Choice Architecture or Nudging Your Students Toward Success

Choice Architecture 


Nudging Your Students Toward Success

“You want to nudge people into socially desirable behaviour, do not, by any means, let them know that their current actions are better than the social norm.”

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness  by Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein

“Today, as you go through your day, notice how many times people have tweaked the environment to shape your behavior. Traffic engineers wanted you to drive in a predictable, orderly way, so they painted lane markers on the roads and installed stoplights and road signs. Grocery store managers wanted you to spend more time in their store, so they positioned the milk coolers all the way at the back. Your boss’s boss wanted to encourage more collaboration among employees, so she approved an “open floor plan” layout with no cubicles or dividers. The bank was tired of your leaving your ATM card in the machine, so now the machine forces you to remove it before you can claim your cash.”

Switch  by Dan and Chip Heath

“Students get the message about what adults want. When 4th graders in a variety of classrooms were asked what their teachers most wanted them to do, they didn’t say, “Ask thoughtful questions” or “Make responsible decisions” or Help others.” They said, “Be quiet, don’t fool around, and get our work done on time.”

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

Let’s imagine that you’re a principal and you have a problem at your school with boys peeing on the floor near the urinal. What do you do? Before you read on, stop and have a think and let me know if you didn’t choose one of the following options.

  • You ask the male staff members to be more vigilant and attempt to catch culprits.
  • You call an assembly of the boys and tell them that it’s becoming a problem and ask them to try and aim straighter.
  • You send a letter home to the parents asking them to “have a word to their child” about the need for better habits in the bathroom.
  • You call an assembly and warn them that there will be consequences if this doesn’t stop!
  • You ignore the problem and hope that it’ll go away.
  • You delegate the problem to someone else.

Of course, some of you may have used choice architecture to solve the problem.

Choice architecture is about structuring the world so that people are encouraged to make good choices. Thaler refers to it as “libertarian paternalism”. I suspect that this is mainly to satisfy the many Americans for whom any attempt to influence people’s decision is viewed as an infringement of their rights, or an attempt to create a “nanny state”.

Of course, most schools have no problem with imposing a “nanny state” and most schools are more than happy to make all sorts of decisions on behalf of their students. Naturally, this often leads to conflict, and I very much doubt if many teachers in this country haven’t heard a sentence starting with: “Yes, but why can’t we…” And I’m also sure that nearly as many teachers have at some point replied with: “Look, I don’t make the rules, I just make sure people follow them.”

So let’s think about the potential for choice architecture to solve the problem. Those of you who’ve read “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein will be familiar with this approach, but for those who haven’t, at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the image of a black housefly was drawn on each urinal. Without any prompting, this simple act reduced spillage by about 80%. Having something to aim at increased the men’s attention, which increased their aim.

At another urinal, a good aim made a “poster” appear, advertising a coming event.

An approach like this has a greater chance of being effective than most of the strategies that your average school would apply.

As with behavioural economics, even if people know what’s good for them, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll always do it. In explaining choice architecture, one person suggested that while most of us belief that we think as rationally as Mr Spock, in reality, we’re more likely to behave like Homer Simpson, because, apart from not having enough willpower, we’re also likely to be subject to a number of the following biases.

Potential Biases

Anchoring bias

We often use the first piece of information as an “anchor” when making decisions.

A number of years ago, I was looking at the wine list in a restaurant. On the first page, the cheapest bottle of wine was in the seventy dollar range. On the second and third pages, there were wines costing three and four times that. On page five, when I saw a bottle for a mere forty dollars, I was happy to purchase it. At the time, I would have considered spending thirty dollars on a wine excessive, but the other wines had given me a more expensive “anchor”.

Try this for yourselves. Ask a group of people to estimate how much the most expensive Rolls Royce costs. Ask another group of people how much their first car cost (if they’ve never owned one the answer should be zero). Then ask both groups to guess how much a new model family car from any known company will cost. There’s a very high likelihood that the first group will guess significantly higher than the second group.

Availability bias 

This is a person’s propensity to give a greater weight to recent occurrences when evaluating a topic or concept.

For example, someone tells you  that today’s students waste too much time on social media. You immediately recall the fact that over the past few days you’ve caught three students on Facebook in the past week. Yes, that’s right you decide, without seeking any independent studies or data.

Representativeness bias 

We tend to make judgements based on limited information, and we often make assumptions based on the idea that if a person has one characteristic of a group then they’ll share all the characteristics of that group. For example, “nerds” are portrayed as unathletic and “jocks” are portrayed as bone-headed in a lot of fiction. If you’re told that Eugene is hopeless at sports, you may incorrectly presume that he’s clever, or, if you’re told that Fred has just been given a science scholarship, you may jump to the conclusion that he isn’t also a gun basketball player.

If you ask a group of people the following two questions, then obviously the odds of the first is much, much higher. What are the odds that a randomly chosen person will have above a science student?

What are the odds that a randomly chosen person will be a male physics students who needs glasses?

There are a limited number of science students, but the number of people who are above average and also wear glasses is significantly less than this. So, to find someone who fits all three criteria is going to be harder than finding someone who’s only described by the first. However, because of the stereotype of science students, a number of people will incorrectly suggest a higher likelihood to the second category.

Confirmation bias

When we already “know” something, we notice evidence that confirms it.

  • If Liz believers that students at her school are lazy, she’ll notice the two kids reluctant to work and ignore the fact that all the others have happily commenced and are working as hard as possible.
  • If Tony believes that women are illogical, then the fact that one of them argues with him, just proves it, because his ideas are based on evidence that he’s found on the internet, whereas hers are based on what she read somewhere.
  • If one politician is caught lying, well, what can one expect? Let’s not talk about the ten politicians that told truth so that the lie was discovered.
  • If it’s a cold morning, then that proves that there’s no such thing as “global warming”.
  • And, just to be fair about this, if there’s a very, very hot day, then that’s proof that climate change exists.

Status quo bias

The tendency to stick with what is.

You remember that magazine subscription that you could cancel at any time that you still remember each month when it’s delivered and you think, “I’m must cancel that before the next delivery”?

You know how you can now move your superannuation? Done anything about it yet?

Your remember how you’d decided that you were going to look for a new job because it’s about time you moved on?

As Thaler suggests in Nudge:

“First, never underestimate the power of inertia. Second, that power can be harnessed.”

We’ll come back to some of these in more detail in looking at the features of choice architecture.


Choice architecture helps to push us in the right direction.Who determines what that actually is? Sometimes, it’ll be the person themselves; other times it may be a government or employer or school which wants us to make what it believers are the “right” choices.

“Nudge” uses the mnemonic


Understand mapping


Give Feedback

Expect Error

So what does these actually mean, and how can they be applied to education?


The first is pretty straightforward and using incentives is hardly a new idea for teachers. An incentive is something that motivates or encourages someone to do something, and most classroom teachers apply “carrot and stick” consequences for behaviours. From the elephants stamps to the “If you don’t complete up to question nine, you need to stay behind” most schools are familiar with the reward and punishment strategy as incentives.

Of course, sometimes the activity itself acts as an incentive. Students who are expected to perform a play in public rarely ask, “How many of my lines do I need to learn to pass?”

When considering incentives for students, it’s always worth asking:

  1. Does the student have a real short-term incentive to complete the work to the best of his or her ability, or will just dashing something off to satisfy the teacher work just as well?
  2. Can the learning activity have a real life purpose?
  3. What incentives do you use unconsciously?
  4. Do you ever think of new ones?
  5. Can the learning activity be linked to the individual student’s area of interest?
  6. If the activity needs external incentives – like fear of punishment – is it worth doing in the first place? (I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m just suggesting that the question needs to be asked)
  7. Can the incentive be embedded in the work itself? (See the next chapter on Progress and Video Games)
  8. And most importantly, how well do your incentives work?

Of course, many of these work if you’re in a leadership position as well. As a leader, when was the last time you asked yourself if your “incentives” were working for everyone, or whether, for example, there was a real short-term incentive to have a survey completed by Friday?


When I sign up for a different way of accessing my cable TV, the person assures me that it’s really simple to install.

The box needs to be plugged into the antenna as well as the Internet. These are on opposite sides of the room. I ring back.

I need a power-line adaptor, so I order one.

Three days later, it arrives. After setting it up, I have a new problem. It needs to connect to the modem, but that means that I can’t connect my wireless to the modem.

So, I go and purchase a device which enables me to connect more than one thing to the modem.

When I get home, I discover that I now need another ethernet cable, so after another journey out, I’m all connected. Simple really.

Except that it took two weeks to do. Why?

Well, my choices weren’t made clear to me at the time of sign up. It’d be quite simple to have a series of questions for the salesperson to ask. Or even a survey for me to fill in before I spoke to anyone. That way, the person could have explained exactly what I needed, so that I could have made an informed choice at the time of signing up. Perhaps the logic was that, if I’d known how complicated it was, I wouldn’t have agreed, so hide it all until after. Except that it was far more complicated than it needed to be.

“Mapping” – What does this actually mean?

Well, basically, it means laying out the choices so that we know exactly what they mean. If there had been something that explained that I’d need an extra couple of devices as well as another ethernet cable the whole process would have been less stressful.

While firms may wish to hide any extra costs in the hope of making a sale, in this case the extra cost wouldn’t have been the issue, and, if I’d had some easy way of pulling the plug on the deal halfway through, I would have, because it just seemed too complicated.

Another example of “mapping” of where better mapping would be the purchase of a mobile phone. While many people wouldn’t understand exactly what they need, the shop is likely to be advertising extra power or data, but do you really know what phone will best suit your needs? Are you aware of how much data are you likely to use? Or whether you need 64 or 16gb? Do you even know what the gb is? A series of questions could help you “map” what you need and lead you to a better choice.

So how do students make choices at school? Are choices largely made for them?


The “status quo bias” means that any default option will end up with large numbers. The difference between an “opt-in” and an “opt-out” is extremely significant. A number of Australian primary schools have religious instruction classes where parents have the option to opt out. Compare the number of students taking these at primary school compared to the number of those attending church or Sunday School.

Schools have many other default options. In many cases, they’re almost invisible because the very nature of them means that nobody ever “opts out” or even questions them. In fact, your local school is itself a default — it’s where you go when you don’t make a conscious decision to go somewhere else.

Electronic roll-marking systems are often set up so they default to present, meaning that the teacher has to make a conscious decision to mark a student absent.

Another example of a default is the subjects which a student does. For many subjects, this is not even considered something that anyone has a choice about, and it’s only when schools are dealing with an atypical student that they may consider that he or she may be given extra help in a particular area instead of doing one of the normal “core” subjects.

But defaults don’t simply have to be about things that already exist. Does your school have any areas where you’d benefit from creating a default?


“Learning is most likely if people get immediate, clear feedback after each try.”

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Yep, I know. You spend most of your time “correcting things” or “marking”, don’t you? So you’ve got this one covered. We get feedback when we receive information about what we’ve done and it works best when it’s immediate. Teachers often receive immediate feedback from their class, and I don’t just mean when the students complain. Body language will usually tell you whether the students are engaged or uninterested, understanding or confused. You can adjust a lesson according to the feedback you’re given. However, not everything in education is so immediate. When you actually look at the sort of work you’re correcting and the sort of feedback you’re giving, you may start to question whether it’s worth the time you’re spending on it. Giving effective feedback is important, but how much of your time is being wasted by reading student work with the sole aim of checking that they’ve actually done it? Are the demands placed on you, leading you to be more concerned with auditing student work than improving it? How much of the work you’re taking away from the students tells you much about their capabilities? To what extent does your feedback improve their future work? Do they read it avidly or are they more concerned with what “mark” they received?

For feedback to be most effective, it needs to be as close to immediate as possible

How do you help students to improve with timely feedback, when you have several classes each with a large number of students?

Of course, not everything relies on detailed feedback from a third party. If shoot an arrow at a target and miss, you receive immediate feedback, and you adjust your aim accordingly for the next shot. When it comes to your classes it’s worth asking:

  1. Could you be using technology to speed up the feedback? Some tests and quizzes can be done on computer and the results calculated immediately, While this won’t work for every activity, it’s worth considering if there’s technology that can save you time and effort.
  2. Can the feedback be embedded into the activity itself? Just as with the bow and arrow example, some tasks will have the learning embedded into it, and the student knows immediately that what they’re doing isn’t succeeding.
  3. Can you use peer feedback in any way? Placing students in pairs, for example, and asking each student to give written feedback on each other’s work before you even look at it, can be a help to both, as well as the teacher. This can structured with specific questions to help students to know what to look out for.


If I wasn’t paying attention, it was easy to leave the headlights on in my first car. Result – a flat battery. A few years after that, I bought a car where I’d hear a buzzing if I turned off the ignition and the headlights were still on. Then my next car simply turned off the headlights when I turned off the ignition. The designers of this car really understood that people make errors, because the petrol cap was attached by a short chain so it was impossible to drive off and leave it on the roof or the petrol bowser.

Basically good choice architecture understands that people aren’t perfect and works toward overcoming their shortcomings. Think about the birth control pill as example. Why is there a pill for every day of the month when there’s only a need to take them for three weeks out of four? While it’s still possible for people to forget, it’s a lot less likely when it’s part of a daily habit.

How does your school plan for error? One school rewrote its Internet Usage Policy and sent forms home for students to have their parents sign and return. A few weeks later, any student who hadn’t returned the form was cut off from the internet, including their school email account and their access to various learning tasks and resources that had been posted on the school’s website. This was about thirty percent of the school. Needless to say, if the aim of the person in charge was to discourage teachers from ever using technology again, then they were very successful, because a number of students still took their time returning the form as it was a great excuse not to do any work. In circumstances like that one, it’s only realistic to expect that a large number of students won’t have returned the form, so would there have been a better way to have encouraged students to return the forms?

Many teachers are in the habit of taking extra resources into class, because they expect that some students will have forgotten or lost theirs. While supplying a student with a pen may not be teaching self-reliance, it’s a good example of the “expect error” concept. Similarly, having a back-up plan for when the overhead projector doesn’t work, or the sound won’t play on a film is something that most teachers do.

So where could  you or your school improve in this area? Are there “errors” that constantly happen, and each time, it’s as though nobody expected it. For example, do you leave space near the entrance when running an assembly so that any latecomers can enter quickly without creating a distraction? Does your electronic roll marking system fail to work one morning in ten, and paper rolls aren’t readily available? Does the system for late passes break down when Person X is away, because nobody is ever assigned to replace them? Do students have clear instructions for what to do if a teacher fails to show for a lesson (or do they all believe the urban myth that after fifteen minutes they’re allowed to go)?


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