Social-Psychological Interventions

Yesterday, by chance, I found a printed-out copy of a report on “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education.” You can find the abstract here, though you’ll have to pay for the entire study, so I’m glad I was able to access it.

The title says “Social-Psychological” but once I got to reading it, it was clear they were speaking about what I (and others) might prefer to call behavioral design. The gist of the report is as follows:

Recent randomized experiments have found that seemingly “small” social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. These interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students’ psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school. When social-psychological interventions have lasting effects, it can seem surprising and even “magical,” leading people either to think of them as quick fixes to complicated problems or to consider them unworthy of serious consideration. The present article discourages both responses.

Yeah, that’s behavioral science in a nutshell.

A few years ago, when I first became interested in out-of-the-box solutions to entrenched problems, I gave a presentation on what I was referring to at the time as “noncognitive skills.” A colleague from my graduate program saw it and was compelled to suggest we collaborate the following year, which we did, and by then it had developed into “conation,” which we took to the TESOL conference in Seattle this past March. But as 2017 rolled along, it became clear that, for me, behavior science was most likely going to be my interest and my focus, as I wrote about last week.

I say all this to say that this report validates my curiosity and my optimism for the potential impact of behavioral design. If you read the report, you will see that each group of students was given just a short exercise – fewer than thirty minutes – at the outset of a semester, and that this these students improved greatly when compared to the control. The results were so dramatic – and long-lasting – that, as the excerpt above suggests, people tend to dismiss it as “magic” or, at the least, unrealistic. But it’s real.

A few things are clear from the research:

  1. It can’t be top-down. Telling students why an intervention or an assignment is important does not convince skeptical boys and girls to buy in.
  2. Contextual experise – “an understanding of the psychological experiences and backgrounds of students in the local context” – is vital. Which is to say, even the best educator can’t walk into a culture with which they have had no previous contact and expect their intervention to succeed.

From here, I’d like to see how this might work quite specifically on adult learners, as these experiments were performed mostly on middle- and high-school students. I’d also like to see if the same dramatic improvement on students of color would remain the same regardless of age. And ultimately, I want to see if this can work even if students and instructors don’t speak the same language – can these exercises, short as they are, be translated for the first day of class? Would this have the same impact on student outcomes? And, as I’ll always return to, would this lead to greater long-term success, be it in terms of employment, income, or other relevant metrics?

There is a lot to look for, but this report and others like it are encouraging. Someday I will do my own such research and hopefully share it with all of you, and with others in my field.