Applied Sociology in Rural and Remote Education

Title at the top reads: "Applied Sociology in Training and Education." A woman and man sit at a table. She's writing and he's pointing at her work. They're both Asian and Brown

This is the second of two posts showing how applied sociology is used in a multi-disciplinary behavioural science project to improve social policy and program delivery.

We scaled our previous trials that used behavioural science to increase pre-service teachers’ uptake of professional placements in rural and remote New South Wales (NSW). We used timely and personalised communications, simplified research on placements, and offered a group placement experience. These interventions led to 55 pre-service teachers completing their placements at geographically isolated schools, with 100% of them saying they would consider taking up long-term employment at a rural or remote school in the future.

The following is an excerpt from the Behavioural Insights Unit Update Report 2020.

Expanding social support for pre-service teachers in rural and remote NSW

Based on successful trial results in 2017-18, we continued to work with the Department of Education to scale these learning to have greater impact. Schools struggle to attract and retain teachers in rural and remote (R&R) regions. Financial incentives are already used by government, such as salary bonuses, financial tuition, scholarships for pre-service teachers (PSTs), and more. Despite these efforts, the low rate of teachers in regional areas is an ongoing challenge, not just in Australia, but around the world.

We created a peer group experience to attract more PSTs to do their final year professional experience placements in rural and remote schools. We made it easier for PSTs by removing frictions (such as cumbersome sign-up processes) and introducing:

  • Links to relevant information (the schools, towns and videos of teachers in the same region)
  • Behaviourally informed communications emphasising the benefits of sharing the experience with a group of fellow PSTs
  • An allowance to manage temporary accommodation and other living expenses.

Using these behavioural interventions at six NSW universities, we recruited 55 PSTs to go to geographically isolated schools, with 100% of them saying they would consider returning to rural and remote NSW to find full-time employment in the future.


Behavioural insights show that people are not just motivated by money. To complement the existing financial incentives, the Department of Education approached the BIU to encourage metropolitan PSTs to take their professional experience placements outside of metropolitan areas. Our previous fieldwork showed that PSTs were inclined to stick with what was familiar.

It was too much work to organise temporary accommodation in order to do rural placements (which typically last six weeks). It was easier to stick to their current commuting and family arrangements (status quo bias). Some
universities had additional friction costs, with cumbersome forms and processes to nominate an R&R placement or placing rural schools at the end of a long list (order effect). As a result, PSTs chose schools they knew more about in metro suburbs, over schools they knew less about in R&R NSW.

In 2017-2018, we ran three RCTs in partnership with the University of Wollongong (UoW), Macquarie University (MQ), and Western Sydney University (WSU). We showed that easy, low-cost behavioural interventions increased the uptake of R&R placements. All trials reduced friction during the placement process (simplifying application forms and changing the order of school options on placement software).

Additionally, we tested:

  1. UoW: Timely and personalised communications (behaviourally informed email, postcard and SMS reminders). This trial led to a statistically significant increase of PSTs taking up a R&R placement: 12.6% of treatment (15 students), in comparison to 4.2% of the control (5 students) (n=237, p<0.0269).
  2. MQ: Simplifying research on placements (including hyperlinks to regions and schools), using a video testimonial from an influential messenger (a fellow student teacher sharing her experience in a R&R school), and the chance to go on placement with a group. The result was not significant, however, a higher proportion of PSTs in treatment took up R&R placements (9.8% or 4 students) versus zero students in the control (0 students) (n=81, p=0.116).
  3. WSU: personalised emails, reminder texts and going with a buddy or a group of other PSTs to enhance student placement support and experience. The result was not significant, however, more students in treatment went on a R&R placement (4.6% or 7 students) in comparison to control (2.7% or 4 students) (n=302, p=0.374).

In late 2018, we began scaling these interventions at six of the 11 universities in NSW that offer initial teacher education. We worked to embed our behavioural insights approach as BAU with the three trial partners, as well as implementing these interventions at three new universities: University of Technology Sydney, University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales.

Poster featuring a young girl wearing a hat in front of a tracker. The text reads: Be paid to do your professional experience placement in the Leeton/ Yanco area of NSW. Funding: $500 per week for the duration of your placement with: Yanco Agricultural High School, Coleambally Central School, Leeton High School, Narrandera High School. Better together: You don't have to go alone. You'll benefit from going with pre-service teachers from your class. Your peers can help you navigate the journey: support each other, share costs, learn together, have fun!
Figure: Example of behaviourally-informed poster we used to promote placements

What we did

We bundled our three trial interventions into a peer group experience (social support). We matched each eligible university cohort to a geographically isolated school in NSW. These schools experience the greatest socioeconomic disadvantage due to their location. Some of these schools had not hosted PSTs in many years. The Department of Education provided schools with peer mentoring and training to maximise their social support for PSTs.

Students were contacted using timely, personalised and behaviourally informed emails, posters and newsletters. Communications promoted the benefits of going to these schools as part of a group (‘Better together: you don’t have to go alone. Support each other, share costs, learn together, have fun!’). We included links to the schools, along with links to videos of teachers in the region, and other information about the town (local events and other attractions), and we provided estimates of travel time from their temporary accommodation to the schools.

We made it easy for students to nominate their interest in going to R&R schools through their online university portals and placement software. The Department of Education organised for principals, regional coordinators and previous student teachers to visit the universities, to answer PST student questions about the placements and towns.

Given the hassle of finding temporary accommodation in an unknown town, especially when PSTs still have to maintain their rent or mortgage payments, we removed this behavioural barrier with a $500 weekly allowance from the Department of Education. This covered their rural accommodation (with some money left for other expenses). The Department coordinated group bookings, so students could live in the same apartment blocks and carpool to work, increasing their social support during their professional placements.

What we learnt

In a period of six months, we recruited 55 PSTs to complete their final year placements at geographically isolated schools. Many of these teachers hadn’t considered taking a placement in rural and remote NSW until we delivered our behavioural intervention.

We tracked the PSTs’ clicks on the links we provided and found they had collectively clicked on 800 URLs, reinforcing the importance of making research on rural and remote regions easier for student teachers.

We received positive feedback directly from PSTs, who emailed with enthusiasm about their peer experience in rural and remote NSW.

‘I had a fantastic experience, learning so much in a good school with welcoming staff an students. The placement also opened my eyes to the potential of teaching rurally in the future.’

– Student from the North Shore, metropolitan Sydney

The Department of Education additionally surveyed the PSTs and principals at the end of 2018. Seven of 12 principals offered the PSTs at their school a permanent role. Unfortunately, the students had already accepted jobs elsewhere, so the timing of the intervention is being reviewed in scale-up to increase the likelihood of PSTs accepting R&R roles. All PSTs said they would consider teaching in a rural and remote school over the next three years.

Next steps

The Department of Education will continue to manage the scale-up and use the behavioural interventions with education faculties at other universities. The Department is also exploring an expansion of the scale-up into new faculties, as our behavioural insights are applicable to other professional placements in nursing, medicine and beyond.

‘One quote from a PST who went rural is, “It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me!” All have been overwhelmed by the support and welcoming that they have received from rural communities.’

– Department of Education, trial partner

Read the rest of the BIU report to learn about other trials and projects.