Cass Sunstein, Harvard University, and the Nobel Prize in Economics winner Richard Thaler, University of Chicago, got advocates in higher education thinking about how best to “nudge” students to make smart choices in their academic careers. This proactive ideology is described in the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (Yale U Press, 2008). And these two scholars continue to demonstrate how nudging works best – see The Conversation (11 October 2017).
The setting in which we all make decisions is crucial to the outcome – and the framing in which the options are presented is also important in affecting a decision. So, the operative question for us as educators is not whether or not to worry about inserting some kind of bias into people’s decision-making, but to think carefully about which direction we should take in persuading them to go. The goal, in part, is to nudge people toward healthier, safer, more prosperous lives while also addressing pressing issues like academic career trajectories, persisting in a college degree, and networking broadly enough to get a good-paying job after graduation. It takes into account not just logic or cognitive aspects of a student’s learning but also the emotional and social factors that combine to put up barriers to a student’s success. A nudge, then, would be an action that encourages – not mandates – a particular behavior that students demonstrate.
In higher education circles, we often get together to work on how best to “nudge” students to complete those tasks that might seem mundane to outsiders but are crucial for student success: completing an enrollment process, spending more time in communal spaces, establishing positive peer networks that help earn better grades or prevent them from stopping out. The problem is when we craft those strategies in ways that seem manipulative or simply as a series of byzantine requirements with an underlying tone of “…because I told you to.” If the messages are too intimidating, students are likely to veer away or procrastinate rather than become empowered and motivated to go in that direction. Students will also veer away if the strategies recommended might “compromise the interests or values of the people they affect (Sunstein, The Conversation).”
EAB Student Success researchers recommend we build a process map for the work we do and find where students experience “hidden pain points.” For so many of our students, higher education champions a “hidden curriculum” that can leave them feeling confused or just defeated. Student support staff will say they are accustomed to students ignoring their email notifications, and instructors will complain students don’t read the syllabus or follow directions. However, we might all want to think more like a digital marketing expert and find ways to design a good “nudge” that will improve student experiences in decision-making.
Take the diagnostic on the EAB website to find out how well you currently reach out and motivate students to take positive steps toward their own success. Plenty of research conducted in the last decade demonstrates that we don’t need to worry about students being frustrated with a good nudge – if they understand and agree with the underlying goal. Nudging can go wrong if people perceive the goal is illegitimate.
Are you part of a well-designed “nudge” to set up students to make the right choice? or are you contributing to the anxiety and frustrations that force students to withdraw, accept lower achievement rates, or even drop out?