacles to these goals can increase course completion by 15% to 32%.
  • Peer interactions (e.g., live discussions or peer marking) improve engagement with remote learning.

To improve outcomes, learning exercises should also be designed to strengthen memory, for example by chunking key information or supporting metacognition and self-regulation.  

BIT has already worked with several digital learning platforms, such as HegartyMaths (one of the most widely used platforms in the UK) with successful results, including:

  • We more than doubled the number of students accessing help when they answer a question incorrectly on HegartyMaths, and improved student accuracy across the platform with a simple message that appears when students get a question wrong. 
  • We increased uptake of an evidence-based retrieval practice feature on HegartyMaths by 42% by changing the default setting from teachers opting in to teachers opting out.
  • We doubled sign-ups to an online study module (from 6.2% to 12.5% of emailed students) with King’s College London by sending messages to reduce learners’ anxiety about their academic ability. 

Below are a starting set of behavioral principles for online training providers to apply:


Behavioural Principle In Practice
  • Fewer clicks: Prompting HegartyMaths students to watch a ‘Get Help’ video after they answered a question incorrectly doubled video views and improved answer accuracy on future questions.
  • Changing defaults on key features from ‘opt in’ to ‘opt out’: This boosted uptake of an evidence-based revision feature on HegartyMaths by 42% as it reduced effort on teachers’ part.
  • Badges and streaks: Duolingo prompts users to make daily goals that are concrete and realistic and then provides timely feedback on progress via a series of badges or streaks, boosting engagement.
  • Prompts to reflect on the benefits of achieving study goals and on how to overcome obstacles to goals: This can increase course completion by 15% to 32%.
  • Reducing students’ anxieties about their academic ability: In a BIT trial with King’s College London, the message lots of King’s 1st years find adapting to university study takes timedoubled sign-ups to an online study module (from 6.2% to 12.5% of emailed students) – with particularly strong impact among less advantaged students.
  • Peer interactions: Live discussions or peer marking can improve engagement with remote learning.
  • Harnessing social support:  BIT has found that prompting a learners’ support network (friends, family) to offer regular encouragement to the learner by updating them on their studies can boost attendance and increase pass rates (by up to 25%), but this needs further testing. 
  • Highlight positive norms around engagement levels: Showing that other learners are highly engaged  could boost overall engagement. 
  • Support with study planning: Prompting students to make specific plans can boost online course completion by 29%.
  • Weekly encouragement/reminders: BIT has found that weekly text messages with encouragement and reminders about upcoming deadlines can boost pass rates (by up to 16%) but further testing is needed.


Where next?

In future, BIT would like to partner closely with digital learning platforms to run rapid test-and-learn cycles using behaviourally informed interventions. 

Please get in touch to discuss potential partnerships.