Sometimes a nudge is all you need.
It might be the difference between choosing pizza or a salad—between watching what’s next or going to bed at a reasonable hour.
At its core, a nudge is a kind of intervention—a way of influencing people’s behavior without stripping freedom of choice from the equation. Nudges are sort of morally neutral, in the sense that they can be used to influence people to improve their lives, and just as easily modify behavior in a way that might be desirable to, say, a company’s bottom line.
For example, some companies working to treat individuals with diabetes have helped people understand more about their own eating habits, utilizing nudges to improve health and wellness. While companies like Netflix, on the other hand, compete with sleep by counting down to another new movie or episode before the credits have even finished rolling.
But nudging can do more than just get us to stay up late, or eat better, or save more than we might have on our own accord. When nudges are used responsibly and correctly—or as nudge theory thinker Richard Naler autographs his books, when a nudge is a “nudge for good”—they can alter the course of people’s lives for the better.
For instance, at the University of Arizona, they used nudges to actually keep students from dropping out. How? Through their Student Success Data Effort—a program that uses predictors as signals for measuring student success. The program combines quantitative data points like test scores with other qualitative data like observations and conversations with students to get an idea of what’s going on with a particular student. More specifically, predictive analytics uses UA’s student information systems—everything from applications and current grades, to course management, to information gathered from tutoring and other academic support services—to identify the top risk factors that affect student success. From there, academic advisors can reach out to struggling students with a gentle nudge—not one meant to single out or stigmatize them, but to foster a sense of belonging and a growth mindset.
And UA doesn’t only use nudges on students who are struggling. Sometimes, students will begin their academic career with a nudge. UA has also used nudges with faculty and advisors—ones that reinforce the value of faculty-student relationship and how important they are to student success.
While nudges can be very appealing, they’re not without their critics. The main critique is that there is a certain amount of paternalism that comes along with any system that tries to “improve” the way others behave. But the appeal, according to Sunstein and Thaler, authors of Nudge, is that they don’t make choices for individuals. Instead, they create a sort of choice architecture—a system or structure that helps individuals make better choices for themselves.
Not only that, but interventions like nudging in higher education can be something of a double-edged sword. It is important to not only consider their benefits, but also the potential for unintended consequences. For instance, nudges that rely on student data raise a number of privacy implications—implications that require institutions to think through their own process for collecting, storing, and using student data. Colleges need to make sure that they and their vendors use student data in ways that are compliant with FERPA laws. Students should understand that their data is being used, why it’s being used, and have access to it.
As with most things, when it comes to nudging, there are right ways and wrong ways. Generally speaking, people tend to appreciate those kinds of nudges that deal with things like improving public health or protecting the environment. They also tend to appreciate the opportunity to opt out.
People tend to dislike nudges when they are perceived as overly intrusive or personally invasive. Other problematic nudges include “shoves”—nudges that limit freedom of choice in some way. In higher education, nudges that limit freedom of choice—for instance, putting a hold on a student’s account when they have an outstanding balance—almost always results in negative consequences. Schemes where students are “opted in” by default are also particularly unethical in higher educational settings.
Thankfully, it is possible to avoid the possible pitfalls of negative nudges. Following just a few simple guidelines can help higher ed nudges be better taken—and get better results for students.
- Show, don’t tell. Nudges should guide decisions, not direct them. Taking actions like making it easier to register for class (as opposed to dictating a course schedule) can guide decisions that will benefit students in the long-run, all without limiting their freedom to choose.
- Nudge-ee, not nudge-er. School administrators should remember who a nudge is for. Nudges should prioritize the welfare of those being nudged—the students—rather than people who are doing the nudging.
- Know your biases. If a college has a system in place that suggests a few majors to students based on data about preferences and academic performance, its administrators need to make sure that system isn’t simply recommending certain majors or academic tracks to certain groups of students. If they don’t, nudges based on systems like these can have the impact of shuttering choices for students on a simplified basis—often in a biased way.
- Be transparent. Nudges should ultimately be transparent. The people being nudged should know exactly what they’re being nudged to do. And, in an effort to support freedom of choice, students should always be allowed to opt out. It’s important for colleges to be aware that not all nudges affect students in the same way. Messaging that isn’t carefully thought out can have particularly damaging effects on first generation students.
- Have a bigger plan. Nudges should only be part of your student success solutions. In other words, nudges should always be supplementary. While nudges offer a low-cost way to impact students in a positive way, colleges and universities need to invest in much more substantive systems for retaining students and ensuring their success.
At the end of the day, if colleges and universities really want to “nudge for good,” they need to nudge with care. Rather than approaching students in a remedial way—as a savior might, to “rescue” them from dropping out—universities need to be understanding, to avoid treating students like the have some kind of deficit. Approaching students with a growth mindset—reaching out in a way that is genuinely interested in their fulfilling their own potential—shows the most promise for positive outcomes.
After all, a nudge that’s not aimed toward something is really just a push. And nobody likes being pushed.