Professional Learning

Can We Nudge Students To Be Better Learners?

8 Min Read
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You know those graphs you get from your energy company showing how much electricity you use compared to your neighbors? Or how about your workplace savings plan? Are you automatically enrolled? And have you noticed the calories displayed next to more and more menu items? All of the above are examples of what Richard Thaler (who just won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this research) and Cass Sunstein called “nudges” in their 2008 book and what Greg Walton more straightforwardly named ‘wise psychological interventions” in a 2014 paper. Nudges (the label I prefer) are subtle cues designed to get you and me to make better decisions for ourselves and others, in these cases to reduce energy consumption, increase savings, and choose healthier foods.

Nudges of one sort or another pervade our lives. Marketers use psychological tools to influence us all the time. Displays that highlight a “regular” price next to a discounted one are designed to make us feel like we’re getting a deal. Items at the top of a search list, just like the ones that are eye-level on a supermarket shelf, play to our laziness. Nudges aren’t prescriptive, but they are, in the words of critics, manipulative. Look at how the NY Times described Uber’s (mis?)use of behavioral cues to influence the decisions of its drivers. On the other hand, many of us choose to be nudged about exercise and diet with devices that monitor and display number of steps walked or calories consumed against a daily goal. Nudges can help us make better, healthier decisions. They can also be manipulative and have unintended consequences. Pay attention, and you’ll notice nudges everywhere, including in education.

Education Nudges

Using psychological tools to influence decisions in education is nothing new. Displaying rankings and competition results, for instance, has long been used to encourage harder work. We don’t want to be embarrassed in front of peers, so maybe a bit more studying can move us up the ranking. Of course, the nudge to move up can also encourage cheating. And highlighting exemplary performance can actually discourage low performers who may see their effort as futile.

The best nudges in education encourage productive behaviors. Outcomes, like grades or test scores, are difficult goals for nudges. Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist, led a large study offering financial rewards for high grades. Students were excited about the rewards, but the monetary incentives didn’t produce the desired results because students didn’t know how to achieve them. They did not know, in the study’s terms, “the educational production function.” If students don’t have the behaviors and dispositions of productive learners, they have a tough time achieving the results of productive learners. So, can we use nudges to foster good learning behaviors? I think so, and it’s a possibility my students and I explore in my adaptive learning course at Harvard. The research on using nudges for learning is relatively young but getting richer all the time. Here are four types of nudges to get you thinking about the possibilities.

1. “Be like others” nudge. The graph of energy use I shared at the beginning of this blog is an example of a data-driven, social norming nudge. The “You” in the graph is outside the norm of neighborhood energy use and way outside the norm of efficient neighbors. To be more like everyone else, “You” might be prompted to read and follow tips for reducing energy consumption. Working with behavioral economists, some school districts have tried a similar social norming nudge to improve attendance. Letters to parents show how much their child has been absent compared to their peers, which can be eye-opening. Suddenly missing 11% of school days looks like a lot compared to a norm of 3 or 4%.

What about using classroom data to normalize desirable learning behaviors too? For instance, if we tracked number of tries to solve challenging problems, we might find results that look like this mockup. The norm is clearly that it takes most people multiple tries to get the correct answer. That’s a potentially positive signal to students to persevere. It may also signal teachers not to extol the few students who do well on the first try. They’re not “normal” and may need something more challenging.

We do have to be careful with norming nudges. After all, they can work in both directions. For instance, seeing that you use a lot less energy than your neighbors may make it seem okay to use more. If your child is never absent from school, maybe it’s okay for her to miss a few days like everyone else.

For folks on the productive side of a norm, maybe we need a different kind of nudge.

2. “Keep doing the good thing you’re doing” nudge. Social norming nudges compare you to others. Another kind of nudge compares you to you. The idea is to reinforce and reward positive behavior, like daily exercise, perfect attendance, or even checking your work on a test or assignment. A chart, for instance, that shows your step count by against a target may encourage maintaining your exercise routine. Your past positive history is the norm here, and maybe we can connect positive learning behaviors to positive academic results to provide a different kind of productive learning nudge.

In this Percent Correct mock-up, I highlighted a student’s results when he shows his work compared to when he doesn’t. The relationship is an interesting one to track. If you don’t see a difference in performance related to the behavior, maybe there’s something off with the application of the behavior or with the tasks that should benefit from it. No matter what, you learn something valuable.

3. “You’re making progress” nudge. Most exercise apps and nudges don’t let you settle in at one level. They keep pushing you to improve. Once you hit 800 steps, it’s time to raise the goal to 825 or 850. Progress can be a very strong motivator, and it’s commonly used in games to keep players working toward higher scores or faster times. Progress nudges are also common in learning. We might show progress toward number of books read, math facts mastered, or units to course completion. One interesting psychological characteristic of progress-to-goal nudges is that our motivation increases the closer we get to the goal. A step toward a distant goal doesn’t feel like much movement. As the goal comes within ready reach, though, we’re more likely to energize our efforts to cross the finish line (this recent consumer study highlights some of the subtleties of goal-driven motivation). As I mentioned earlier, if the gap between goal and current reality is too large, students may actually reduce effort or quit entirely. Goals have to feel achievable. Highlighting progress helps, but students also need the learning behaviors that underpin achievement. So, make sure to include how-to guidance to support continued progress.

4. “I’m a learner” identity nudge. An interesting type of nudge is sometimes called an identity prime. One of my favorite examples from the research literature involves renewing car insurance. The renewal forms ask you to state how many miles you drove in the last year. The more miles you indicate, the higher your rates will likely be. So, there’s a financial incentive to lie, to state a lower number than the actual one. The bottom of the form typically has a place for you to sign and indicate that you’ve told the truth. When researchers put the signature at the top of the form, indicating that the information you are about to give is truthful, the estimate of miles driven over the past year was higher than on the traditional form. The truthfulness signature was a subtle “I am an honest person” identity prime, and, when done before completing the form, it prompted more honest responses.

What learning identities are your students and teachers bringing to school? Do they associate being a student with sitting passively in desks waiting to be taught? Maybe we need some new labels, or at least revised definitions of old labels. I did some work in a historically underperforming New York district recently and watched the superintendent greet all students, even the youngest, as “scholars.” “Good morning scholars!” These primary grade students rushed to tell her how many books they planned to read over the summer. These kids had new learner identities; they are now scholars doing what scholars do. What identity-learning behavior connection do you want to create?

You’re already doing it.

Figuring out which nudge works for which group takes a lot of trial and error. Be thoughtful and reflective. Your existing words are already likely nudging behavior and expectations. Start by monitoring your language and what it implies. “Let’s start with an easy one” may seem like an inviting way to begin a lesson, but what does it signal for the student who struggles with the task, who couldn’t even do the “easy one”? An alternative way to frame that opening task—“This may take a few tries”—implies a different norm that makes struggle acceptable. Your words and actions matter. Use them wisely.

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Register here for our fall Leadership Talk with David Dockterman on Thursday, October 19, and learn more about the entire fall Lead the Way to Literacy webinar series.

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