Behaviour incentives improve exam results for low-achieving students

Low-achieving students respond to incentives to increase their effort and engagement at school and do better than predicted on GCSE exams as a consequence. That is the main finding of a discussion paper published by the University of Bristol.

The project, led by Simon Burgess, Director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), included more than 10,000 Year 11 students in 63 schools. The schools were recruited in the poorest parts of neighbourhoods in England and were randomised to one of the following treatment groups: financial incentives, non-financial incentives, or control. Students in the incentive treatment groups earned rewards every half-term based on inputs such as attendance, conduct, homework, and classwork, rather than for outputs such as assessment results. The financial incentive rewarded students with cash up to the value of £80 per half-term, while the non-financial incentive offered students the chance to qualify for a high-value event determined jointly by the school and students, such as a sporting event or trip to a theme park.

The researchers hoped to find that the incentives would improve effort and engagement and ultimately lead to improved GCSE performance even though the results themselves carried no rewards. The analysis showed that overall the impact of either financial or non-financial incentives on achievement was low, with small, positive but statistically insignificant effects on exam performance. However, among students with low predicted GCSE grades, those in the intervention groups got better marks than students in the control group, with treatment effects stronger for the financial incentives than the non-financial incentives (particularly in science). For students who were expected to do well, and already making an effort at school, the incentives made little difference.

Source: Understanding the response to financial and non-financial incentives in education: Field experimental evidence using high-stakes assessments (2016), Discussion Paper 16 / 678, University of Bristol