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Want to motivate students? Tell them learning boosts earning power

Making clear that salaries can be increased through further education boosted results in one Mexican experiment, finds Lee Crawfurd

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Making clear that salaries can be increased through further education boosted results in one Mexican experiment, finds Lee Crawfurd

If your students knew how much more money they could earn if they studied hard, went on to further education and got good grades, do you think it would make a difference to them? 

That was part of a question posed in a new paper published in the Journal of Development Economics and featured in the January edition of the Centre for Education Economics’ (CfEE) Monthly Research Digest

Ciro Avitabile and Rafael De Hoyos ran a randomised controlled trial in Mexico designed to address whether or not providing students with better information about the earning returns of education – and the options available to them – led to greater effort and learning. 

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The experiment involved about 4,000 Mexican Year 10 students, across 111 classrooms in 54 schools. They first asked students how much they thought they could earn if they progressed to different stages of education. 

Both boys and girls underestimated the average earnings of adults with a high-school degree and overestimated the earnings of adults with a university degree. 

Setting the exercise

They then started the trial: 26 schools were randomly allocated to receive the intervention and 28 schools were randomly allocated to the control group.

The intervention consisted of an exercise that provided the following information through specially designed interactive computer software: 

1. The benefits: average wages of workers with different levels of schooling.

2. The costs: details of a government scholarship for higher education.

3. How long the benefits might last: average life expectancy.

The educational outcomes analysed were obtained largely from the results of the Enlace examination, which students sit at the end of Year 12. This is a low-stakes test with no bearing on graduation, university admissions or school funding, but is highly predictive of future academic and labour-market outcomes.

For various reasons, examination data was available for only 61 per cent of the students in the trial.

A second set of outcome measures were derived from a university placement exam used by a subset of universities.

Mixed picture

So what were the results? 

First, the intervention increased students’ expectations of how their future earnings might increase if they committed to education, with associated positive effects on the level of effort they reported putting into it. 

However, the information provided had no effect on the probability of students taking the Enlace low-stakes test. 

For those that did take the test, there was a large, positive effect on maths scores, but only a statistically insignificant positive effect on Spanish scores. 

The impact size in maths was almost large enough to close the gender gap between boys and girls – and larger than the effect of coming from a high-income family. 

Difference in outcomes

Unfortunately this did not follow through to any statistically significant effect on the probability of sitting the university placement exam, nor on scores in that examination.

Effects on the low-stakes test were slightly larger for girls than boys, which appears to be due to the fact that the information intervention improved the aspirations of girls in particular. 

Consistent with this explanation, the information intervention increased the likelihood that girls (but not boys) chose to study economics in high school, and made them less likely to have married at ages 18-20 – an indication of their desire to go to university. 

Equity issues

Effects were also larger, however, for children from wealthier households – suggesting the intervention had equity implications that must be considered.

From a policy perspective, the fact that the intervention costs next to nothing and is inherently scalable makes it attractive. 

Of course, it doesn’t solve the core challenge of improving the quality of teaching in low-to-middle-income countries, and it’s important to take equity implications seriously. 

But free interventions that raise pupil achievement are rare and this one certainly warrants further exploration in other settings.

Lee Crawfurd is a fellow of the CfEE and deputy editor of its Monthly Research Digest. This blog is based on his selection for the January issue of the digest. You can view a flipbook version, download a pdf copy and subscribe to receive copies of the digest free of charge here

The CfEE is an independent thinktank working to improve policy and practice in education through impartial economic research

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