Uncharted Tesol

Nudging for Success: Using Behavioral Science to Improve Student Outcomes

Everyone is trying to come up with reasons why students succeed or fail, and the reasons are many. I personally leave the traditional solutions to other practitioners, as I tend to trust that they have their bases covered. If you’d like to know a cool new way to get a student to improve at the subjunctive (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.), I am not your man.

In past years, I have presented on Noncognitive Skills and Conation (with Rob Sheppard), outside-the-box concepts that, I hope, inspired a few to think of unorthodox or under-explored ways to reach their students.

Today, I am writing about “nudges,” behavioral insights that are designed to improve student outcomes. You can see this in presentation format if you are in or near NYC on Saturday, October 21st, at the New School.  But here’s the thrust of it, and I hope you find it of use.

Essentially, me, you and everyone you know has the innate capacity to be influenced by cognitive biases. When I say “biases,” I am not referring to prejudice or bigotry – though this is obviously not uncommon – but to mental shortcuts our brain makes when uncertain or depleted. That depletion can be caused by stress, or a lack of time or energy, and is certainly common for our adult students with their complex, challenging lives.

Many of these biases are helpful to us. We developed many of these in our cave-person days, when we rarely had time to think through uncertain situations, lest we be thrashed by a saber-toothed tiger or the unfriendly cave-person next door (or, next cave). Now we have schools and subjects and studies, and our natural tendency to jump from point A to point T can trip us up. What I am proposing is that we can’t actually avoid these cognitive biases most of the time. We can tell our students to get some rest or what have you, but chances are they will still not be at full capacity at all times. We can, however, keep these biases in mind when we plan our lessons, our assignments, our assessments, and our programs. So I am essentially going to give you a short list describing a few prominent biases, and a possible way you can use it in your work. I’ll give you a reading list at the end.

  1. Loss Aversion – You feel losses more acutely than gains. This is at the crux of much of behavioral science, a discipline based upon reexamining the way economists understood human decision-making. Before the 1970s, most economists operated under the assumption that humans were perfectly rational, and, if given the choice between $50 right now and $100 next week, most would choose the latter. But, you and I know that that’s not a safe assumption and depends, like most things, on circumstances. For our purposes, the point being made is that people tend to feel a loss twice as strongly as a gain. If we just give our students an assignment and the reason to complete is not considerably more appealing than the time (read: loss) it will take, there is a strong chance they might ignore it if otherwise occupied. I am not suggesting you bribe your students, to be clear. But if we assume they will set the value of diligence and thoroughness as highly as we professionals do, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Loss aversion tells us that any sacrifice – and our students are indeed sacrificing – must be worthwhile.
  2. Anchoring – You will navigate uncertainty by focusing on an “anchor.” The easiest way to demonstrate this is to ask you to complete these two math problems. First, 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8. Then, 8x4x6x6x5x7. Now, if you look closely, you can see that the answer (which is 40,320) is actually the same in both cases. Most people would guess that the second answer is larger, because the first number is 8, and we focus on the first or most prominent information we receive. This is “anchoring.” For ELT, this has a strong effect on any time a student has to figure something out when they’re unsure. Perhaps on an assessment or an assignment. We have to think about how to provide them with anchors that will help them rather than hinder them. You can think of your own, but in my view, some useful anchors are mnemonic devices (e.g. PEMDAS for order of operations in math), which you can introduce in class and then remind them at the top of a handout. Repeated visuals are of use here. It’s also important, if at all possible, to help them practice in as representative a situation as possible. If they need to learn how to buy something at a grocery store, take them to the store or show them a picture of a store as you practice. This way they have a lower chance of being distracted by anchors around them and making mistakes they might otherwise avoid.
  3. Availability – You will recall what is easy to remember whether or not it is accurate. In English, which is more common, words that begin with “k” or words where the third letter is “k?” Well, you can easily start listing the former, right? Kiss, kill, knife, king… But who thinks in third letters? As you probably guessed, however, the latter is three times as common. We will remember what is easy to remember, even if it’s not accurate, and this certainly has implications for our students. This, in my view, calls to mind the importance of task-based learning. We need to design our lessons so the material is immediately memorable to our students outside of the classroom, lest it be forgotten when something more vital comes to mind. I’m sure this is something many of you are already doing, but if you think more consciously of the psychological implications, it will hopefully make your commitment to authentic lessons stronger. I will also mention here how important it is to learn as much about your students as possible, so the class and program can really connect with them wherever they are in their lives. A small trick I’ve picked up over the years is using my students’ first names (or whatever name they go by) in our exercises. Everyone perks up when they hear or see their name. Here is also where the most prominent “nudge” comes in, namely that some programs are now texting their students to remind them of classes or assignments, or using social media or other such things to remain in their students’ memory. The most important thing is what techies call “push notifications,” what you all know as anything that shows up on your phone or computer screen without you going to look for it. This works because you have to put effort in to ignore it, whereas emails, or just a shouted reminder at the end of class can easily be forgotten. We have to push, or nudge, our way into our students’ memory when they’re not in front of us.
  4. Endowment – You care more about the things you own, regardless of their actual value. You know this to be true. You wouldn’t buy some of the things you own for more than a few bucks if you saw them at a garage sale, but people will have to tear them from your cold dead hands now that you’ve had them for years, like this stupid cane I bought in college and keep next to my bed, much to my wife’s chagrin. But I digress! This one is easy, right? Give your students ownership over certain things. Make the class feel like they share ownership with you. Whether that’s providing a journal, or asking for suggestions for certain things (and then actually following up!), or whatever you can do to make them feel like a part of the class truly belongs to them instead of just being top-down.

I know you may be thinking that I hardly reinvented the wheel here. But that’s the point, actually, that the shortcuts our brain takes are very common, and very relatable. The solutions are really just to keep these (and many, many, many other such biases) in mind as we plan.

The following is some reading related to behavioral science if you are interested in the topic.

  1. Nudge,” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008)
    By the way, Thaler just (as in, a few days ago) won the Nobel Prize for his work in this discipline. Behavioral science impacts us every single day!
  2. The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg (2012)
  3. Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman (2011)
  4. Invisible Influence,” by Jonah Berger (2016)
  5. The 160-Character Solution,” by Benjamin L. Castleton (2015)

And again, I’ll be presenting a version of this at the New School on 10/21 as part of the Meeting Challenges, Exploring Solutions in the Adult ESOL Classroom one-day Conference.
If you would like more detailed information, feel free to contact me at JustinPBG@gmail.com. Thanks for your time and attention, and I hope you found this valuable.


Author’s biography: Justin is a Curriculum Developer/Trainer at CUNY SPS. He has taught students age 6 to 96. He loves Alissa, running, teaching,and New York City.

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