Research concludes positive “nudges” can motivate behavioral change.

Anyone that has tried to add more exercise into their routine or nix a bad habit knows that – to change behavior – having a little motivation helps. And while there are all kinds of motivational tactics and techniques, recent science shows that on students, some motivation works better than others.

What’s not all that effective, turns out, is telling kids what they shouldn’t do. According to recent research highlighted in Education Week, “one of the quickest ways to lower motivation is to try to force people to make changes.”

Instead, a team of behavioral economists at the University of Chicago, led by Steven Levitt, have concluded that to change behavior in students, it’s better to gently “nudge” them in the right direction. The results they found, across a variety of experiments, speak for themselves:

Nudges can convince low-income high schoolers to enroll in college

Up to 20% of low-income high school graduates accepted to college don’t end up enrolling. Researchers from the University of Virginia and the University of Pittsburgh nudged students with text reminders about “upcoming college deadlines, with links to the needed (FAFSA) forms and live help from counselors.” Nudge-recipients were 7% more likely to enroll in college.

Nudges can improve attendance

University of Pittsburgh researchers also nudged parents with texts about the importance of getting their children to school on time and to help them do so. Attendance improved in 40% of the nudged families, plus one-third of children who previously missed 10 or more days a year moved out of chronic absenteeism.

Nudges can help get high schoolers to take, and succeed on, AP tests

After a group of 10th graders from Oakland, California scored high on the PSAT, they received a nudging message that encouraged them they might be successful in AP courses. Nudge-recipients were “49% more likely to participate in AP courses” and “significantly more likely to take and pass more AP tests with higher scores.”

So, what defines a nudge? Famed economist and author Cass Sunstein explains, “putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Levitt’s team further identifies a nudge as “low-cost interventions that work to influence behavior by changing how or when choices are offered.” They:

  • Are cost-effective to implement (sending an email, for example)
  • Do not require or forbid an action
  • Are generally used at the time a person makes a decision

When applied to academic performance, nudges “show promise in helping students” finds Stanford University motivation researcher Carol Dweck. By helping students recognize that academic skills aren’t “fixed,” i.e. with effort, academic skills can be improved, nudges can alter the level of personal academic growth a student believes she/he can achieve.

Nudges can also be used to motivate behavioral change in students. Hero’s positive behavior reinforcement tools help schools nudge students towards good decisions. Instead of solely disciplining kids for the things they do wrong, the software also helps teachers and administrators incentivize and reward positive behavior. And the results schools using Hero see – like reductions in discipline-related issues and improved academic performance – should motivate any educator to consider a nudging approach.

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