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4 Tips for Using Nudge Theory in Your Learning

Bill Mastin
by 
Bill Mastin
on January 08, 2019
Nudge theory has gained a lot of attention in recent years and has been used by governments around the world to change people’s behaviors. But what exactly is nudge theory and how can it be applied in your learning programs? Find out more in this blog.

What Is Nudge Theory? 

Nudge theory originates from behavioral economics, a relatively new field that examines the psychological, cognitive, emotional and cultural factors that affect economic decisions.

Nudge theorists have identified a wide range of biases that influence our decision-making. These biases help explain why many of us choose to make decisions that are clearly detrimental to our lives.

Essentially, nudge theory is all about understanding what drives us, as humans, to make decisions. Once you understand these factors, you can put in place gentle nudges that encourage people to make better ones.

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How Can Nudge Theory Be Used in Learning?

Nudges have been used by governments to change behaviors around health, finances, and recycling, to name just a few examples. 

But these same tactics can be used to increase the success of your learning too. It’s all about making it easier for your people to learn and embed new behaviors that will help them perform better and thrive within your organization.

How to Use Nudge Theory in Your eLearning Programs

The British government was so excited about the potential of nudge theory they created an entire department devoted to it. The Behavioural Insights Team, or BIT as they are more informally known, have extensively researched nudge theory and have had some significant successes with their work.

They’ve defined the EAST (Easy, Attractive, Timely, Social) framework, so that anyone can implement some of the key findings from their work—and the applications for learning are immediately clear.

One of the simplest principles you can use in your learning design and delivery is to “make it easy”. The idea here is to take away any type of friction that could stop your learners accessing and completing your learning program.

The BIT team recommends thinking about the following:

  • Harness Defaults
  • In public policy, opting people into things like organ donation automatically (rather than opting them out) has proven to be a successful strategy.

    In a learning context, this could mean making the path to course enrollment as simple as possible. Automatic enrollment and harnessing Single Sign-On technology can make the path to accessing learning a far simpler, and pain-free process.

  • Reduce Hassle
  • Think about user experience. Your goal should be to make your course as intuitive as possible: confusing instructions and poor navigation are issues that can cause low completions rates and frustration—and distract learners from the content they should be engaging with.

    Test your course with a pilot group of learners to identify any sticking points or confusion. Sometimes something that seems straightforward to the designer can be less than clear to the end user.

  • Simplify Messages
  • Clear communication should be a priority. The BIT team realized that rephrasing important information to make it clearer increased the response rates to letters about tax information.

    Make sure the key messages in your learning are as clear as possible. This is especially important for complex concepts. 

    Peer reviewing course text will improve clarity, as the original writer is often much more immersed in the subject matter.

    2) Make It Attractive

    This is more than just making your learning look visually attractive. Consider visual approaches that attract attention to critical information and make it easier to understand and remember.

    The BIT report highlights the example of the red, green and amber system for calorie, fat and sugar levels in food, which is used in the UK. Using a color convention that’s already well known (from traffic lights) is a shortcut to comprehension.

    Personalization is another tactic that has been shown to be successful. BIT research has shown addressing people by name makes them more likely to respond.

    3) Make It Social 

    The herd mentality can be harnessed for behavior change. Studies have shown that if people see that the majority of people take a certain action in a particular situation, then they’re more likely to follow suit.

    Consider using statistics in your learning that demonstrate that most people make the right decisions—and avoid showing data that shows that the majority do not! If you have data from within your own organization, then this is likely to be even more powerful.

    Another social element that can be harnessed in learning is the pledge. Research has found that making a pledge, particularly a public one, increased the chances of the pledged activity taking place. 

    You can ask learners to make a pledge at the end of your learning. In a soft skills course, for example, learners could commit to trying out at least three of the new communication techniques they’ve learned. Follow-up emails could then be sent to remind them of the commitment they’ve made and offer additional tips. These pledges could also be shared with line managers, so they can also check in with learners.

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    4) Make It Timely

    As humans, we are biased towards the short-term, or what is known as ‘present bias’. We often struggle to understand the benefits of our actions or behaviors if they aren’t immediately evident. For example, while we know that saving for retirement will benefit us in the long term, many of us struggle to do so and only change our ways when retirement is looming.

    In learning, we often generate enthusiasm for our programs by outlining what learners can hope to achieve from completing the course. It’s important that you make sure that at least some of the benefits will be achievable in the short-term and are presented in a way that makes that clearly evident. Tell your learners what they will be able to do as soon as they complete the training and relate them back to learners’ everyday roles. Avoid vague, long-term and impersonal benefits, such as contributing to ‘future success’.

    Nudge Theory and Learning: Success Is About Small Changes

    The approaches listed here are all subtle changes that can increase the impact of your learning.

    Consider the way you deliver learning to your staff. Are your learners frustrated with how to log in and access your LMS or not completing learning programs? Looking at how to simplify and streamline their learning journey could deliver big benefits. 
             
    Are you struggling to see long-term behavior change in your staff when it comes to critical business issues, such as compliance? Then consider applying the principles of nudge theory and monitoring the impact of your approach.

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