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One of the most promising uses of technology in education seemed to be a cheap one: nudging text messages. Several studies in the mid 2000s found that cell phone messages were surprisingly effective at reminding students to fill out financial aid forms, as well as to apply to and enroll in college. Text messages to parents about their school-aged children led to better grades and attendance. Nudging texts even prompted parents of preschoolers to read to their kids more. 

Based on these early successes, education leaders in government and nonprofit organizations sought to bring the power of text messages to hundreds of thousands of students. 

But as the texts reached larger numbers of people, they stopped working. 

A 2019 study of texting and providing other information to almost 800,000 low- and middle-income students who scored in the top 50 percent on the PSAT and the SAT found no change in the types of colleges that students enrolled in. Text messages to students at more than 700 high schools across 15 states also failed to improve the number of students who applied or enrolled in college, according to a 2020 study. In the latest failure of texting, researchers nudged more than 800,000 high school students to apply for federal financial aid. College enrollment didn’t budge, nor did the amount of financial aid that students received.

High school seniors were targeted, as were college dropouts who wanted to resume their studies. Researchers sent texts about how to fill out financial aid forms, how to collect the required information and deadlines.  

Examples of nudging text messages sent to students that proved ineffective

(1/2) Hi [first_name]. $1000’s could be waiting for you, but submitting the FAFSA is just step 1. Check your email for info about additional steps.

(2/2) To learn the steps that may be required to get your aid: http://bit.ly/fafsanext.

For help w/ FAFSA, visit www.commonapp.org/fafsa

Source: “Nudging at scale: Experimental evidence from FAFSA completion campaigns,” March 2021 issue of Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

“Ultimately we found that nothing was working,” said Jeff Denning, an economist at Brigham Young University and one of six researchers on the latest study,  “Nudging at scale: Experimental evidence from FAFSA completion campaigns,” published in the March 2021 issue of Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization and currently posted online. (The acronym FAFSA refers to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that is used by both the federal government and colleges around the nation to issue grants and loans.)

“This paper and others have changed how we think about this type of intervention,” Denning said. “We’re narrowing in on where nudging is useful. It is useful in some cases. You shouldn’t throw them all out. But I think we need to figure out when it works, and when it doesn’t.”

Denning and his research colleagues reviewed all the studies on nudging to try to answer these questions. Denning shared these takeaways with me:

  • The earlier studies weren’t wrong. Researchers are confident that nudging texts did produce real benefits. That’s because they were well-designed experiments, randomly assigning some students or families to receive texts and comparing the results with people who weren’t nudged. 
  • The sender matters. In the first wave of research, the texts were often sent by a student’s school or a community center that the recipient knew well and likely paid attention to. In order to reach larger numbers of students in the second wave of nudging studies, the texts tended to come from state agencies and other large organizations. “As you scale up, you lose something,” said Denning.
  • Customized texts may be more effective. In some successful text nudging campaigns, texts were tailored for each individual. Students’ grades improved when parents were sent texts about their own child’s late homework or absences from school. It’s harder to draft personalized texts for hundreds of thousands of students. In the financial aid study, the generic messages could seem downright irrelevant to a student who had already submitted his forms or had no desire to go to college.
  • Two-way texting can help. Some successful text nudges allowed students to reply back to the sender with concerns or questions. That turns a low-cost nudge into something more like an advising session. That’s hard to do on a large, national scale. In Denning’s experiments, some of the students were offered the opportunity to text with someone directly. Very few took advantage of the opportunity and it also didn’t seem to work.
  • Text nudging may be better suited for simple tasks. Federal financial aid forms are notoriously complicated to fill out. Text reminders of deadlines and general tips might not be sufficient to help students who cannot locate documents or need help answering a question. 

None of these guidelines are absolute. There are examples of successful text nudges that weren’t personalized and didn’t allow for replies. Take, for example, text nudges that were sent to San Francisco parents to read to their children. The texts may not have been personalized, and the parents couldn’t reply to them, but they still prompted many parents to read more — perhaps because they were friendly reminders to do something that these parents were already motivated to do.

Silicon Valley likes to build things that will “scale” but education relies not upon clicks but upon student motivation. That often requires lots of human interaction and supportive relationships — things that don’t scale easily. Even University of Virginia Professor Ben Castleman, the founder and director of Nudge4, which studies low-cost behavioral interventions, is coming to the conclusion that expensive, intensive advising programs are the best way to help more low-income students obtain a college degree. In a November 2020 study, he argued that they’re ultimately more cost effective. Castleman was also on the research team of the large financial aid study with Denning. He told me that it only cost a couple of dollars a student to set up the texting platform. But that’s a couple of dollars down the drain when it doesn’t work. 

Even still, educators are continuing to find productive ways to use nudges.  When schools in Botswana closed for the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, one non-governmental organization texted math problems to parents of elementary school children, along with making weekly telephone calls. The texts and calls succeed in limiting children’s learning loss, according to a January 2021 study.

Educators in this country could learn from that lesson. 

This story about nudging was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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