A lot of students are terribly optimistic about the grade they'll be getting in a course. They start out imagining that they're going to do very well, especially if they've decided it's an easy course. And when they miss an early assignment or get a grade lower than what they expected on the first assignments, they tell themselves there's plenty of time to recover. If they do finally get things going in the right direction, it's often too late with only a small percentage of points left to earn in the course. For teachers, the question is how to get students doing what they need to be doing when they need to do it.
A group of faculty economists are using an interesting approach and they have evidence that it makes a difference. It involves the concept of a nudge (popularized by others) which provides “information at the exact moment that an agent makes a decision.” (p. 2) So, tax evaders got a note pointing out that most people pay their taxes and more evaders paid up. Military service personnel who got a well-timed email almost doubled the enrollment rate in a savings program. Patients who got reminder text messages about upcoming appointments missed fewer of them.
The economists wondered if a grade nudge might get students devoting time and energy to assignments when it would make a difference in their course performance. They decided to try it out and experimented in a way that allowed them to test for results. They implemented their nudge with a Google App Script. Just before an assignment due date, it sent students a message that reported their current grade in the course, the points value of the assignment, and what happened to their course grade if they got more or less than X number of points or didn't do the assignment. The app can place the message on the bottom of an assignment description, share it as a document within the Google Drive environment, or deliver it as an email message.
The nudge approach was used in online courses, two sections of Economics of Sports in America and one section of Fundamentals of Microeconomics. All students in the three sections got an email reminder of the homework due date and 50 percent were randomly selected to get the nudge messages. The results: getting the nudge improved homework performance by about four percent. The team writes, “an instructor adopting the procedure should be careful to send grade nudges early in the semester: there is some evidence that these treatments are more impactful than those sent late in the semester.” (p. 5)
Even though most LMS systems make it possible for students to calculate the impact of an assignment on the overall course grade, it's often not easy. The nudge overcomes that problem. The information is right there and it's delivered precisely when most students are starting to work on the assignment. Granted the impact is small. It has been small in the non-educational arenas as well, but as the authors point out, it involves no class time and about three minutes of instructor time to send the message out using this software. And, thanks to first author Ben Smith, the software and instructions are available for free at https://bensresearch.com/nudge/
Teachers can support student efforts to learn in large and small ways. Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of outside-the-box creative thinking and this approach is a great example.
Smith, B., White, D., Kuzyk, P., and Tierney, J. (2018). Improved grade outcomes with an e-mailed “grade nudge.” Journal of Economics Education, 49,
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