Nudge, Sludge, and Choice Architecture: Applying Practical Lessons of Behavioral Economics to Instructional Design of Online Courses

Presentation proposal for the 2022 OLC Innovate Conference.
My previous OLC presentation was on So Suddenly Online… [OLC Accelerate 2020 #sosuddenlyonline]

SHORT SUMMARY / THE GIST OF IT: 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 best, and 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).


LONG SUMMARY / OUTLINE: Taking as its point of departure a recent new edition of a book by award winning authors Richard Thaler (Nobel prize 2017) and Cass R. Sunstein (Holberg prize, 2018), 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.

When Nobel Prize laureate Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein 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 (read Preface to the new edition). 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.


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

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.

Ironically, most “nudging” techniques are very simple, low-tech, and low-cost, which is perhaps why they are often assumed to have 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 pluralistic ignorance (“We may follow a practice or a tradition not because we like it or even think it defensible, but merely because we think that most other people like it. Many social practices persist for this reason, which means a small shock, or nudge, can dislodge them.”) and conformity effects, that plague (poorly designed) online discussions [also explored in my earlier – admittedly opinionated – post on 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. We also address anchoring effects,

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 three real-live courses developed in 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 (September 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 (if the proposal is accepted) will also allow me to include the report of student feedback collected at the conclusion of these courses (the three courses in question will conclude in December 2021, with data collection planned for Dec/Jan 2022, and collection/interpretation of results in early Jan/Feb 2022, with results to be incorporated in the final presentation).

INTERACTIVITY / AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: The presentation will include a “reasoned catalogue” of nudging techniques and ideas for their potential application; the audience will be asked to rank these techniques in terms of their PAST use in their courses, and later in the second half of the presentation, to estimate the likelihood of using the same techniques in their future courses, based on the new information about their impact and feasibility. In the past, OLC audiences liked the additional information provided on my website / blog, that was made available at the time of the presentation (and is still available now) at my teaching related blog (see: https://sosuddenlyonline.com ); If I have the opportunity to present this content at the 2022 OLC Innovate conference, I plan to make presentation-related information available online in a similar format.