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New study reveals: Using existing textbooks for home study improves learning in low-income areas

A paper published in The Economic Journal shows how student learning in a fragile and low-income context can be helped by more intensive use of existing textbooks for home study.

Anders Olofsgård, Deputy Director of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE), together with Jean-Benoit Falisse, Senior Lecturer at University of Edinburgh, and Marieke Huysentruyt, Associate Professor at HEC Paris and Affiliated Faculty at SITE, designed and evaluated the impact of a textbook for self-study intervention in South Kivu, eastern DRC, using a randomized controlled trial.

Primary school students in low- and middle-income countries are increasingly attending school, which is great progress relative to say 30 years ago. Student learning, however, is not picking up at the same speed, due to a bundle of constraints from both the supply side (little financing, uneducated teachers, lack of teaching material, etc.) and the demand side (low motivation, undernutrition, etc.). This “learning crisis” has motivated researchers to implement and evaluate different interventions meant to improve the situation. Little of this work, however, has taken place in the most fragile and low-resource settings, where interventions must be simple and there is an extra premium for making use of already existing resources. In this project, the research team tried to fill this void by incentivizing more extensive use of existing textbooks in schools in South Kivu, a conflict-ridden region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Having learned that textbooks were rarely allowed for home study, the research team designed a routine that incentivized students (and compensated schools) to bring textbooks home for homework, followed up by weekly quizzes. The routine was randomly implemented in 45 out of 90 schools across two districts. In all these schools, both before and 16 months after the routine was implemented, students, teachers, and a sample of parents were surveyed, and students tested in French language and math skills. 

The impact evaluation showed that students in schools benefitting from the intervention were significantly more likely to pass the 6th grade national exam, an entry requirement for secondary school, a year later. Those who passed also had substantially higher scores. This is important as it also says something about student motivation for continued studies, something also confirmed by survey responses to questions about motivation for school and future aspirations. Student achievement also improved significantly in French language, while the impact on math was weaker, estimated to be positive but typically not significantly so. Compared to other interventions evaluated in the literature, the routine was not just low cost, but cost-efficient. The results suggest that student achievement can be improved by intensified and diversified use of existing teaching and learning materials in low-income and fragile settings with limited resources for new investments and low teacher skills.

Photo: Media Lens King, Shutterstock

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