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For Education Interventions, a Little 'Nudge' Can Go a Long Way

Highly effective education interventions don't have to cost a lot, in time or money—and researchers should focus more attention on finding small-scale programs that can "nudge" students in the right direction, according to a new treatise in the journal Psychological Science.

"The impact of nudges is often greater, on a cost-adjusted basis, than that of traditional tools," the researchers said. "Nudges ... can succeed because they account for individuals' intuitions, emotions, and automatic decision-making processes. These processes can be triggered or enlisted with simple cues and subtle changes ... so nudges can be effective yet cheap."

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires school districts to ensure their school improvement efforts are backed by rigorous research, but critics have warned that several programs that meet the highest level of evidence—including Success for All and Reading Recovery—also can be a heavy lift for districts to implement them. Yet researchers led by Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School found that in the United States and other countries, extremely low-cost, short-term programs can provide benefits that add up quickly but are often overlooked. 

Milkman and colleagues at more than a half-dozen universities and government research groups analyzed behavioral interventions developed in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. The interventions focused on improving four key areas: college enrollment, immunization rates, retirement savings, and energy conservation. Each made small changes, such as streamlining financial aid forms, changing an employee's default savings plan, or automatically setting and reminding parents of an immunization appointment. 

The researchers found that the programs varied in their effects but generally produced small benefits. For every $1,000 spent on streamlining college financial aid, for example, 1.5 more students on average enrolled in college. That doesn't seem like much, but by comparison, a well-regarded Social Security benefit program that provided a more than $9,000 annual college subsidy only boosted enrollment by .03 students—an effect 40 times smaller. 

Many school districts are starting to explore these small-scale interventions, in everything from computer programs that gently remind students not to rush through a question to emails to parents on the importance of daily attendance for kindergartners. In all of the cases, districts were more able to experiment because the interventions cost virtually nothing and their effects could be tracked easily.

The authors called for more researchers to develop and study more "nudge" interventions, and to include more cost-benefit analyses in all of their evaluations of interventions. 


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