Not just words! Effects of a light-touch randomized encouragement intervention on students’ exam grades, self-efficacy, motivation, and test anxiety
Tamás Keller, Péter Szakál
Motivated by the self-determination theory of psychology, we investigate how simple school practices can forge students’ engagement with the academic aspect of school life. We carried out a large-scale preregistered randomized field experiment with a crossover design, involving all the students of the University of Szeged in Hungary. Our intervention consisted of an automated encouragement message that praised students’ past achievements and signaled trust in their success. The treated students received encouragement messages before their exam via two channels: e-mail and SMS message. The control students did not receive any encouragement. Our primary analysis compared the treated and control students’ end-of-semester exam grades, obtained from the university’s registry. Our secondary analysis explored the difference between the treated and control students’ self-efficacy, motivation, and test anxiety, obtained from an online survey before students’ exams. We did not find an average treatment effect on students’ exam grades. However, in the subsample of those who answered the endline survey, the treated students reported higher self-efficacy than the control students. The treatment affected students’ motivation before their first exam—but not before their second—and did not affect students’ test anxiety. Our results indicate that automated encouragement messages sent shortly before exams do not boost students’ exam grades, but they do increase self-efficacy. These results contribute to understanding the self-efficacy mechanism through which future encouragement campaigns might exert their effect. We conclude that encouraging students and raising their self-efficacy might create a school climate that better engages students with the academic aspect of school life.