Nudging is embedded in many parts of our lives — for example, appointment reminders, message notifications, or markdowns listed on price tags. A nudge, according to the authors that popularized the term, is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” In education, nudging has been used for many purposes including to encourage enrollment and help students pay off loans.
One particular way nudging can work in education is to help students complete assignments on time. According to research, on-time assignment submission predicts students’ retention and success. The research-backed app Boost was developed to sync with a course’s LMS and aimed to help educators and motivate students to complete their work on time by sending students notifications of upcoming assignment deadlines with periodic motivational messages.
To test the efficacy of Boost, we invited 1,909 middle and high school students from a large suburban area to download the tool. Among 312 students who downloaded the app, 52.2% were female, 66% were white, and 94.2% were native English speakers.
After students downloaded the app, Boost administrators randomly assigned students to either the experimental or control condition. Students in the experimental condition received reminders that their assignment deadlines were coming up, alongside messages motivating them to complete these assignments. Students in the control group received notifications mirroring those that appeared in the LMS (e.g., messages notifying the student that an assignment was added or that a date was changed for an exam). At the end of the semester, we sent follow-up surveys to the 41 students who had received the necessary parental consent to participate. Additionally, 10 students participated in focus groups.
Due to the limitations of the dataset, we caution anyone against drawing prescriptive conclusions from this study. However, there are some generic learnings that could seed approaches to classroom management, the development of nudging-based tools, and future research on the topic.
What We Learned
Students Respond to Technology That Is Easy and Fun to Use
Overall, students found Boost easy to use and would use it again in the future. Among the students surveyed, 71% said they would use Boost again if given the choice, with even more students saying they would use it again in future grades. From the focus groups, students reported generally having an easy time understanding how the application worked, even adding in their own assignments or additional reminders to customize the notifications they received.
Nudging Helps Students Be More Organized
The self-regulatory behaviors students use to complete assignments in a timely fashion vary. Focus group participants listed a number of different techniques for organizing and completing their schoolwork, from using sticky notes to remember assignments and deadlines to filling out a school-issued agenda and enacting specific “study times’’ during the school week. This aligns with the survey findings, which showed that although students generally said they have strong self-regulation skills, the majority did not think they were able to accomplish the goals they set for themselves. This signals a potential mismatch between having the skills or behavior and actually implementing them. Boost had the potential to address this misalignment, as the application contained settings that allowed the student to create customized notifications, add in assignments, and set additional assignment reminders, giving them the opportunity to take more agency in organizing their work.
Nudging Leads to Less Procrastination Among Students
Survey results showed that most students believe they do not engage in procrastination (M = 2.05, SD = 0.82), though half did say that they often start things at the last minute. Boost directly impacted procrastination behavior, as it reminded students up to 24 hours before the deadline and could even be individually customized to remind students up to a week beforehand. Focus group findings showed that Boost did, in fact, positively change students’ tendencies to procrastinate. Some of the middle school students specifically remarked that using Boost helped them procrastinate less, as the notification reminders motivated them to start their assignments earlier compared to before they had access to the tool.
Nudging Has the Potential to Help Students Furthest From Opportunities
We explored whether there were different contexts in which Boost was more or less helpful. For example, an exploratory study found that when given the opportunity, students who were earning lower grades than their peers were more likely to opt into Boost’s nudges. This suggests that nudging tools might be particularly helpful for students who are furthest from opportunity in the education setting and must overcome academic challenges imposed by an inequitable system.
The findings of this small study show promising impacts of nudging. While Boost is no longer in operation, others in the EdTech space can learn from this study and our key takeaways:
Understand the Culture of Technology Adoption at School Site
EdTech companies should build steps into their development process to understand the existing technologies and technology practices within a learning environment. The Boost team faced a few hurdles in adoption due to overlap with tools that already existed as well as student device access during the day. Many middle school students either don’t own a smart device or are unable to use one during school hours.
Go Beyond Metrics to Understand the Actual Student Experience
When developing a product, having metrics to show success can help make technology stronger and more marketable. But companies should be wary of relying solely on the numbers. In our research, the number of app downloads implied that high schoolers were more engaged with the tool. However, during focus group conversations, it became clear that middle school students were actually more receptive to the app. The issues with device access outlined above may have contributed to these findings.
Nudging remains an effective strategy in education. As with many educational technology tools and approaches, usability and effectiveness differ student by student and are impacted by the culture of technology adoption at the school more generally. There is an opportunity for EdTech founders interested in developing tools that can shape assignment submission behavior to conduct further research into how nudging can improve success and retention, especially for the students furthest from opportunity.
To better understand the potential impact of nudging, read the full Boost Research Report.