We want everyone to reach their full potential and to develop the skills they need for work and life success. Working closely with nurseries, schools, colleges and universities, we use behavioural insights to offer extra support to teachers, learners and their families throughout the education journey.
This includes motivating learners and teachers, and simplifying processes for parents to support their children’s learning. A positive nudge at the right time can have a lifelong impact.
Our current priorities include helping parents, increasing engagement with careers advice and digital learning, and tackling inequalities in education.
Improving student attendance
Boosting engagement with careers advice and training
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.
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:
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.
Our brains are constantly developing throughout our lives but one of the most sensitive stages for brain development is from birth to three years. Too many children in the UK go on to experience difficulties in their lives because they have been denied a nurturing environment that supports brain development in the earliest years of life.
This issue is closely linked with poverty. Children who grow up in households that face economic hardship and all that comes with it – such as irregular work schedules, unstable income, lack of social support, and mental and physical health issues – are exposed to excessive amounts of stress. This can disrupt the architecture of their developing brains.
Every parent wants the very best for their child. However, having to juggle competing demands day in, day out can require a great deal of effort, leaving parents with little time to spend with their children.
Programmes designed to address this challenge must take account of the critical decisions parents make every day under stress and uncertainty. They must reflect the fact that most parents in the first few years of their child’s life operate on little sleep, constantly feel as though they are being stretched in multiple directions, and may lack social support from family and friends.
Behavioural insights can help to support parents to create effective home learning environments for their young children. In our work over the years, we’ve identified many behavioural biases parents face on a daily basis, such as ‘present bias’, ‘availability bias’ and even ‘loss aversion’.
Over the next three to five years, we hope to focus our attention on ensuring children have the best opportunities in the following two areas.
Growing up physically and emotionally healthy
In the UK, 25 per cent of children (aged 2–4) are overweight – an increase of 49 per cent since 1990 (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 2017). Obesity during childhood has long-lasting consequences: obese children are less likely to transition to tertiary education (Ryabov, 2018) and earn less as adults (Cawley, 2004). There are also many implications for children’s mental health, such as having low self-esteem or (in the more severe cases) developing disorders.
Behavioural insights can play a role by:
- assisting parents to make better choices in relation to their children’s diets – for example, encouraging breastfeeding, devising simple rules of thumb for snack and meal times, and leveraging the ‘big moments’ in a child’s first five years (e.g. first tooth) to promote positive behaviours for healthy physical and cognitive growth;
- helping industry to play its part in reducing childhood obesity (e.g. installing signs with information on which foods make healthy snacks).
Receiving support from their parents
Around 27 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men suffer from mental health issues after becoming parents (NCCMH, 2018). Children who grow up in homes where there are mental health issues are at risk of not having their physical and cognitive developmental needs met, and this can have a profound impact on their education.
Behavioural insights can play a role by:
- making it easy for parents to access mental health services during pregnancy and postnatally;
- mobilising support networks for parents via the NCT and other channels (e.g. connecting parents whose children were born in the same week);
- leveraging touch points throughout pregnancy (e.g. the 20-week scan or home visits from a nurse).
COVID-19 is exacerbating attendance issues, due both to disruption and increased anxiety. Attendance at remote learning sessions has been very low during school closures, particularly for less advantaged pupils – leading to a widening in attainment gaps by about a third. Even where schools have returned, attendance rates have often been lower than usual – at around 88% in England (anything below 95% is considered problematic). To close attainment gaps, governments will need new efforts to support good attendance.
Why this matters
Absence rates in the UK, US and elsewhere tend to be too high even in normal times. 13% of UK pupils are persistently absent from school (i.e., miss 10% or more of school days), while 16% of US pupils are chronically absent (i.e., missing 15 days of school per year or about 8% of school days). The consequences of persistent absenteeism are significant. Student absences robustly predict academic performance, drug and alcohol use, criminality, and risk of later life adverse outcomes. By contrast, even a small increase in attendance can lead to a meaningful improvement in attainment. For example, every extra half-day of attendance during Key Stage 4 in the UK (age 14-16) correlates with a 1.8 per cent increase in the likelihood of achieving 5 A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent.
How behavioural insights can help
While many barriers to attendance are structural in nature, others are behavioural. For example, schools tend to express attendance as a percentage. This can be confusing and may not clearly signal a problem when one exists, since in a school context ‘90% attendance’ sounds positive, but could actually reflect 15 days of school missed (which is problematic).
BIT and Bristol City Council ran a recent randomised controlled trial with 9,000 pupils to test the impact of parent updates about school days missed by their children (only sent to parents of pupils with below 95% attendance in the previous term). Exploratory analysis found that the intervention drove a significant increase in the proportion of students keeping good attendance records (95%+) – a 4 percentage point rise from 59.5% to 63.3% (see below). Additionally, we saw that the intervention was effective during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak – suggesting that a version of this intervention could boost attendance as schools return. For more information, read this blog post.
The effect of attendance updates on students keeping good attendance records
Attendance before and during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic
COVID-19 looks set to create the worst unemployment crisis in a century, further impacting those already most at risk of redundancy from automation: low skilled workers, women, and young people. As governments provide support for retraining, they should also consider how behavioural science could improve career advice (to help individuals pursue job opportunities with longevity) and motivate uptake and completion of training courses.
Choosing a career and appropriate training requires significant motivation and know-how. There are many tasks involved (from selecting a course to securing funding) and information about training and job options can often be hard to navigate and understand.
When we face a high-stakes choice with options that are hard to compare, we tend to rely on mental shortcuts or “heuristics”. BIT’s research with secondary students shows that career decisions are often made this way. While mental shortcuts can make career decisions more manageable, they may also result in the early rejection of options that are less familiar, feel riskier, or involve more upfront effort. This creates a risk that jobseekers focus their search too narrowly – considering only jobs that look like those they held before, which may be disappearing as technology changes the labour market.
How behavioural insights can help
BIT has shown how behavioural interventions can support better career decision-making; from increasing uptake of career advice to encouraging individuals to consider a wider set of career options.
1. Increasing uptake of careers advice. A quarter of people who make an appointment with the National Careers Service fail to attend, and BIT’s research suggests that low self-belief is a key reason for this. We designed an appointment reminder message to boost self-belief: “‘no one is born with a perfect career. Time & effort can boost your skills & CV…”. This reduced failure-to-attend rates by 24%.
2. Prompting people to consider a wider option set. BIT tested a short exercise – using norms, relatable messengers and self-reflection – to motivate secondary school students to engage with careers advice. Those who took the exercise were 14% more likely to express interest in careers shown afterwards, compared to students in the control group.
3. Boosting applications and uptake of offers. Behavioural interventions may be particularly valuable where individuals from underrepresented backgrounds discount options based on their personal characteristics, such as gender or low-income status. For example:
- Sixth-form students from underrepresented backgrounds who received letters from a current top-tier university student of a similar background, were 17% more likely to apply and 34% more likely to accept a place at a top-tier university.
- BIT trialed 3 short activities to encourage more female students to take STEM A levels. These were designed to overcome the inhibiting effect of stereotype threat and diminished sense of belonging in science, maths and computing, as well as raising awareness about the value of these subjects. The findings (yet to be published) suggest there is value in exploring these approaches further.
4. Increasing persistence and completion of training. Evidence suggests that boosting learners’ confidence in their ability and helping them see the value of training can increase course completion. Previous BIT projects found that:
- Encouraging students to reflect on positive aspects of their identity – namely their personal values – can boost course completion and pass rates by up to 25%
- Prompting students’ support networks to offer ongoing encouragement may increase pass rates – though further testing is needed as a recent EEF trial found this approach did not make a significant difference.
Increasing persistence in and completion of training
Evidence suggests that boosting learners’ confidence in their ability, helping them see the value of training, and reducing choice overload (e.g. through using simple tools to match individuals to relevant courses) can increase course completion rates. Previous BIT projects have found that:
- Encouraging students to reflect on positive aspects of their identity – namely their personal values – can boost course completion and pass rates by up to 25 per cent.
- Prompting students’ support networks to offer ongoing encouragement may increase pass rates, though further testing is needed as a recent trial from the Education Endowment Foundation found that this approach did not make a significant difference.
There is a clear need for effective career advice to help those at risk of becoming NEET or redundant to navigate the disruption COVID-19 has caused to the labour market and education system. Sutton Trust research indicates that career and education advice suffered during lockdown. As the government ramps up support for lifelong learning, good career guidance – that aligns with human decision-making – will be integral to the economic recovery.
We would like to partner with education institutions, career advice professionals, and online career guidance providers, to test behavioural interventions – such as timely nudges, parental engagement or psychosocial activities (e.g., utility-value exercises) to improve decision making and support access to education or work opportunities.