Nudging proves difficult to scale up

Small-scale trials of “nudge” approaches, where, for example, students are encouraged via a series of text messages to apply for financial support for college, have shown positive results. These trials have involved a few thousand students, but could the approach be scaled up to state or national level?

A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reports the results of two large randomised controlled trials that collectively reached over 800,000 students in the US. Kelli A. Bird and colleagues tested the impact of a national and state-level campaign to encourage students (average age 18.6 years) to apply for financial aid for college, with multiple treatment arms to investigate different potential mechanisms and approaches.

The trials found no impacts on financial aid receipt or college enrollment overall or for any student subgroups. There was no evidence that different approaches to message framing, delivery, or timing, or offers of one-on-one advice, affected the efficacy of any of the campaigns.

The researchers suggest three reasons why the scaled-up approach may not have been effective:

  • Most previous studies involved a local partner with closer connections to and knowledge of the students. Local partners may know something important about their students and students may react differently to messages from organisations in their communities.
  • A global scale-up results in messaging content that is more generic and less personalised to students.
  • The students in this study may have had better information about the financial support available to them than previous cohorts, so the intervention made less impact.

Source: Nudging at Scale: Experimental Evidence from FAFSA Completion Campaigns (August 2019) NBER Working Paper No. 26158

Can a postcard reduce pupils’ absenteeism?

In an effort to improve parents’ and guardians’ awareness of absenteeism, and therefore reduce pupil absenteeism, the Philadelphia school district in the US together with the National Center for Evaluation and Regional Assistance conducted a randomised controlled trial based on the principles of “nudge” theory. Nudge theory is an approach that involves unobtrusive intervention to promote desired behaviours.

In this study, the “nudge” was a single postcard sent to the homes of pupils in grades 1–12 (Years 2–13 in the UK) who had been absent the previous year to test whether it could reduce absenteeism and what impact, if any, different messages had. Two types of message were tested: one simply encouraging parents to improve their child’s attendance; the other included specific information about their child’s attendance history as well as encouraging them to improve their child’s attendance. A control group received no postcards from the school.

Todd Rogers and colleagues found that receiving a postcard reduced absences by around 2.4 percent. There was no statistically significant difference in pupils’ absence according to which message their parents received. The effect of the postcard did not differ between pupils in grades 1– 8 (Years 2–9) and pupils in grades 9–12 (Years 10–13).

Source: A randomized experiment using absenteeism information to “nudge” attendance (February 2017), Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic.