Economists and social and cognitive psychologists who study how people make choices have known for many years that people do not always have the time, inclination or mental wherewithal to act rationally. But they’ve also discovered that subtle changes in communications, social norms, or the physical environment—what researchers call “nudges”—can cause people to make more rational, beneficial decisions.

For example, when healthy snacks replace candy in displays at the cashier, people make the healthier choice, because we value convenience. The warnings on tobacco packaging reminding people of the negative consequences of smoking have been shown to induce people to quit or to never start. Most people who are automatically enrolled in their company’s 401 (k) plan do not opt out, whereas, given the choice, far fewer people sign up.

Encouraging Better Decisions

In recent years, colleges have begun experimenting with nudging to encourage students, especially those at risk of not completing their studies, to make decisions and adopt behaviors that will help them succeed. At National University, we’re trying out two different forms of nudging, as part of our Precision Education initiative. The goal of the initiative, led by the Precision Institute at National University, is to use advances in technology to collect highly pertinent data about students and their online learning experiences that we can use to customize instruction and instructional supports. We want to create a learning ecosystem, in which goal-setting, course selection, modes of instruction, advising, and communications with students are all aligned and working together for the benefit of our students. As part of the design process, we are running experiments on every component of the system, including nudging.

Two Different Approaches

With the advent of automated nudging, we see tremendous promise for targeted messages to students to motivate them to take specific action that will lead to greater success. We’re testing two different approaches to nudging–one using social media content and advertisements, and the other using text messages sent to students’ phones. The latter experiment is with a company called Persistence Plus, which uses a mobile platform to send personalized texts to students. Students participating in that experiment received a message asking them how they felt about the class they were about to take. About two-thirds of the students who responded said they felt fine. About 12 percent of them said they were worried they weren’t going to do well. Academic advisers would use that information to reach out and offer them advice on time management or strategies for studying. Those students might also receive another message saying that successful students seek tutoring when they need it, not just those who are behind.

The other experiment is with a company called Motimatic, which is using targeted motivational messages to encourage students to stay focused on their studies by reaching them on their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, and websites. The messages might be general, talking about how much more people with a two-year or four-year degree will earn in their lifetimes. Or, they might be more specific to a student, such as reporting to them that they are spending less time on the learning platform than are peers who are getting better grades on quizzes.

Both approaches to nudging seem promising. But, as with every aspect of Precision Education, we won’t make a decision about which system to implement until we see empirical data on their efficacy. We are committed to building an evidence-based system that will lead to increases in student success.

Blog post written by Dr. David Andrews, President of National University. Precision Education is a research-based initiative that is exploring new ways to leverage technology, open education resources, and predictive data analytics to adapt to student needs and guide them to successful completion of their academic and career goals. The initiative is overseen by the Precision Institute at National University. Learn more at: