GIVING STUDENTS A NUDGE: German school children do better in the same test when their marks don”t start at zero

Simple changes to the way that school tests are marked can motivate high-performing students to do better, according to research by Valentin Wagner, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

The two ''nudge'' strategies, taken from behavioural economics, were used in an experiment involving 1,377 children in Germany who took the same mathematics test. Some were told that they began with 100 points, and could only lose points when they were wrong – a technique known as ''loss framing''. These children, on average, answered 8% more answers correctly than using a standard marking scheme.

Those who were told that they began with negative points and could get back to positive scores when they answered correctly on average got the right answer to 11% more questions.

Manipulating the scales seemed to increase risk-taking for the loss framing group, and accuracy for the second group. Weaker students, however, did worse under loss framing than in a conventional system – but no worse when the scale was shifted down. ''My study shows that different grading methods can change, at least in the short term, a student''s motivation'', the author comments.


Can students be nudged? Grading manipulations in German elementary schools

Manipulating the grading scheme by ''loss framing'' or a downward shift of the grading scale can motivate high-performing students to increase their achievements in a test, according to this research.

Motivation is, besides ability, one important input to excelling in the educational system. But students may, inter alia, underinvest and drop out of school too soon because they are unmotivated, underestimate the returns to education or do not know their own production function. In their daily work, teachers therefore seek for ways to motivate their students – but what are effective ''tools of motivation''?

Financial and non-financial incentives (trophies, certificates etc.) for performance have been increasingly tested in recent years. While these incentives have shown mixed results on motivation and financial incentives can be extremely costly, applying insights gained from behavioural economics in the educational sector – such as loss framing – is potential more cost-effective and promising as it has proven to work positively in other lab and field settings.

Moreover, institutions and governments are increasingly interested in applying insights from behavioural economics into their fields and have installed specialised behavioural insights teams, so-called ''Nudge Units'', in recent years (for example, the UK, Germany and Denmark). The aim of this work is therefore to give education policy-makers a hint at how behavioural nudges might work in (elementary) schools.

This study test grading manipulations and analyses experimental data on 1,377 elementary children in grades 3 and 4 in the cities of Bonn, Cologne and Düsseldorf, Germany. The grading scheme of a mathematical test was manipulated in two ways:

First, ''the loss frame'': students were endowed with the maximum score upfront but could subsequently only lose points for incorrect answers.

Second, ''the negative frame'': the grading scale was shifted downwards so that students were endowed with negative points. But students could end up with a positive number of points by correctly answering at least half of the questions.

These grading manipulations were then compared with the ''traditional'' grading scheme where students start with 0 points. Importantly, students learned about the grading manipulation only immediately before taking the test so that any effects cannot attributed to an increase in learning.

The author finds that both grading manipulations increase the number of correct answers but – pooling over ability levels – has no significant effect on the number of points in the test.

Loss framing increase the number of correct answers by about 8% compared with students who are graded ''traditionally'' and also the negative frame shows positive effects (increasing the number of correct answers by 11%).

Furthermore, it seems that these effects are driven by two mechanisms: an increase in risk-taking in the loss frame; and an increase in accuracy in the negative frame.

Differentiating students by ability reveals the most interesting results. While high-performers could significantly increase the number of final points in the loss frame, low-performers end up on average with a lower test scores compared with ''traditionally'' graded students. In contrast, the negative frame is not detrimental for low-performers while it remains positive for high-performers.

This study shows that different grading methods can change, at least in the short term, a student''s motivation and suggests that education policy-makers should not implement loss framing in schools because of heterogeneous effects by ability.

Seeking Risk or Answering Smart? Framing in Elementary Schools DICE Discussion Papers No. 227