Do students hate being "nudged"? Not really.

You might worry that "nudging" students to make smart choices is manipulative, but recent research shows that people mostly don't mind being nudged, Cass Sunstein writes in The Conversation.

Sunstein, and Richard Thaler, who recently won a Nobel Prize, kicked off the nudge trend when they wrote the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. They define a nudge as an action that encourages, rather than mandates, a particular behavior.

Nudging is becoming a more common practice in higher education. It's rooted in behavioral economics—which takes into account the cognitive, emotional, and social factors that prevent people from accomplishing goals. Higher ed leaders are applying these principles through initiatives that nudge students to succeed.    ­­

Common nudges you see in daily life include a calorie label and cigarette warning label, notes Sunstein, a professor at Harvard University.

Similarly, colleges are nudging students to follow through on the tasks that help them succeed. For example, some community colleges are pushing prospective students to complete enrollment with personalized, email reminders. Other colleges are designing residence halls that nudge students to spend more time in communal spaces, where they build peer networks that help them earn better grades and stay in school.

For higher ed institutions, the nudge is a fast, low-cost way to guide students towards success, says Ben Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.

Communicate better with students: How one advising leader saw a 600% increase in student responses

Some leaders have expressed concerns that nudging is manipulative, but research has shown that most people don't have ethical qualms about pushes that emphasize a healthier lifestyle, Sunstein writes.

People on the receiving end of nudges will be frustrated if they don't agree with the goal of the nudges. According to Sunstein's recent research, most of his survey respondents rejected nudges that they perceived as an illegitimate goal or being inconsistent with their personal values. But generally speaking, people don't mind being nudged if it helps them achieve the goals they're already pursuing.

Furthermore, if you refrain from nudging, it doesn't mean you're offering your students perfectly free choices, say Annie Yi and Cody Light, two student success researchers at EAB. Every choice students face is already structured in some way that manipulates the outcome, even if it's unintentional, they point out.

"Too often, these choices end up being structured to hinder, rather than support, students' goals," says Yi. She points to financial aid verification requests as an example—if they're too intimidating, students are more likely to "melt" and drop out before the first day of classes.

"Done correctly, nudging is more about taking the opportunity to optimize the structure that's already there, for the purpose of helping people reach their own goals," says Light (Sunstein, The Conversation, 10/13).

Are you setting up students to make the right choice? Here's one way to better understand their experience


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