Featured Graduate Student Research: Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe and friends in LondonMichael Schwalbe is a PhD candidate in Psychology and a researcher at the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality. Michael’s research focuses on the psychology of change and how theory-driven interventions increase achievement and well-being. With the support of a research grant from The Europe Center, Michael traveled to a secure data room in London in October of 2017 to access and analyze final outcome data of a large-scale randomized control trial he helped design and implement across 13 further education colleges to improve basic literacy and numeracy in the United Kingdom in partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team.

In London, more specifically, Michael’s research focused on analyzing whether a culturally-adapted values affirmation intervention improves course passage and attendance rates in basic English and math courses at further education colleges, akin to community colleges, in the UK, a country with one of the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in the OECD. In registered planned analyses, the intervention was also predicted to be particularly effective for (a) students in remedial “functional skills” courses, and (b) Black Caribbean students, the lowest performing group facing academic stigma in the country.

Behavioral Insights Team Building in LondonAfter enrollment, students (N = 4463, median age = 17) had been randomized to a control condition or a year-long intervention comprising four brief in-class exercises and 12 text messages that encouraged students to reflect on cherished personal values and memories, and to connect their educational experience to their values. In the pre-specified intent-to-treat (ITT) analysis, the intervention was found to increase overall course passage rates by 25%. Although passage rates were improved for all groups, the hypothesized stronger benefits for remedial students and Black Caribbean students were found for attendance. The intervention increased full year attendance rates for remedial students by 11% and for Black Caribbean students by 76%. The intervention did not have the same effect on Black African students who in the UK perform better educationally in part due to a different history of immigration to the UK. Results suggest that stigmatization can take different forms in different cultures, and that simply attending a vocationally focused community college in certain countries can create a form of identity threat for students regardless of their group.