Knowing when to nudge in education

Behavioral economics, in the form of nudges to help students and families make more active and informed decisions, has entered the mainstream of American education, guiding practice and policy from when children are barely old enough to toddle all the way through college and beyond. As a result of nudge work over the last decade, school choice information is simpler and more visually digestible; the architecture of school cafeterias subtly encourages children to select healthier eating options; text messages flow in the hundreds of thousands if not millions, prompting parents to sing the ABCs with their children, high school graduates to finalize their financial aid, and college students to meet with their academic advisor.

The infusion of behavioral insights into education holds considerable potential for leveling the decision-making playing field for economically-disadvantaged students and their families throughout all stages of schooling. Targeted implementation of behavioral solutions can help compensate for low-income families’ lack of access to quality information or advising about their educational options. Well-designed nudges can help students and families make active and informed decisions about the educational pathways they pursue.

A cautionary note about nudges

Like any innovation in education, however, behavioral nudges do not offer a panacea. One question we have to wrestle with is: When should the nudging stop? Much of my research focuses on using text messaging to provide students with simplified information and access to assistance with college and financial aid decisions. When I present about this work, I often hear concerns that we are creating dependencies among the students we’re serving. “You’re texting them reminders about renewing their financial aid,” someone will say. “Are you going to nudge them to hand in their homework in college? To wake up in the morning? Where do you draw the line?” The flip side of this question is whether students will quickly learn to tune out educational nudges. Maybe putting fruit in front of the cafeteria register instead of candy leads kids to make healthier choices the first few times, but after a while do they just start seeking out the candy? And to paraphrase Richard Thaler, one of the pioneers of behavioral economics, how do we ensure educators nudge for good, using behavioral strategies to help students and families make active and informed decisions about what’s best for their personal circumstances, rather than use nudges to tell students what’s best for them?

Guiding principles for applying behavioral insights in education

Applied behavioral research in education is nascent enough that we lack empirical evidence to answer many of these questions. What we can rely on in the interim is a series of guiding principles that I believe should steer nudge work in education:

  1. Start with critical junctures: From preschool through college, students and families face a series of transitional decisions that are often complex and hard to navigate, but which can have long-lasting ramifications for how they do in school and whether they pursue additional education. These junctures often occur over a short time frame—a window of only a few months in which students can actively choose which elementary school to attend, which high school courses to take, or whether to apply for financial aid for college.  Families that stick with the default school or course assignment, or who fail to apply for financial aid by priority deadlines, may miss out on the chance to attend high-quality schools, take college-preparatory coursework, or receive thousands of dollars in additional grant aid. I am strongly in favor of well-designed nudges that encourage students and families to make active and informed decisions during these critical junctures.
  2. Prompt active engagement rather than give directions: Nudges that are overly directive run the risk of distorting the choices students and families make, leading them to make choices that don’t align with their goals or interests. An example would be to send students nudges encouraging them to limit how much they borrow for college. On the surface this seems advisable, but what about the student for whom additional loans would allow her to take more costly STEM courses and pursue an engineering degree? Similarly, declarative nudges (e.g. “Make sure you sign up for an after school enrichment program!”) can confuse and worry families who thought they had already completed an important task. Nudges should encourage active thinking and decision making, not tell people what to do. Well-framed and timed questions can also prompt students to reach out for professional guidance when they are struggling with a complicated decision.
  3. View nudges as supplements to, not substitutes for, existing educational investments: Behavioral interventions often have a creative appeal, and their low cost is alluring to educational leaders and policy makers who often are grappling with tight budgets. But the apparent “bang for the buck” of behavioral interventions should not be used as justification for scaling back spending on other important areas in education. After all, interventions to promote more active and informed decision-making only can be successful if there are quality educational opportunities available to students.

With these nudge principles in mind, we have a tremendous opportunity in the coming years to help students and families make more informed decisions and to pursue educational opportunities that allow them to realize their full potential. Over the long term, we should continue to invest in the systemic changes necessary to ensure that every student in America has a high quality education. But for the students who need our help today, behavioral nudges offer a powerful strategy for creating lasting educational improvement among disadvantaged populations.