Behavioural Science for Education and Vocational Training

Drawing of a woman tradesperson holding a mobile phone. The text reads: this is what your apprentice is learning this week

Have you ever wondered why people behave in unexpected ways, often against their own interest? This is because many of our social institutions, including the law, education and economy are built around rules that don’t always take into account people’s social context and their motivations when making decisions. Convention in Western societies is that financial incentives and punitive measures (like fines) can incentivise people to do the right thing. Behavioural science research shows this is not always true. In fact, while money and sanctions work in some situations for some groups, most behaviours are not able to be easily changed through cash and penalties. (These can sometimes backfire!)

Behavioural science is the use of behavioural economics, psychology, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences for the purpose of improving behavioural outcomes. Behavioural insights is specifically the application of this science to improve effectiveness for decision-making, public services and policy. Here’s a case study of behavioural insights in action in education and vocational training.

Using fieldwork research and randomised control trials, the Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) test low-cost behavioural science changes to issues affecting different groups in society.

For example, we know that 48% of apprentices in New South Wales cancel their contracts within the first year, and 77% will cancel within two years. That’s a tremendous personal cost to these students, which also translates to $91 million loss of the state’s economy in cancellations alone, and upwards of $348 million in related revenue. BIU’s research shows apprentices who cancel their employment contracts do so because they often feel they are subjected to tough working conditions for little pay (undertaking menial, repetitive tasks and long hours), receiving little guidance about their progress on the job.

In partnership with TAFE South Western Sydney, the BIU worked with teachers to send weekly SMS (mobile phone text messages) to employers about what their apprentices were learning at their education institute. Over the semester, employers were encouraged to have conversations with their apprentices about their curriculum and to give them an opportunity to try these skills on the job.

BIU’s trial found that apprentices receiving this additional support were 3.1 percentage points more likely to still be studying by the end of the semester. Plus there were additional benefits for other students. This translates to 147 extra classes that were attended for the 48 groups in the trial. There are currently discussions with TAFE NSW and other stakeholders to roll this simple but cost-effective use of SMS communication to motivate learners across the state. Potentially, this behavioural technique to strengthen the connections between teachers, learners and employers can enhance outcomes for thousands of apprentices and trainees (the latest available data show there are over 80,000 apprentices and trainees currently in training across New South Wales).

Graph showing class attendance rate, by condition. Shows that 79.4% of students in "business as usual" (BAU) control condition, who did not receive additional support, were still studying at then end of Semester 1. The students in the intervention group were enrolled at a rate of 82.5%.

Class attendance by condition.* Source: Behavioural Insights Unit

Other trials featured by the BIU:

  • Using SMS reminders resulted in a 23% reduction in domestic violence court non-attendance by perpetrators
  • Significantly fewer people commute during peak hour when encouraged to take up flexible working
  • 3x more trainee teachers opted to take a rural or remote placement after receiving messages about the opportunity.
  • A clearer fine letter encourages more people to pay their fines on time.
Infographic from page 2 of Behavioural Insights Unit annual report 2018. Highlights include: 23% reduction in domestic violence court non-attendance using sms reminders; significantly fewer people commuting during peak times due to flexible work; 3X more trainee teachers in rural placements; clearer fine letter encouraged timely fine payments; revised letter did not increase responses for land-use plan; improved attendance in childhood obesity did not increase health outcomes
Behavioural science outcomes in New South Wales. Source: Behavioural Insights Unit

Read the Behavioural Insights Unit report.