Nudge: How behavioural psychology can (and can’t) influence students

Nudge: How behavioural psychology can (and can't) influence students

Has Nudge Theory influenced higher ed's approach to admissions and student experience?

Article by Michael Mander

In 2008, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness was released by two behavioral economists – Thaler and Sunstein.

A nudge is a way to influence behavior without coercion – increasing the likelihood that an individual will make a particular choice.

The theory gained notoriety across sectors – both the private sector and the public sector. In fact, Sunstein went on to become director of the US Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Suffice to say, we’ve all been nudged plenty of times: from warnings on cigarette packaging, to reminders to enroll on a pension plan.

And for well over ten years, colleges across the US have adapted Nudge Theory in their practices to boost enrollment and student success.

But, does it work? How do you ‘nudge’ effectively? And could nudging help us influence students to make safe choices during the pandemic?

Alejandra Acosta is an expert in predictive analytics and works as a policy analyst with the higher education initiative at New America. With a background as a college advisor, supporting First Generation students get into college, Alejandra knows how nudge theory can support students.

“In Higher Education it’s become common practice in the last 10 years or so, roughly when the book Nudge came out. It’s used in Admissions, Enrollment Management and academic success – across the board.”

So what makes a nudge so different from any other email or text message sent to students with a prompt or call to action?

“We’ve all received emails from companies or our school where you can tell even just from the email subject, that it’s been sent to everyone. and so you think, well I’m not going to read this.

“What makes nudging different is, in addition to using analytics, is that the messages are more personalized. You’re not receiving messages every day that aren’t even relevant to you.”

Nudges are all about the right message, at the right time – “using data to send personalized messages is what makes a nudge so much more effective,” said Alejandra.

Nudge, don’t nag

With the popularity of the theory and the ubiquity of the phrase, Nudge Theory has come to be overused and possibly overtested.

In one prominent study from 2019, economists found that repeated nudges to students to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid had no effect on enrollment.

“It didn’t seem to matter how we framed the message or how we sent the message; we weren’t finding differences between them,” one of the researchers told Inside Higher Ed.

But were these nudges, or were these reminders? Or to put it another way – were these nags?

What makes a nudge distinct is that it gives the recipient control over their destiny.

Alejandra said, “The success of a nudge is all about how you communicate the analytics data productively to students. What my colleague heard in the field was that institutional researchers who had the data were afraid of handing it over to like counselors or faculty members because they were afraid that they would misrepresent the data.

“For example, if they saw that a student had a 30% chance of graduating that they would tell the student that they weren’t going to graduate. That’s statistically untrue, and it’s not a positive message.”

And the most effective messages, says Alejandra, are ones that are positively oriented. “A good nudge should have a growth mindset – a growth mindset is saying I’m not good at math right now, but if I practice I can get better.

“Having that kind of a tone while also being realistic is the balance that you want to find in these messages to students. You want to create a sense of urgency so they can do something that they need to do in order to graduate, but you also don’t want to freak them out or give them a sense that they don’t belong here. Those things have very real consequences for students.”

Research from 2017 conducted in the UK found that text message nudges during the first ten weeks of a course had a 4% increase in attendance during the trial period, a 7% increase in attendance afterwards, and an 8% increase in the likelihood of passing exams.

And the messages were positive, with a focus on the growth mindset Alejandra described.

“And you can nudge not just through text messaging but also through email and even through physical signs,” Alejandra added.

Nudging in times of COVID

In these times, we are being nudged more than ever. Our inherent biases mean we like to stick to the status-quo and do things as normal – even when the world around us is far from normal. We also have a bias towards optimism and positivity, even when all the signs are telling us to be cautious.

Public health strategies have relied on nudges to help us adapt to the guidelines and the ‘new normal’. Markings on the floor that indicate 2 meter distance, hand washing guidance placed next to sinks, and even advice that singing ‘Happy Birthday’ two times makes twenty seconds.

The effectiveness of these nudges is not conclusive, as the population grows tired of social distancing.

“Since folks don’t have the high-touch, in-person experience, I would use nudge theory for the academic side of Higher Education. I would use it to ensure students are staying engaged. Like a reminder that they have an assignment due soon, or a check-in to see how they’re doing.”

A holistic approach

But none of this is enough in isolation.

“Let’s say an institution has identified a student that failed a class or might be struggling. They send them a message that nudges them towards seeing one of their academic counselors.

“The message does all the right things. It’s timely, the student receives it when they’re struggling, it’s personalized to them and it makes it really easy for them to actually take action.

“But if systemically in the institution you don’t have enough counselors to meet the increased demand for appointments with counselors, it could be that there’s no appointment available for another three weeks at which point it’s finals weekend.

“You can send the perfect message, but if the resource or the process isn’t there then it’s irrelevant.”

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