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Can Text Messages and Interventions Nudge Students Through School?

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 (Johan Larsson/Flickr)

By Justin Reich

For a new generation of educational researchers, the distance across the achievement gap isn’t a chasm, but the width of a nudge.

A high school senior works hard to finally get a college acceptance letter. The next step of getting to college may seem as simple as showing up on the first day of school, but the long summer between the end of high school and the beginning of college is emerging as a more unpredictable time than previously understood. Some 10–20 percent of college-eligible students fail to show up on the first day. In Southwestern states, that number is as high as 44 percent.

Several things can happen during the summer financially, emotionally and personally, and those issues can arise during the school year. Dealing with challenges can be distracting, but with a few instances of communication, colleges can help keep students on track. As researchers Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page have shown, a few short text messages to an incoming freshman can mean the difference between attending college and staying at home. Once college has begun, a few minutes of writing by a low-income student of color can mean the difference between passing a class and dropping out.

In recent years, psychologists and behavioral economists have made tremendous progress in developing a new science of decision-making. Classical economics offered a model of humans as rational actors, carefully weighing costs and benefits. Newly ascendant perspectives portray decision-making as a far more complicated act, where immediate considerations compete with long-term consequences, where efficiency competes with deliberation, and where subconscious factors compete with our conscious thinking.


The strands of this research are diverse. Many educators are familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, which has shown that students with a “growth mindset” -- a belief that people can learn to become smarter -- outperform students with a fixed view of intelligence. Also well-known is Claude Steele’s work on stereotype threat, which shows that evoking stereotypes -- even in benign ways like asking someone to list their gender -- can diminish student performance on assessments. Educators may be less familiar with the work of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, whose book "Nudge" demonstrates the power of how we frame choices, especially when considering the default setting of choices as opt-in or opt-out.

Three important dimensions unite these strands of work. First, all of them imagine human decision-making as far more complicated and subconsciously influenced than older models of rational actors weighing costs and benefits. Second, all three lines of research have demonstrated outsized effects from remarkably small interventions.

Peter Bergman used a series of text messages and other communications to parents in Los Angeles and increased GPA and math scores by .2 standard deviations. Hunter Gehlbach and colleagues conducted a recent classroom intervention where students and teachers completed surveys that identified commonalities in their relationships that closed achievement gaps by 60 percent. David Yeager used a writing intervention in an online freshman orientation course at the University of Texas to improve first-year credit completion by 4 percentage points. Each of these studies involved a trivially small and inexpensive intervention, with effects that rival the gains from some of the most expensive efforts in education.

The third commonality among these lines of research is that all of them are rapidly moving online. The United States has 3.7 million K-12 educators, and training these teachers across 15,000 school districts to implement new ideas with fidelity is a Herculean task. So researchers are increasingly experimenting with building these interventions directly into learning management systems, online surveys and text messaging platforms.

In HarvardX courses on the edX platform, there are currently experiments testing the effects of sending text messages to students' friends to enlist their support and encouragement, of showing similarities between students and professors to boost rapport and increase persistence, and of writing letters to future students about the feeling of belonging in a course to reduce alienation and dropout. And these experiments involve only one program at one university. The experiments are so (relatively) easy to run, and the costs of experimenting with texts and online systems so inexpensive, that this research is poised to spread rapidly.

Because research takes so long to go from experiment to publication, the groundswell of this research is only now being felt, but over the next five to ten years we’re going to see a new mountain of published studies about these kinds of psychological and behavioral experiments. Many things remain poorly understood about the longer-term effects of these efforts. Studies haven’t gone on long enough to understand well if educational effects are a small bump or are durable over time.

Many of the interventions rely on “stealth” to work -- some are less effective when participants know they are being manipulated. But at some point, students are going to notice that everyone keeps sending text messages to their mom or asking them to write a letter to their future selves in a survey. It’s also not clear what would happen if students were subjected to multiple small interventions. If effects are additive -- if each ping and nudge adds to the next -- the results could be revolutionary. If they suffer from diminishing returns, then the revolution may fizzle.

The gains from these experiments often strike a discordant note with people unfamiliar with this research. Learning is supposed to be hard, and achievement the result of personal commitment and deep study, not the result of a few well-timed text messages. Defenders of the work argue that affluent students are already the recipients of endless nudges, primes and reminders from parents, teachers and counselors, and these interventions just level the playing field.

To what extent are we preparing students for the “real world” if we cushion and control their every step with text messages and psychological tricks? Or can we expect all of these manipulations to invade every element of our political, commercial and working lives anyway? What’s the difference between improving student performance with a better textbook or a better teacher, versus improving student performance with a nudge or a text?

I bring a cautious optimism to these experiments. Education has a long history of silver bullets -- and these certainly look an awful lot like silver bullets. But the published effects are striking and many experiments have been shown to be most effective on our least advantaged students. When I consider any of these experiments in isolation, I think it would be immoral not to send students a few text messages if we knew that could help struggling students improve their grades or get to college.

At the same time, I’m unnerved by how, in the aggregate, these experiments seem to be manipulating students as they proceed through an educational journey that, ideally, would develop a strong sense of student independence, curiosity and autonomy.

My strongest belief is that the research community needs to engage the public in a conversation about these approaches. The scale of experimentation and adoption means that these methods deserve greater public awareness and scrutiny. Researchers have come to believe that nudges and pings can have enormous power over individual student choices, and educators, parents and the public-at-large need to discuss how that power should best be used.


Justin Reich is the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow, and an Adjunct Lecturer in the Technology, Innovation, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can follow him at @bjfr.

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