Nudge, Sludge, and Choice Architecture

I was thrilled to learn that my presentation proposal titled Nudge, Sludge, and Choice Architecture: Applying the Lessons of Behavioral Economics to Instructional Design was accepted for the 2022 OLC Innovate Conference in Dallas, TX in April (11 – 14, 2022). Here is the abstract, and the long version of the proposal. As I develop my presentation over the next few months I’ll post various sections as separate blog posts.

ABSTRACT: Taking as its point of departure a recent new edition of a book by award winning authors (Nobel and Holberg prizes), this presentation explores the relevance of behavioral economics concepts of “nudge” for the design of online courses, offering practical, field-tested solutions that work.

NOTE: The fastest, fun way to get the gist of key ideas from the new edition of the book is this Nudge-themed episode (57 mins) of the Freakonomics Book Club Podcast (interview with Richard Thaler, one of the authors – listen or read complete transcript).

THE LONG VERSION: Taking as its point of departure a recent new edition of a book by award winning authors (Nobel and Holberg prizes), this presentation explores the relevance of behavioral economics concepts of “nudge, sludge, and choice architecture” for the design of online courses, offering practical, field-tested solutions that work. Many ideas and lessons shared in this presentation can be used in blended or face-to-face courses successfully, but my focus is on online courses because they are often subject to specific constraints imposed by the LMS and the predominantly asynchronous nature of such courses. Online courses also present specific challenges to students (for example, self-determined planning and timing of course activities, not determined by course meeting schedule), and some of the “nudging” techniques discussed here are intended to overcome such drawbacks.

When Nobel Prize laureate (2017) Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (Holberg Prize, 2018) published their book, very simply titled “Nudge,” in 2008, few expected that it would start a revolution in economics, and that its title would become a standard technical term of behavioral economics. “Nudge” is an umbrella term that describes small, deliberate design choices that gently move (“nudge”) audiences (in our case, students), to (unconsciously) make desirable choices that lead to preferred outcomes. The idea, originally referred to as “channel factors”, and spearheaded at theoretical level by influential psychologist Kurt Levin, was later made famous by a Yale campus experiment developed and described by Howard Leventhal, Robert Singer, and Susan Jones has evolved, and today, transformed into more readily understandable concept of “nudge” has had impact on entire industries, positively affecting and improving millions of lives around the globe.

Earlier this year the authors of “Nudge” published the updated “final” largely updated edition of their book. In the meantime, since its original publication, countries and governments have used their “nudging” techniques in myriad contexts, and the authors have have served as consultants and officials for various government administrations: their impact ranges from the design of tax forms in several countries, to the design of consent cards for organ donors, and improvements to public health and financial stability for large populations. And yet, among the areas of impact where “nudging” has been successful, described in the recent edition of the book, “nudging” in educational setting is hardly mentioned. Although the book uses the word “education” 28 times, it’s always in passing, talking about related, but different topics (for example, school meals and nutrition/health), but not strictly education and educational outcomes.

The question this presentation explores how instructors and instructional designers can use some of the “nudge” techniques developed in behavioral economics and apply them directly and deliberately to the design of online courses, to improve a range of student outcomes, from increasing assignment completion rates, and increased student satisfaction, to better grades and lower drop-out rates.


Richard Reeves interviews Cass Sunstein on his new (post-Nudge) book “Noise” and on nudges (1h 9mins).

Ironically, most “nudging” techniques are very simple, low-tech, and low-cost, which is perhaps why they are often assumed to have a very small impact (hardly worth the effort). An important part of considering such design techniques in the context of experimentally tested behavioral economics is the realization that accumulating several positive, small-impact factors often results in relatively large gains, as the accumulation of such effects often increases the impact in an exponential, rather than linear way, resulting in surprisingly large positive impacts.

We will explore such “nudge-based” ideas as using simple techniques to counteract what Thaler and Sunstein call “conformity effects,” and “pluralistic ignorance” (both concepts explained and illustrated with example during the presentation) that plague (poorly designed) online discussions; or course-planning approaches and techniques that employ our knowledge of positive habit-formation, by creating a predictable, recurring “course rhythm” to minimize missed deadlines and, consequently, lower scores, as well as simple yet surprisingly effective, experimentally-supported ways to maximize the effects of simple but carefully crafted reminder emails sent to students.

The presentation also considers the dangers and detrimental use of various techniques (named “sludge” if they harm, rather than benefit students). We discuss the fact that many online courses use teaching techniques that actually have a very substantial amount of “sludge,” although, in my experience, this presence of “sludge” is almost entirely accidental, and clearly attributable to lack of forethought given to course design, and not deliberate intent. Still, whether intended or not, if the lack of attention leads to negative outcomes, taking proactive (low-cost, easily implemented) steps to reduce or eliminate them is worth consideration.

PRACTICAL ASPECTS OF THE PRESENTATION: The presentation is a combination of idea-centered approach (aka “theory”), but it has a very practical aspect, using two real-live course designs I developed for my department’s newly created doctoral program as “case studies” in practical implementation some of these nudging techniques. Using the approach pioneered by Linda Hodges in her 2015 influential ad innovative book “Teaching Undergraduate Science: A Guide to Overcoming obstacles to Student Learning,” this presentation will not only discuss various nudging techniques, but will also estimate each in terms of its impact (possible, likely, or demonstrable), effort needed to implement (minimal, medium, considerable, high), time expenditure needed to prepare, time taken during class / time needed of students (if applicable), and time needed to provide feedback or analyze results (if any). While presently (December 2021) I can only address the specifics of course design used in these three courses as examples of practical application of “nudging”, the timing of the conference and the presentation (April 2022) will also allow me to include faculty and student feedback.