Nudge your way up the NSS ladder

Small module changes based on behavioural insights into human flaws can help students collaborate more and procrastinate less – and boost engagement outcomes in your classes, writes Jana Sadeh

Jana Sadeh's avatar
9 Feb 2024
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Many of us in UK higher education are looking for ways to improve student engagement and experience to boost our National Student Survey (NSS) scores.

This article takes cues from behavioural nudge theory to suggest easy wins in student engagement.

As educators, we typically focus on subject content (what do we want our students to learn?) when we plan modules, but we mostly ignore how students learn. We do what our colleagues do, and if we’ve always done things one way, we are unlikely to change unless pushed by an external force.

But the devil, as we know, is often in the detail. Behavioural theory has documented many of our flaws as humans. It tells us that we simplify complex decisions because thinking through the permutations and combinations of all possible options is too painful. We are subject to inertia. We tend to be overconfident, thinking that students will probably be OK even if real evidence shows the probabilities aren’t stacked that way.

We aren’t the only ones under the influence of behavioural biases; our students are, too. Ignoring these biases leads to poor module structure and, in turn, to poor engagement, low attendance and low performance.

Nudge theory draws on these behavioural insights to show how we can use our own flaws to improve our lives. The architecture of our module – the sequence we follow, the assessment methods and timing, and even the way we ask questions – impacts students’ experience of the module and their learning outcomes. The following are three simple ways to improve this in your module.

1. Stop students procrastinating

As educators, we know that spreading work across a semester is better for students than madly cramming in the two weeks before finals. Behavioural theory suggests that most of us are present-biased and prone to making optimistic plans to tackle our workload, only to procrastinate when the time comes to start.

How do we stop students procrastinating? Research shows that we procrastinate more with anxiety-inducing, unfamiliar work. So break down large tasks into smaller chunks. Perhaps add sub-questions or split one large piece of coursework into four smaller ones. Give students confidence that they have the skills to tackle the task. Encourage them to start on it in a supervised environment (in a tutorial, perhaps), so they become more comfortable to work on it on their own.

2. Improve class participation

Behavioural theory also tells us that we are creatures of habit, and we like the status quo. This inertia, or aversion to change, is a barrier when we are trying to get students more engaged in the classroom. We have all asked a lecture hall full of students a question and faced a sea of blank faces staring back. (For some of us this may be a recurring nightmare.)

How can we get students to put their hands up and participate? Behavioural insights would suggest that we just change the default, in the same way as opting out of pensions has replaced the opt-in as a default. We should shift our students’ decision to opting out of participation. I like to ask all students to stick their hands up, and then ask them to remove their hands to show disagreement. By reminding ourselves that breaking out of the status quo is costly, we can reframe the way we ask students to participate and end up (just like pensions) with a much larger group of people staying in.

3. Encourage active collaboration

We know that working collaboratively as a team generates several benefits for students and is magnitudes better than dividing up the group work and working on only a subset of the material. However, we also all know that divide and conquer is what students tend to do.

Behavioural theory suggests that we are social creatures who are highly influenced by social norms. We do not want to stand out in our social group and will shy away from behaviour that does this. In this context, no one wants to be the person who asks the group to work together. If the group divides and conquers, no one wants to be the odd one out.

How can we change this? How can we set group work that gets students to work together? By clearly scaffolding group-work questions, a teacher can change the social norms surrounding group work. I like to do this by changing my questions to explicitly require multiple perspectives. So from: “Define the concept X” to: “Research the concept X and provide me with the definition that each group member provided. Debate these definitions and select the most appropriate one. Justify your choice.” This will clarify that the expectation is debate about the material and sets interaction as the social norm for the group.

Just as a well-designed house flows effortlessly from room to room, a well-designed module leads students into the areas we want them to be in. We often feel powerless to influence the choices students make, but, in reality, power lies in the way we structure our modules. By making simple tweaks in your module structure – breaking up large tasks into smaller ones, supporting student confidence, changing the default to class participation, and shifting the social norms to joint discussions – you can nudge students into participating in your module in a more engaged and rewarding way and boost those NSS scores at the same time.

Jana Sadeh is the undergraduate programmes coordinator in the department of economics at the University of Southampton.

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