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Can loss aversion improve exam results?

Geoff Riley

10th April 2017

German school children do better in the same test when their marks don't start at zero. Can invoking the behavioural bias of loss aversion improve student motivation to score better in their exams?

Simple changes to the way that school tests are marked can motivate high-performing students to do better, according to research by Valentin Wagner presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017. 

The two ‘nudge’ strategies, taken from behavioural economics, were used in an experiment involving 1,377 children in Germany who took the same mathematics test. Some were told that they began with 100 points, and could only lose points when they were wrong – a technique known as ‘loss framing’. These children, on average, answered 8% more answers correctly than using a standard marking scheme.

Those who were told that they began with negative points and could get back to positive scores when they answered correctly on average got the right answer to 11% more questions.

Manipulating the scales seemed to increase risk-taking for the loss framing group, and accuracy for the second group. Weaker students, however, did worse under loss framing than in a conventional system – but no worse when the scale was shifted down. ‘My study shows that different grading methods can change, at least in the short term, a student’s motivation’, the author comments.

Read more about their research here

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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