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Four principles to support learners: our new reports from the Behavioural Research Centre for Adult Skills and Knowledge

27th Feb 2018

Susannah Hume, Fionnuala O’Reilly, Bibi Groot, Raj Chande, Michael Sanders, Andy Hollingsworth, Janna Ter Meer, Jessica Barnes, Samantha Booth, Eliza Kozman and Xian-Zhi Soon

In 2014, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, funded the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to create the Behavioural Research Centre for Adult Skills & Knowledge (ASK), with the aim of using behavioural insights and rigorous evaluation to test different ways of supporting learners in their pursuit of maths and English skills in England. ASK’s research spanned 23 projects across different learning settings, and involved tens of thousands of learners all over England.

Today, with the Department for Education, we are excited to be releasing two reports on the work of ASK. One is a full research report covering all the projects that ASK undertook, including programmes of research into supporting further education (FE) college learners, partnerships with employers to understand the potential of workplace learning, and several exploratory studies with partners in the third sector.

The second is a guide for FE college practitioners that draws on a number of the headline ASK findings, as well as the broader academic literature, to provide a set of principles and suggested approaches for how practitioners and policymakers might further support learners.

  • Principle 1: Remind and Encourage – Timely prompts can motivate learners, and help them engage with their learning and build study habits. In one of our trials, texting encouragements and reminders to learners studying maths and English in FE colleges improved attendance by 22 percent (7.4 percentage points, from 34.0 to 41.4 percent) and improved the proportion passing all their exams by 16 percent (8.7 percentage points, from 54.5 to 63.2 percent).
  • Principle 2: Promote Social Support Networks – Many learners lack the continuous encouragement needed to persevere with their studies, even though they may have friends, family and acquaintances who would be willing to help. Texting a FE learners’ friends and family prompts to encourage the learner improved attendance by 5 percent (3.2 percentage points, from 63.5 to 66.7 percent) and achievement by 27 percent (5.9 percentage points, from 22.2 to 28.1 percent).
  • Principle 3: Create a Sense of Belonging in the Classroom – Many learners in maths and English courses may feel uncomfortable in the learning environment due to their previous educational experiences. We found that a short, but well designed reflective writing exercise can help. An exercise where FE learners reflected on and wrote about their personal values improved achievement by 25 percent (4.2 percentage points, from 16.7 to 20.9 percent).
  • Principle 4: Develop Skills Beyond Maths and English – Research shows that essential life skills such as self-control and emotional intelligence can be as important as cognitive ability for lifetime success; however less is known about how to support development of these skills. For instance, we found that a set of exercises targeting FE learners’ ‘Grit’ (i.e. their ability to persevere towards long run goals) improved attendance for the first half of the year; however, this effect was not sustained. Further exploration is needed on how these improvements can be sustained and increased.

While the statistics describe the quantitative impact of the interventions ASK trialled, the impact goes beyond the numbers. We were interested in how the learners felt about the interventions and how they worked at an individual level. Below are some quotes from learners about how the text messages trialled had an effect on their learning.

“In a way [the texts] are making me like feel more positive because I feel that I am going to get somewhere with a lot of hard work”.

“They’re reminding you what you need to do. If they didn’t care they wouldn’t remind you. Every week they will text you. They will take their time out and they will remind you, this is what you need to do, even though it is not their responsibility, they will tell you this is what you need to do.”

“I don’t think I would have got through the year without having someone to support me. She’d get a text about if I had an exam. She’d be like; “you’ve got your exam” and “revise it” and bring it up which was good because I didn’t use to talk about my exams. But this year I have, and she’s been really supportive with it.”

The results of some of ASK’s work is starting to spread across the sector. At BIT, we’re using our texting platform Promptable to make it easier for providers to adopt these findings, and is now working with some 30 FE colleges and 4,000 learners to take the findings to scale. In the next few months, more institutions at different educational levels will be coming on board, taking the total number of learners involved to over 10,000, across almost 100 different educational institutions. 

Our hope is that every college and education provider in the country can benefit from these results to help further support the three quarters of a million or so adult learners, and 16-18 year olds, studying maths and English. If you are a college or educational provider interested in working with us to take the results of our texting work to scale in your organisation, get in touch:

The breadth of ASK’s work, as covered in our full report, would not have been possible without the support of our many collaborators and partners.

In particular we are grateful to Professor Geoffrey Cohen and Michael Schwalbe, Stanford University, Professor Angela Duckworth and Dr Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, University of Pennsylvania, Professor Michael Luca, Harvard Business School, Professor Todd Rogers, Harvard Kennedy School, Professor Silvia Saccardo, Carnegie Mellon University, Dr Johannes Eichstaedt and Professor Andrew Schwartz as well as the ‘World Wellbeing Project’ team, University of Pennsylvania, Professor Heather Kappes and Professor Barbara Fasolo and Dr Jeroen Nieboer, London School of Economics and Political Science, Professor Sarah Smith, University of Bristol, Professor Syon Bhanot, Swarthmore College and David Mallows, Institute of Education, University College London.

Thanks are also due to to our colleagues (current and former) at the Department for Education including Catherine Paulson-Ellis, Eoin Parker, Helen McDaniel, Frank Bowley, Carl Creswell, Jo-Anna Irving, Richard Ward, Yeolanda Lopes, Gillian McFarland, Laura Reed and Alex Barker.

We would like to express our appreciation to the collaborating organisations who played such a vital role in making these projects happen, including the British Army, Lincolnshire Co-operative, Transport for London, the Association of Colleges, not to mention the dedicated staff at the colleges, businesses and children’s centres who went the extra mile to help us deliver this research.

Lastly, at BIT we would like to thank Elspeth Kirkman, Dr David Halpern, Owain Service, James Watson, Miranda Jackman, David Nolan, Alex Tupper, Dr Oana Borcan, Sean Robinson, Professor Netta Barak-Corren, Professor Elizabeth Linos, Dr Karen Melrose, Lucy Makinson, Pieter Cornel, Jessica Hunt, Ed Fitzhugh, Dr Pantelis Solomon, Chris Larkin, Jessica Heal, Sophie Odenthal, Samuel Hanes and everyone else who has contributed to ASK.