Introducing the King’s ACES framework

By Vanessa Todman, King’s College London |

The What Works team (and its predecessor KCLxBIT) have now conducted thirteen RCTs, a series of workshops and focus groups, and our six-wave Pulse Survey. We’ve also started to come to grips with the research from elsewhere into effective practice in social mobility and student success at university. Although most behavioural insights frameworks (such as MINDSPACE and EAST) focus on the specific context of the decision being made, when it comes to educational decisions, we know that to bring about sustained, positive change in outcomes for students, we need to be interested in the whole student: the context in which they’re making particular decisions, and also the consequences of the set of past decisions they’ve made, the way they feel about themselves and the institution, and their perception of the decision they’re making.

To help guide our research, and support our colleagues to apply behavioural insights in their work, we developed the ACES framework. The four elements of ACES are Affirm Belonging, Consider the Choice Architecture, Empower & Enable, and Support Social Connections. You can read a bit more about each below.

Affirm belonging

Students who experience a sense of belonging in educational environments are more motivated[i] and research from the UK has found that an early sense of belonging can help student retention[ii]. Research finds that sense of belonging is lowest when students feel that they are in the minority, marginalised, and unwelcome.[iii] Students from particular minority ethnicities are less likely to feel like they belong at university[iv]. This research the cause as a combination of social and psychological factors, such as students from minority ethnic backgrounds not feeling like they don’t match the prototypical student, not encountering others like them[v], and interpreting ambiguous social cues negatively[vi].

US academics Professor Geoffrey Cohen and Professor Greg Walton suggest that it is possible to students’ sense of belonging through ‘wise’ interventions, such as asking students to read materials that reframed doubts about belonging as something that all students feel, irrespective of background, and that reduce with time[vii]. Some of this work has been replicated in the UK; for example, the Behavioural Insights Team found in a large field trial that asking students to write about their values and what was important to them increased pass rates among GSCE maths and English resit students by 25 per cent (or, 4.2 percentage points)[viii], and the KCLxBIT project found that including the line, “Lots of King’s first years find adapting to university study takes time,” more than doubled the number of Widening Particpation students signing up for the King’s Learning and Skills Service module[ix].

We’ve also written about belongingness at King’s in a previous blog post.

Consider the choice architecture

In their seminal book, Nudge, Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein identified myriad ways that the context around a choice—the Choice Architecture—can influence the decisions we make. For example, removing small frictions in processes can have large effects on behaviour[x]: a study in the US determined that cumbersome financial aid forms and lack of information about higher education costs prevented access to higher education[xi]. The Behavioural Insights Team developed the EAST framework, which synthesises the available academic evidence into four simple ways to tweak the Choice Architecture of a choice set–by making it Easy, Attractive, Social and/or Timely, to make the best decision[xii]. By adopting EAST in our framework we are encouraging practitioners to, for example, personalise communications, think about the timing of interventions as well as reduce the friction of processes.

Empower and enable

Students are active partners in their university experience. By giving students the confidence, information and authority to make their own decisions about their priorities, we can help them get what they want out of their time at King’s, not just what we think they should want. An example of empowering and enabling service users is the Empowering Parents, Empowering Communities programme, which also used a peer-to-peer training model in a community setting, but to increase participants’ confidence in their parenting abilities. A randomised controlled trial with 116 families in Southwark compared outcomes between an intervention group with a waitlist control condition. Compared to the control group, programme participants showed medium to large improvements in positive parenting practices and child behaviour problems[xiii]. This demonstrates something we strongly believe in: that people can achieve more than they might expect if they are empowered to do so and given the right tools. One intervention that King’s is currently running in this area is Parent Power[xiv]; a parental engagement project run in partnership with community organising charity Citizens UK to empower parents to be community leaders and to help their children make choices about their future.

Support social connections

Social connections—to other students, to faculty, to supporters in their own network—are crucial to students’ receiving the maximum benefit from their time at university, and realising those benefits in the labour market. The BIT study supporters trial sought to leverage the power of social networks by asking learners in FE Colleges to nominate two individuals who they felt were well placed to help them learn (it could be a family member or friend, for example). The ‘Study Supporters’ then received weekly text message updates, which provided information about the kinds of things that they might be able to help the learner with – such as an upcoming exam that they need to prepare for. the texts resulted in an 11 per cent increase in attendance (or an increase of 6 percentage points)[xv], demonstrating the power that peers can have on attainment.

We want all King’s students to be coming up ACES

In the What Works Department, we believe that university services should be based on an understanding of student behaviour, and their design should be informed by evidence. We developed the King’s ACES framework to start to fold in some of the best available evidence about what helps students thrive at university into a framework that practitioners within King’s can use to think about the design and delivery of services for students.  This framework is based on the work of the Behavioural Insights Team, and others, demonstrating the powerful impact that changes to the context of a decision can have. However, it also recognises that to support students throughout their university journey we need to look more broadly than the choice architecture, to make sure students know they belong at King’s, are empowered to make changes to their own university experience, and are embedded within a strong social support system.

We’re very excited about this, we hope you are too. Look out for future posts as we explore elements of our framework in more depth.

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[i] Goodenow, C. (1993). The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Psychology in the Schools, 30, 70-90.

[ii] Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, Paul Hamlyn Foundation

[iii] Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge.

[iv] Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latino college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70(4), 324-345.

[v] Harper, S.R., (2011) Race and racism in the experiences of black male resident assistants at predominantly white universities. Journal of College Student Development. 52 (2), pp.180-200.

[vi] Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), 82–96.

[vii] Ibid (Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007).).

[viii] Hume, S.  O’Reilly, F. Groot, B. Kozman, E. Barnes, J. Soon, X. Chande, R and Sanders, M (2018) Retention and Success in maths and English a practitioner guide to applying behavioural insights available at:

[ix] Canning, AM, Hume, S. Makinson, L. Koponen, M, Hall, K. Delargy, C.  (2017) KCLxBIT Project Report 2015-2017. Available at:

[x] Behavioural Insights Team. (2015) EAST: Four Simple Ways to Apply Behavioural Insights. Available at:

[xi] Bettinger, E P; Long, B T., Oreopoulos, P & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2012). The role of application assistance and information in college decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(3), pp. 1205-1242

[xii] Behavioural Insights Team. (2015) EAST: Four Simple Ways to Apply Behavioural Insights. Available at:

[xiii] Day, C., Michelson, D., Thomson, S., Penney, C., & Draper, L. (2012). Evaluation of a peer led parenting intervention for disruptive behaviour problems in children: community based randomised controlled trial. BMJ344, e1107.

[xiv] For more information see the King’s College London Widening Participation Yearbook, available at: and Citizens UK:

[xv] The Behavioural Insights Team (2016) 2015-16 update report Available at:

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