Nudge: Improving Student Decisions to Increase their Academic Success

Much research documents that motivation is a major factor in student success. However, although students often know what they should do (attend class, do extra credit, and get help), many of them don't. Thaler and Sunstein's popular book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008) might offer a solution. As the title suggests, the authors didn't envision the book as a teaching guide, but we think it has a lot to say about how we can influence our students to make good educational choices both in and out of the classroom.

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Much research documents that motivation is a major factor in student success. However, although students often know what they should do (attend class, do extra credit, and get help), many of them don't. Thaler and Sunstein's popular book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008) might offer a solution. As the title suggests, the authors didn't envision the book as a teaching guide, but we think it has a lot to say about how we can influence our students to make good educational choices both in and out of the classroom.

The authors use the term “choice architect” to refer to someone who is in a position to change the behavior of others by “organizing the context in which people make decisions.” In higher education, the teacher, as a choice architect, does not dictate what students do but encourages and subtly persuades them to do what is best for their learning. These techniques for altering student behavior are referred to as “nudges.”

You have probably never thought of it this way, but your syllabus is full of nudges—for those students who read it. For example, a statement about visiting the Writing Center is a nudge, as is a policy of deducting points when work is submitted late. Other nudges include telling students the range of scores on an exam so that poorly performing students will realize they aren't doing as well as their peers; setting due dates for rough drafts to get students working on their papers; assigning study groups or encouraging the exchange of names and phone numbers on the first day of class to subtly point out the value of having a classmate to contact; and promoting use of the textbook by regularly referring to it in class.

Although teachers nudge students in a variety of ways, it is often done without any real design. Thaler and Sunstein give research-based suggestions on making nudges more effective in the realms of health, wealth, and happiness; here we suggest how to apply their ideas to increase student success.

Thaler and Sunstein reference data showing that people were more likely to recycle if they believed their neighbors were also recycling. Therefore, you might nudge good choices by telling students that their classmates are studying hard, coming to see you during office hours, and using the online activities supplied by the text. “I was happy to be able to help so many of you during my office hours this week.” “I'm giving a small bonus to those of you who completed all of the online quizzes for this unit.” (Is it fair to tell a white lie if, in fact, none of the students are doing these things? We are on the fence about that, but encourage you to experiment with truthful-but-vague nudges such as, “This topic is something I frequently deal with during office hours,” even if “dealing” with it means ruminating on why, so far, no one has come to see you about it.)

Nudges can also work by influencing perceptions. One way to do this is with the “anchor,” or “starting point from which we make an estimate.” Thaler and Sunstein use the example of estimating the population of Milwaukee. If you live in a very large city and estimate downward from that “anchor,” you are likely to overestimate, while if you live in a small town and adjust your number upward, you are likely to underestimate. Perhaps we can get students to study more by suggesting a high anchor—say that widely used recommendation of two hours of work outside class for every one hour in class. Propose study strategies that take time, such as carefully reading the book, reviewing class notes, taking sample quizzes, making flashcards, or whatever is appropriate. Scheduling the first exam or other major assignment early in the semester will also nudge students to get serious about studying before it is too late.

Another factor that affects perceptions is unreasonable optimism—think for instance of Patricia Cross' study that found 94 percent of professors ranked themselves as better teachers than their peers. Reminding students that not everyone passes your class (if that is true, and we certainly hope it is) may deflate their unreasonable optimism and allow them to more accurately assess the amount of study needed to do well in the course.

Another powerful nudge is the fear of loss. Thaler and Sunstein point out that “losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy.” This suggests that instead of nudging students by offering points for an activity, it might be more effective to give them points at the beginning of the semester and say the points will be lost if they fail to complete an activity. For example, you might start students with 50 points for attendance and then deduct points for each class missed. Make sure they are reminded when points are taken away (perhaps with an email, or an announcement in class to check current grades online) so it isn't a surprise at the end of the semester.

These nudges have short-term benefits, which means they need to be used throughout the course and in conjunction with other innovative teaching strategies. We all use nudges, but we hope this article will encourage you to become a “choice architect” so that you can make more purposeful decisions about nudging students to make better academic choices.

Contact Andrea Bixler at
Andrea.Bixler@clarke.edu.