Behavioral science and ‘nudging’ research can help students succeed in classes suddenly moved online

Courtney Brown
Apr 20, 2020 · 3 min read
iStock / Fizkes

By Courtney Brown, Ben Castleman, and Katherine Flaschen

The nation’s colleges and universities, disrupted with the rest of society by the fast-spreading coronavirus, have remade the instructional experience almost overnight with the move of millions of students and faculty online. And one of the most promising innovations getting an emergency trial by fire is the concept of “nudging” to help students succeed in an often uncomfortable environment.

Online education was already growing, with 35% of students taking at least one online course. But the sudden, forced expansion has highlighted some of its most persistent issues: For one, the online environment lacks many of the natural cues that keep students engaged, such as peers, the physical presence of an instructor, and the classroom setting.

Further, students may struggle to set aside time for online coursework due to competing demands at home. This challenge is likely to be harder on students of color, adults, low-income, and first-generation college students, who often must balance school with work and family commitments. Those challenges are even more severe when the switch to online is made without enough time or resources to fully support students.

Fortunately, we know what works to create high-quality, effective online classes. Research in behavioral science has identified strategies that faculty and college administrators can employ as they strive to keep students engaged, motivated, and on track. Behavioral science tells us that humans don’t make decisions in a completely rational, straightforward manner. Rather, the environment in which we make decisions really matters, so the way an online course is designed — such as the way information is presented, the ease or difficulty of taking various actions, and the availability of resources — can affect students’ behavior and academic success.

The University of Virginia’s Nudge Solutions Lab and the non-profit design firm ideas42, with support from Lumina Foundation, compiled a guide of evidence-based nudge strategies that faculty and administrators can use to support student success in online courses. For example, research has shown that setting goals can lead to greater academic achievement. This strategy could be applied to online teaching by asking students to write down and submit a goal they have for the course, and by connecting lecture materials to the goals students have identified.

In addition, making concrete plans for completion can help students follow through on various tasks, such as studying for an exam. And before major assignments, faculty could suggest that students create a plan for how, when, and where they will complete the assignment, as well as encourage them to submit this plan for extra credit or share it with others to strengthen their commitment. Additional evidence-based nudge strategies that can be applied to online courses are in the guide.

Regardless of whether social distancing orders are reduced tomorrow or months from now, higher education has been forever changed, and some amount of online learning will likely be the new normal for the foreseeable future. To ensure all students can be successful whether in class or online, faculty and administrators must better prepare themselves — and begin by incorporating behaviorally informed, evidence-based online practices that can support all students.

Courtney Brown is vice president of strategic impact for Lumina Foundation.
Katherine Flaschen is a senior associate at ideas42.
Ben Castleman is Newton and Rita Meyers associate professor in the economics of education at the University of Virginia.

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