Review by Harry Fletcher-Wood

Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching

19 Nov 2018, 5:00


What’s the most effective way to use text messaging in schools?

Most schools have a text-message service to contact parents, but usually it’s used only in emergencies – a snow day, for example. Yet text messages have been tested successfully in a variety of ways, improving students’ attendance, learning and progression to university.

One study asked students to nominate study supporters: 40% of those nominated were immediate family members and 40% were peers. The study supporters received weekly messages with conversation prompts. For example:

“Hi [supporter forename], [learner forename] has recently learned about percentages. Ask [him/her] to calculate the final price of a £250 TV after adding 20% VAT (tax on things you buy) and show you how [he/she] worked it out. Thanks, [College]”

The overall result was an increase in attendance of 4.2 percentage points, with the intervention apparently more effective among those studying GCSE courses than (older) students studying functional skills qualifications, and among those studying maths than English.

Groot, B., Sanders, M., Rogers, T., Bloomenthal, E. (2017). I get by with a little help from my friends: Two field experiments on social support and attendance in further education colleges in the UK. Behavioural Insights Team

Another study texted Further Education students directly, seeking to increase motivation, planning and social connectedness, in order to boost attendance. One message read: “[Student’s name], well done, you’ve reached the mid‐term break! Take time to practice what you’ve learned and stay connected: [Class Facebook link; College’s name]”. The messages increased led to an increase in attendance of 7.3% compared with students who did not receive the messages, and an increase in the rate at which they passed their courses of 8.7%.

Chande, R., Luca, M., Sanders, M., Soon, X., Borcan, O., Barak-Corren, N., Linos, E., Kirkman, E., Robinson, S. (2017). Increasing attendance and attainment among adult students in the UK: Evidence from a field experiment. Behavioural Insights Team Working Paper

Can these approaches work at scale? The Education Endowment Foundation sponsored a trial that texted parents to alert them to tests and missing homework, and to provide conversation prompts for parents to discuss work with students. On average, schools sent about 30 messages a year: they led to a small but significant increase in maths scores and attendance. Parents were positive about the messages – unless the information was wrong – and students were fairly positive too. Teachers seemed keen, but struggled to provide the information needed to compose conversational prompts about recent learning for parents. While the effect wasn’t huge, the evaluation concluded that it was worth doing, given the limited cost of the programme.

Miller, S., Davison, J., Yohanis, J., Sloan, S., Gildea, A. and Thurston, A. (2016). Texting Parents: Evaluation report and executive summary. Education Endowment Foundation.

Text messages offer a low-cost way to bridge the gap between school and home

Finally, an American study sought to reduce “summer melt”, where students who intend to go to university gain the necessary grades but never enrol. It tested sending text messages every five days over the summer period. The messages sent links to their university’s web portal and encouraged students to register for accommodation, entry tests and orientation tasks. They also offered help in applying for financial support and understanding the related documents. The messages “substantially increased enrolment among students with less access to college-planning supports and who were not as far along with their college planning at the completion of high school”. This effect was strong in small towns where there may be limited existing guidance about going to university, and seems to provide a low-cost, effective way to encourage students to complete the tasks needed to matriculate.

Castleman, B., and Page, L., (2014). Summer nudging: Can personalized text messages and peer mentor outreach increase college going among low-income high school graduates? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 115, pp. 144–160.

Overall, whether we are texting parents, students or friends, and whether we focus on tests, attendance or conversational prompts, text messages seem to offer a low-cost way to help bridge the gap between schools and home, and between good intentions and action.

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