How filling in the information gaps can increase student learning

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Educators around the world are currently engaging in many creative strategies to encourage learning despite closed schools, social distancing policies, and other COVID-imposed obstacles to traditional classroom-based learning. In many cases, parents have become closely involved in their child’s education, playing the role of teacher or at least enforcer of homework time.

But most parents aren’t trained as teachers and are juggling many competing priorities as they work from home, parent their children, and now also try to help with schoolwork. Even when the world is not facing a pandemic, should we really expect parents to readily have all the information they need to encourage optimal learning?

Missing information

In fact, many education-related decisions that parents or students make rely on pieces of key information that they may simply not have. For example, choosing which school your child will attend is a big decision, and one that parents should make with the full set of facts before them, such as how the choice of a specific school today might affect their child down the line, and what options are available to choose from.

Similarly, especially in contexts where parents did not have access to educational opportunities themselves, students may not have examples in their lives to demonstrate the wage returns to education, especially when the cost of staying in school may feel much higher than dropping out to get a job.

The research

Results from 23 randomized evaluations from low-, middle-, and high-income countries show that overcoming a gap in knowledge about education often increases parental engagement in their child’s schooling, student effort in the classroom, or both, leading to improved learning outcomes.

These gaps vary in content but exist across contexts. For example, less than a fourth of parents in the United States could name a basic educational milestone their child should have met during the latest school year. About a fourth of surveyed parents in Chile didn’t know what grades their child was making in school, with similar gaps in parental knowledge of student achievement reported in Malawi and the United States. As such, making sure that parents and students have access to the information they need to make the best decisions is a key part of supporting student learning.

However, it is important to note that making information more readily accessible has not improved learning when key health, financial, or structural barriers persist that information alone cannot overcome. In other words, knowing that your child’s eyesight is hampering her ability to see the chalk board won’t help if you can’t afford to buy her glasses. Similarly, some secondary school systems are so competitive that strong academic performance is a more important criteria than ability to pay, and so knowing that high school is financially feasible is not enough to make it academically feasible.

Implementing an information program

Providing parents and students with information is typically fairly low-cost compared to other interventions aiming to increase learning levels, making this type of program a good fit in many contexts.

Implementation details will of course need to vary based on local needs and conditions. For instance, the information that one’s child is misbehaving in class may be conveyed via email in some contexts or through phone calls or in-person meetings in other contexts where literacy levels or internet usage are low. Text messages, videos, and take-home report cards are other options that can be considered for passing along various types of information.

Below are the takeaway messages from J-PAL’s new policy insight on overcoming information gaps to increase learning. Read the full insight here.

  • Providing parents with clear, actionable guidance on how to be more involved in their child’s academics has improved learning outcomes for their children. Student learning often increases with parental involvement, but parents often do not know how to fully engage at home. Some programs have bridged this gap and increased learning levels by sending parents actionable advice such as activity suggestions or short, simple tips, often via text message.
  • Providing parents with school performance statistics has increased parental engagement and learning outcomes. Parents often lack the information on school quality they need to make an informed decision about what school to choose or to know when to advocate for improved quality. Two interventions in Chile and Pakistan that provided report cards with schools’ average test scores both increased learning.
  • Providing parents with information about their child’s performance in school has increased learning. Eight programs in Bangladesh, Chile, Mozambique, Pakistan, and the United States improved learning outcomes by telling parents about their child’s educational performance. A ninth program in Colombia had a positive impact on learning that faded over time. Programs provided information on academic performance, attendance, behavior, and missing assignments. These programs improved test scores, grades, and attendance, and decreased course failures and misbehavior. Impacts on learning were likely due to changes in parents’ behavior, which in turn improved student effort or instruction quality at school.
  • Health information programs sometimes help parents improve their child’s health and ability to learn, but only if parents understand and can act on the information provided. A child’s health and her ability to learn are intricately linked. However, providing parents with information about their child’s health alone has often not been enough to improve it: Among five programs that told parents about their child’s health in China and the United States, health and learning only improved when information was accompanied by a complementary intervention. Information campaigns alone may have been insufficient because the information’s importance was not conveyed or because parents could not act on it.
  • Providing information about financial aid will likely not increase learning unless other barriers are also addressed. Students are often not aware of financial aid opportunities or how to qualify for them. Three programs in Chile, China, and Mexico told students about financial aid opportunities, but only the program in Mexico improved learning, perhaps because it was the only one that provided additional information to spur academic improvement.
  • Providing information about the financial returns to education has led to improved learning outcomes. In many contexts, additional schooling increases future wages, but not all families are aware of the financial returns to education. If parents underestimate these returns, they may be less willing to pay tuition or conduct a serious search for high-quality schools. If students underestimate returns, they may spend less effort on academics. Three programs in Chile, Madagascar, and Mexico that told parents, students, or both about average wage returns to different levels of education all increased learning.
  • However, providing information about the returns to education has not increased learning when students or parents overestimate the benefits or when other barriers persist. Just as learning that the returns to education are higher than expected often motivates students, learning that they are lower than expected may disincentivize effort. Sharing the returns to education may also not increase learning if a lack of information was not the main barrier to student learning.

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