Nudge theory: how it could help your class

A behavioural theory used in advertising to influence people’s decisions could help teachers to pique students’ interest in a subject or encourage them to take up an activity that previously held no interest for them, finds Grainne Hallahan
29th November 2019, 12:05am
How A Theory From The World Of Advertising Could Help Pupil Engagement
Grainne Hallahan


Nudge theory: how it could help your class

Advertising has an annoying habit of making us do things we had not previously considered doing: buying a new sofa, booking a random holiday, opting for one brand of chocolate bar over another. A key part of the persuasion process is something called "nudge theory" - and it may be just what you've been looking for in your classroom.

Nudge theory is part of the field of behavioural economics. It stems from the idea that small changes to how something is presented or explained can influence a person's decisions. It's like gently reminding the driver of the car you are in that they need to turn left by using a hand gesture, rather than wrestling the steering wheel from their grasp and making the turn for them.

Or, as the literature puts it, "to count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not" (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008).

In 2010, David Cameron, then prime minister, formed the Behavioural Insights Team to research the application of nudge theory to improve policies and services. The group - nicknamed the "nudge unit", and now independent of government - broke the theory down into a simple acronym for how to encourage behaviour: East (easy, attractive, social and timely).

The unit's projects varied from increasing the amount of loft insulation in homes across the country to reducing errors in prescriptions to boosting voter turnout using the National Lottery.

But how does it apply to the classroom? There is a growing body of research to suggest that teachers can use nudge theory to influence the behaviour of their classes - indeed, many teachers may already be using it without realising. Here are three key concepts to get you started:

1. Reframing

Teachers' explanations and expositions are key to successful learning (the rise in popularity of scripted lessons is testament to how much importance we place on teacher talk). The way a teacher frames the setting of a task can be the deciding factor in how successful a lesson is.

"Framing is the idea that when you present people with options, you can describe those options in different ways," explains Katherine Curchin, lecturer in social policy at the Australian National University Centre for Social Research and Methods. "A teacher might say: 'Here is something I would normally only let my older students do but, because you have all impressed me with your maturity, I'm going to let you have a go'.

"This appeals to people and it is an attractive way to present the next task."

Likewise, Elspeth Kirkman, senior director of health, education and communities at the Behavioural Insights Team, suggests that students can be motivated to behave through a combination of reframing and gamification.

Kirkman suggests opening your lesson with a to-do list that motivates students by giving them the feeling that they've had a head start on the lesson. "Include concepts you've already covered so you can tick them off," she says. "This will make the students feel like they've already progressed."

She also recommends harnessing the "Ikea effect" to overcome the torn displays, ripped books and graffitied desks that show a lack of care for the learning environment.

"The Ikea effect is where you value something more because you built it," Kirkman continues. "They value and respect the space more if they feel like they have ownership and see it as their domain."

You can do this easily by allowing students to cover their own books, or tasking them with designing and putting up displays.

2. Personalisation

Personalisation fits with the "attractive" part of East. If something feels personal to us, we're more likely to respond to it. That is why mass emails often begin with a personalised salutation (research shows that we're more likely to read and respond to such a greeting).

Anna Bird, principal adviser on education, skills and early years work at the Behaviour Insights Team, has worked with the Department for Education on the application of behavioural insights in schools. She suggests that teachers could use personalisation to increase participation in after-school clubs or lunchtime activities.

"When teachers want students to take part in an extracurricular activity, if they write a letter that includes a student's name rather than using 'Dear Student' or just putting out a general notice, it can make them more inclined to come along," Bird suggests.

Her work has also looked at harnessing the positive effect of personalisation when trying to increase the number of students who apply to university.

"We did a letter trial where students from universities wrote letters to potential students, suggesting that they apply," she recalls. "This resulted in an increase in applications and acceptances by a third."

Personalisation can also be used when creating worksheets and using a system such as a mail merge to personalise each sheet.

"Basically, our brains are just like amazing spam filters," Kirkman says. "They're very good at tuning out most of the stuff that's going on because, if we listened to everything, it would be overwhelming.

"So personalisation is where we have got this kind of mental shortcut built in, [whereby] if you hear or see your name, you should pay attention to it because it's actually meant for you and it's not just random background noise."

But Kirkman warns that it won't work if you do it too much.

"I think if you did it on every worksheet, you'd become immune to it and change your mental shortcut so it would allow you to ignore it," she says.

Instead, Kirkman recommends saving this approach for particularly important worksheets that contain information that you will refer to throughout the term.

3. Losses, not gains

Curchin describes a problem most teachers will be familiar with: students pulling back when you try to push a new initiative or opportunity. "If you try to force someone to do something, and they feel as if you're taking their autonomy away, then they will rebel against you," she says. "We call this 'reactance'. So, to combat this, teachers should try to help children to find their intrinsic motivation to do something rather than making them feel forced."

How can teachers do that? The answer, according to Curchin, is to give them a dose of Fomo (fear of missing out).

"There is an interesting theory in behaviour economics that people are loss averse: we hate losing something more than we like gaining something," she explains. "It's been demonstrated again and again that people irrationally overvalue what they already have, and that makes people not as interested as they could be in trying unfamiliar things."

So, how can you evoke in your students a fear that they're losing something? Curchin suggests focusing on what they're missing out on. For example, if your library is underused, emphasise that students haven't yet made use of the number of books they are allowed to borrow. Also, share images of sports clubs in form time and assembly. Wheel them out like the speedboat in a game show - "Here is what you could have won" - and then watch your participation levels go up.

Grainne Hallahan is senior content writer at Tes. She tweets @heymrshallahan

This article originally appeared in the 29 November 2019 issue under the headline "Give a nudge in the right direction"

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