Small changes, big differences?

Recently, a small experiment was designed to see if the attendance at adult education classes could be improved by using some principles of positive reinforcement. Programme leaders identified a couple of crucial points at which they realised that students were particularly vulnerable to not showing up for class. They then sent a short text message to them, something to the effect of “we know this is a particularly difficult time in your studies, but generally students find that once they’re through the next couple of weeks then things begin to improve. We look forward to seeing you in class on Monday”. Absence rates dropped immediately by 36%, for minimal cost.

The case is reported in David Halpern’s book “Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference”. Halpern, a Cambridge academic, set up the Government’s Behavioural Insights Unit in 2010, the objective of which was to design policies that exploited, rather than attempted to eliminate, the side of human nature traditionally labelled ‘irrational’ by classical economists. The “Nudge” unit was a huge success, paying for itself almost immediately, and has now been turned into a for-profit consultancy.

It’s my impression – reinforced by reading Halpern’s book – that most of our academic policies and structures originate with the view that people are ‘rational utility maximisers’. Perhaps we are, and our students are, some of the time. But as we think about how best to improve our students’ experience – and success – for the September term, I’d like us to think if there are other, innovative ways of achieving that by understanding, and exploiting, the mental shortcuts we all use.

For instance, one of the conclusions Halpern references is that as social beings, our behaviour is influenced by people we like. How can we ensure our students associate with those who attend class and work hard for their grades? Halpern’s early success was to increase payment of taxes on time by inserting a line in the reminder letter “most people pay their taxes on time”. What if our students had data on attendance that showed them most of them go to class?

Those ideas may or may not work, but I can recommend the book. And let’s think of additional ways we can ‘nudge’ our students as well as ‘compel’ them in the behaviour we know is important for success.

A short description of the “Nudge” principles, including the EAST mnemonic (Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely) can be found here

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