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Improving learning by increasing motivation, targeting instruction, and addressing school governance

Last updated: 
April 2013

Simply providing school systems with financial or in-kind resources has not improved learning in developing countries. More successful education programs address key barriers to learning such as student or teacher motivation, the mismatch between curricula and student learning levels, or breakdowns in school governance.

Assessing a student's math abilities in Delhi. Photo: Anjali Gupta | J-PAL

For links to the original research, hover over the numbers in the text or see the full list of references at the bottom of the page.


From 2000 to 2015, the portion of primary school age children (6–12 years old) enrolled in school worldwide rose from 83 to 91 percent [1]. Yet, in 2017, over 80 percent of second grade students in Ghana, India, and Malawi could not read a simple word and over 60 percent of second grade students in Ghana, India, and Nicaragua could not perform two-digit subtraction [2]. There are many barriers to student learning, with no obvious solutions: If students lack access to schools or resources, will hiring additional teachers or providing school supplies improve learning? If existing curricula are too rigid and overly ambitious, what are more effective pedagogical approaches?

J-PAL conducted a cost-effectiveness analysis of 29 randomized evaluations from low-and middle-income countries that aimed to improve student learning (and which also provided cost data). A few programs improved learning by increasing student attendance or motivation. Pedagogical programs, such as targeting instruction to a student’s current learning level (rather than her age or grade), also consistently improved learning. Several school governance programs, such as providing teachers with performance-based incentives, adding contract teachers, or raising the status of school committees, also increased learning. Simply adding school-level resources was not effective. Since programs incur drastically different costs, some effective programs achieve learning gains with much greater cost-effectiveness than others.

Supporting Evidence

When access to education is extremely limited, getting children into school can lead to large learning gains. Using existing community resources to create schools in rural areas of Afghanistan [3] had the greatest impact on learning of any program in this analysis, improving test scores by 0.65 standard deviations for girls and 0.40 standard deviations for boys. It was also quite cost-effective. In areas with high enrollment rates, however, it is less clear that increasing attendance on its own is a cost-effective strategy.

Motivating students to go to school and learn can be very cost-effective. Incentivizing students by giving scholarships to the best performing children [4] is a cost-effective strategy to increase both children's time in school as well as test scores. In Malawi, providing cash transfers conditional on school attendance [5] increased language test scores by 0.20 standard deviations, but was less cost-effective than some other approaches. Unconditional transfers [5] increased attendance but not test scores.

There is little evidence that simply increasing the number of teachers or teaching resources improves learning. Providing additional teachers to reduce class sizes had no effect on student test scores in India  [6] or Kenya [7]. Non-teacher inputs, such as flip charts [8] or textbooks [9], similarly had no impact on average test scores. Even programs in which schools are given discretionary grants to purchase the inputs they feel the students need most have little, if any, impact on student learning. One grant program in India [10] improved language and math test scores by 0.08 and 0.09 standard deviations, respectively, after the first year, but this impact was offset by a reduction in household education spending. After the second year, any impact of the program had disappeared.

Teaching children according to their actual learning levels is the most consistently effective at improving learning, and is also very cost-effective. If a school has more than one class per grade, then reassigning students to classes by initial learning level costs very little, improves test scores, and can be extremely cost-effective [11]. Even if it is necessary to hire a new contract teacher to divide classes, tracking can still be cost-effective [7] [11]. Providing targeted help for students [6] in the lower half of their class, as well as computer programs that allow for self-paced learning, also appear to be quite cost-effective [6].

Incentives for teachers can improve student learning if incentives are objectively administered and structured to discourage "teaching to the test." Linking teachers' salaries to their attendance—objectively monitored through daily photos of the teachers with their students—was both an effective, and cost-effective, strategy for improving student test scores in India [12]. However, when incentives are tied to student learning outcomes, there may be a danger of “teaching to the test.” An in-kind incentive program in Kenya [13] raised test scores after the second year of the program, but the improvement seems to be driven only by an increase in test preparation. One year after the program ended, any impact had disappeared. In contrast, another program in India [14] that linked teachers' pay with their students test score performance led to gains of 0.15 standard deviations in the first year and 0.22 standard deviations in the second year, which seem to represent actual, lasting, increases in learning. Teachers’ pay was linked to either school-wide performance or the performance of the individual teacher’s own students. In the first year, the two types of incentives were equally effective. However, the individual bonuses were much more effective in the second year, and were more cost-effective than the group bonuses in both years.

Adding an extra teacher on a short-term contract can produce significant learning gains at relatively low cost. Many teachers in developing countries have poor incentives and absenteeism rates are high. Contract teachers—who are hired and held accountable by the local community and whose contracts can be terminated if they perform poorly—are often more likely to attend school and exert more effort in the classroom then their civil service counterparts. Contract teachers are often paid only a fraction of the salary of civil-service teachers, which makes such programs extremely cost-effective. If we assume the contract teacher is used to replace the civil-service teacher, this intervention, in principle, saves money and therefore may be considered infinitely cost-effective [7] [11].

Grants provided to communities as part of empowerment programs can lead to better learning. Providing schools or communities with grants to purchase classroom materials in The Gambia [15] and Indonesia had no lasting impact on student learning [16]. However, programs in Indonesia that aimed to increase the legitimacy and authority of the local school committee (which was already receiving additional funds to spend on educational materials) improved test scores by 0.23 standard deviations and was highly cost-effective [16].

Figure showing cost effectiveness of various education programs to improve student learning

Sector Chairs: Karthik Muralidharan and Philip Oreopoulos | Insight Author: Conner Brannen
Suggested Citation: Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). 2013. "Improving learning by increasing motivation, targeting instruction, and addressing school governance." J-PAL Policy Insights. Last modified April 2013.


United Nations. 2015. "Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education." United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Accessed May 8, 2018.
Web Page


World Bank. 2018. World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. Washington, DC: World Bank.


Burde, Dana, and Leigh L. Linden. 2013. “Bringing Education to Afghan Girls: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Village-Based Schools.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5 (3): 27–40.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Kremer, Michael, Edward Miguel, and Rebecca Thornton. 2009. “Incentives to Learn.” Review of Economics and Statistics 91 (3): 437–56.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Baird, Sarah, Craig McIntosh, and Berk Özler. 2011. “Cash or Condition? Evidence from a Cash Transfer Experiment.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 126 (4): 1709–53.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Banerjee, Abhijit V., Shawn Cole, Esther Duflo, and Leigh Linden. 2007. “Remedying Education: Evidence from Two Randomized Experiments in India.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 122 (3): 1235–64.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Michael Kremer. 2015. “School Governance, Teacher Incentives, and Pupil-Teacher Ratios: Experimental Evidence from Kenyan Primary Schools.” Journal of Public Economics 123: 92–110.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Glewwe, Paul, Michael Kremer, Sylvie Moulin, and Eric Zitzewitz. 2004. “Retrospective vs. Prospective Analyses of School Inputs: The Case of Flip Charts in Kenya.” Journal of Development Economics 74 (1): 251–68.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Glewwe, Paul, Michael Kremer, and Sylvie Moulin. 2009. “Many Children Left Behind? Textbooks and Test Scores in Kenya.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1 (1): 112–35.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Das, Jishnu, Stefan Dercon, James Habyarimana, Pramila Krishnan, Karthik Muralidharan, and Venkatesh Sundararaman. 2013. “School Inputs, Household Substitution, and Test Scores.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5 (2):29–57.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Michael Kremer. 2011. “Peer Effects, Teacher Incentives, and the Impact of Tracking: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Kenya.” American Economic Review 101 (5): 1739–74.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Esther Duflo, Rema Hanna, and Stephen P. Ryan. 2012. “Incentives Work: Getting Teachers to Come to School.” American Economic Review 102 (4): 1241–78.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Glewwe, Paul, Nauman Ilias, and Michael Kremer. 2010. “Teacher Incentives.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2 (3): 205–27.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Muralidharan, Karthik and Venkatesh Sundarraman. 2011. "Teacher Performance Pay: Experimental Evidence from India." Journal of Political Economy 119 (1):39–77.
Research Paper | J-PAL Evaluation Summary


Blimpo, Moussa, David Evans, and Nathalie Lahire. “Parental Human Capital and Effective School Management Evidence from The Gambia.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper #7238, April 2015.
Research Paper


Pradhan, Menno, Daniel Suryadarma, Amanda Beatty, Maisy Wong, Arya Gaduh, Armida Alisjahbana, and Rima Prama Artha. 2014. “Improving Educational Quality through Enhancing Community Participation: Results from a Randomized Field Experiment in Indonesia.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 6 (2): 105–26.
Research Paper