October 13

The Behavioral Economics of Learning

By Eric Hudson, Dean of Instruction

“People, despite their best intentions, do not always make rational decisions, even when it is in their interest to do so, because the circuitry that the human brain engages to reach decisions is hard wired and difficult to alter.”

The above insight may seem obvious, but it is essential to understanding human behavior, according to the behavioral economists who wrote this terrific Harvard Business Review post. Behavioral economics is the study of how and why people make choices, and much of the field’s research suggests that demanding certain behaviors from others is not effective. Instead, we should adjust the conditions under which decisions are made to spark beneficial action.

It’s a compelling idea: we can’t control the way people are, but we can more thoughtfully design the environments in which they make decisions. I see so many possible applications to teaching and learning, and I identified three below. I am eager to learn more.


1. What is the “decision-making context”?

The HBR article describes how Google, determined to encourage healthy eating habits, changed the way it offered desserts in its cafeteria. Instead of allowing employees to serve themselves, Google set out three-bite portions: anyone who wanted more dessert would have to take multiple plates or return for seconds. This adjustment made the decision to indulge more difficult.

As teachers, we control the context in which our students interact with course material. In GOA’s Comparative Religions course, Jenny Carlson-Pietraszek of Noble & Greenough School divided her students into groups and asked each group to research one of the “Big 5” world religions. In an adjustment to the context for learning, Jenny asked her students to take their research and create an instructional video and quiz for middle school students new to world religions.

This context brought a new perspective and depth to the students’ work. Instead of merely focusing on their own understanding and sharing it with Jenny, the students had to make thoughtful decisions about how to translate information into instruction for an audience.


2. “Who are you when you are at your very best?”

The authors of the piece go on to cite their own research into the best ways to initiate new employees into company culture. They suggest one important change: instead of handing an employee a job description as if it were a script to be memorized and followed, ask this person, “Who are you when you are at your very best?” This question leverages a basic psychological principle: humans are intrinsically motivated to do what they are good at and to seek recognition for it.

Why not take this approach when welcoming students to your class? In GOA’s Digital Photography course, Amanda Livick of St. Christopher’s School used GOA’s Keys to Student Success as a prompt for a discussion among her students about how they may or may not excel in the online learning environment. She asked, “How can you succeed at online learning?”

Some of what they wrote:

“I am going to be a good online learner because I am very organized. I have dedicated one of my free periods to this class so I will have time to work on assignments… One skill I need to work on is advocating for myself. I believe that this GOA class will help me be more vocal and ask for help as soon as I need it.”

“Taking an online course is very new to me… In playing on a select soccer team that travels nearly every weekend, I know I must notify my teacher and be very self-disciplined. I have planned to stay organized by marking off all dates in my calendar/plan book.”

Importantly, Amanda responded to her students via video by acknowledging their self-assessments and promising to keep an eye on their progress. She sent a clear message that students would be recognized as individuals and would have a chance to put their strengths to good use.


3. Where are opportunities for “active choice”?

The article ends with the challenge of human inertia: a company was surprised when few employees were interested in a cheaper, more convenient home delivery plan for medical prescriptions. Further investigation showed “opting in” to this program was a barrier because the employees had the option to do nothing and keep the traditional plan of picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy. Such inertia is difficult to overcome unless you remove the status quo as an option. The company shifted its “opt-out” policy so that employees had to make an “active choice” between pickup or home delivery; if they did nothing, they would lose prescription benefits. Interest in home delivery surged.

In the classroom, the case study model is an effective way to battle inertia and leverage active choice. In GOA’s Graphic Design course, taught by Greg Scranton of Kingswood-Oxford School and Queen-ie Allinson of Jakarta International School, students work with a fictional client seeking educational materials on the importance of good posture. “Your job,” the assignment reads, “is to research and investigate this situation, identify gaps, define a need and come up with possible solutions.” Students confront a design challenge, and, through a series of well-scaffolded steps, generate an infographic promoting good posture. At no point can students rely on established material; their “client” demands original thinking and thus active choices.

Both behavioral economics and teaching rely on understanding how and why humans behave in the ways they do. Learning and thinking about behavioral economics has helped me understand that rather than trying to change our students, we as teachers can change the conditions in which they learn, allowing them to become more reflective and creative decision makers.

Contact Eric at eric@globalonlineacademy.org. Follow him on Twitter @EricGOA.