"Nudging" Kids to Do School Work on Snow Days...?

Guest post by Andrew from Match Next

From Susan Dynarski at the New York Times: 

“...researchers have been quietly finding small, effective ways to improve education. They have identified behavioral “nudges” that prod students and their families to take small steps that can make big differences in learning. These measures are cheap, so schools or nonprofits could use them immediately.”


Seems like simple text messages can be good nudges. Here’s what else she says:


“Can nudges help younger children? Susanna Loeb and Benjamin N. York, both also at Stanford, developed a literacy program for preschool children in San Francisco. They sent parents texts describing simple activities that develop literacy skills, such as pointing out words that rhyme or start with the same sound. The parents receiving the texts spent more time with their children on these activities and their children were more likely to know the alphabet and the sounds of letters. It cost just a few dollars per family.

Researchers at the University of Chicago and University of Toronto are also working on methods to develop literacy. Ariel Kalil, Susan E. Mayer and Philip Oreopoulos sent families texts with tips about how to read with their preschoolers. The result was that parents spent substantially more time reading with their children.”


We wanted to test this out for ourselves because it’s really hard to get kids to do work on days off, especially snow days. We had 3 last week after getting clobbered by winter storm ‘Juno’ and another 2 this week (Ray was in shock - this is like springtime in Minnesota). So, we ran a quick, unscientific experiment to test this ‘nudge theory.’

Our question:

Can we use a text to nudge parents into getting their kids to do extra school work on a snow day? 

We looked at our Khan Academy data from the last couple months, specifically on days when our students weren’t in school (weekends, holidays, etc.). We found that on any non-school day, no more than 8 students used Khan Academy in a single day. And this happened on our “cold day” a few weeks back, when school was canceled because it was way too cold outside.  

Our test: Currently, there are two 5th grade classes: Harvard and UMass. On the first snow day (Tuesday, 1/27/2014), we had our tutors only text the parents of students in the ‘Harvard’ homeroom. They texted something along the lines of, “hey it’d be really helpful if your child used Khan Academy today on the day off.” That’s it. Quick text, nothing else. 

We looked at the Khan Academy data from that Tuesday to see if ‘nudging’ those parents with text messages would have any noticeable effect on the number of students using Khan Academy, and if those students came from the ‘Harvard’ homeroom. 

**Scientist/Economist Disclaimer: not a legit experiment. We know. 

Here’s what we found: 4 students (of 25) from Harvard used Khan on the snow day; 2 students from UMass used Khan. Basically no change from what we normally see on a day off, and actually worse than what we found on our ‘cold day.’

Bottom line

Doesn’t seem like this nudge, on its own, helped all that much. Our context is a bit tricky, since we do a lot of parent phone calls and outreach already. So this text is just ‘one more’ in a series of many touches from us. 

A whole bunch of mini questions about implementation here:

  •  What if we change wording of text?
  • Would they help in a homework situation rather than a snow-day situation? (parents are often not home during the day)
  • Might different timing of texts help?

Lots to think about and try here. 

Next time: I’ll review a website called “Goodreads,” which we've been using for a few of our students in our Independent Reading program. 


if you want to talk shop: andrew.jeong@matcheducation.org