Many students fail in their studies not due to lack of ability but rather because of poor behaviors that undermine their learning (procrastinating, spending time on social media rather than paying attention in class, etc.). Digital communication now allows faculty to address these behaviors by sending nudges through the learning management system or outside apps. These nudges have the potential to increase the likelihood of student success within a course and cultivate habits that sustain students in their future courses and careers.
Types of nudges
There are some important distinctions that help broaden thinking on how nudges can help students. First, humans have two systems for processing information (Weijers et al., 2020). System one is automatic in that it acts non-reflectively. For example, a person might eat everything on their plate simply because it is a habit they developed in their upbringing. An educational example might be a student studying between classes because they developed the habit in high school. System two processes information in a thoughtful, reflective way. Examples would be choosing an item from a menu, which requires a reflective comparison of items, and making a conscious decision to study between classes rather than watch a game show.
There are also two types of nudges. Type one nudges use a nonreflective stimulus to impel action. Examples would include giving someone a small plate so that they put less food on it or leaving a student’s textbook on the kitchen table so that they open it while eating. Conversely, a type two nudge uses overt messaging to motivate behavior. Hanging a poster in a lecture hall telling students to turn off their phones or setting a recurring text reminder to study are examples of type two nudges.
While the processing systems and nudges are both distinguished by the reflective vs. non-reflective distinctions, they can be mixed and matched. Imagine that a person has a problem with overeating because they eat non-reflectively (a system one response) and wants to modify their behavior with nudges. They might purchase food in smaller packages, which would be a nonreflexive nudge (type one). They might also leave themselves notes around the house reminding them of good eating habits, which is a reflexive nudge (type two).
By contrast, imagine that the person’s overeating problem is caused by poor food choices (system two) and they want to address it with nudges. They could put attractive photos of healthy foods around their house to non-reflexively influence their food choices (a type one nudge). They could also sign up for daily email messages from a healthy eating website that will help them to reflexively make better food choices (a type two nudge).
Three important lessons emerge from this distinction. First, we usually think of nudges as overt messages, such as email reminders about upcoming deadlines, but they can instead be subtle prompts that move the receiver non-reflexively. Weijers et al. (2020) reference research suggesting that nonreflexive nudges may be more effective when cognitive load is high and so might be a better choice during an exam or finals week. But a simpler implementation would be to just use both types of nudges for specific behaviors.
Second, as noted above, faculty tend to use nudges to alert students to course deadlines to help them succeed in the class. But nudges can also be used to cultivate habits that will sustain the student after the class is done. Weijers et al. (2020) suggest that reflexive nudges are better at achieving long-term behavioral change, though again a faculty member might just try both. Third, we tend to think of nudges solely in terms of text, but nudges can take the form images, videos, audio, and more.
Nudging for education
These considerations demonstrate that there is a much wider array of potential nudges and behaviors that they address than most faculty are using. For instance, one faculty member used nudges to get students to set goals for their course, which led students to take more practice exams, while another improved student grades by sending messages about the struggles of well-known scientists (Weijers et al., 2020). Notice how these are not just digital “attaboys” or “keep your chin up” platitudes but rather thoughtful messages designed to address particular beliefs and behaviors that can undermine performance. Some other examples:
- Reminders to ask the instructor for a meeting if the student is struggling
- Information on plagiarism-detection processes the instructor uses and the consequences of plagiarism for students
- Suggestions that students review past assignment feedback and consider how they are implementing it
- Study tips
- Group work tips
- Growth mindset information about how to improve areas of deficiency
- Requests that students remind themselves why they are in school to improve their motivation
- Information about on- and off-campus events related to the field
- Memes or GIFs about laboratory procedure errors for lab classes
- Reminders of various supports for students in the program
A good starting point for faculty is to think about the common student problems and then consider how a nudge can be used to address them. Faculty can then use both overt advice and GIFs, memes, and short videos on the topic to present the information in a playful manner and gauge student reactions. In a world where there are many appeals to student attention, regular nudges can have a real bearing on student success.
Weijers, R. J., de Koning, B. B., & Paas, F. (2021). Nudging in education: From theory towards guidelines for successful implementation. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 36, 883–902. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-020-00495-0