How Small Nudges Could Have A Big Impact On Math Education

Do you ever notice that many decisions are secretly being made for us? You probably missed them like I did.

Consider this: Last Friday, and much like every Friday our math department headed out for a quick snack and recap of the week at one of our favourite restaurants. We enjoyed stories from a week’s worth of lessons and working with students while looking forward to new stories for the upcoming weekend. Like every Friday when it’s time to leave I get the bill. What do you notice?

The tip was suggested for me!

I didn’t have to think too hard about what to leave. The restaurant has made it real easy for me to include that good tip. How many more tips do you think this restaurant earns compared to other restaurants that don’t have this feature? A bunch more is the answer.  

Here’s another example of a subtle suggestion that has a big influence on our decisions. Have a look at this image taken at the University of Pennsylvania.  

We have to do a double take and think about what side to place our trash in. We are pushed to consider our trash placement instead of just tossing it in a bin. A subtle suggestion that influences our decision. Recycle or Landfill?

Both of these scenarios didn’t just happen by accident or without careful thought, both are using a branch of behavioural economics to influence decision making called Nudge Theory.

From wikipedia: “A Nudge is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision making of groups or individuals.”

If we go back to the tipping example: the suggested tip amount on the bill is a small indirect suggestion for me to give a good tip. The restaurant has made it real easy to leave that tip (they did the math for me). Also notice that they didn’t provide tip amounts less than 15%. They nudged me to make a tip of 15% or greater! They nudged me to choose the behaviour that was favourable to them.

In the garbage bin example the creators drew your attention to the negative impacts of putting items in the garbage side. If you toss on the garbage side that trash goes directly to the landfill. They nudged you, very subtly, to think before you toss trash.

The basic idea behind a successful nudge is to make it very easy to do the favourable behaviour and hard to do the unfavourable one. It was easy for me to make a tip of 20% and harder if I wanted to tip less. It was easy for us to make a decision to recycle because choosing the alternative was something we generally want to avoid: filling landfills.

Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler along with Cass Sunstein brought Nudges into the forefront in 2008 with their book: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness and I learned about it from the Choiceology Podcast episode: The Big Impact of Small Changes by Dan Heath. In that episode Heath outlines a great example of a nudge: the power of the opt-in versus the opt-out.

In Austria, more than 90% of their citizens are organ donors. In the neighbouring country Germany? Less than 15%. Are Austrians that much more conscience about organ donation? Nope. In Austria citizens are auto-enrolled in the program and have to opt-out if they would rather not be a donor. In Germany you are not auto-enrolled and have to opt-in to be a donor. That’s a nudge! A small subtle change can have big outcomes in decisions. Auto-enrolling capitalizes on our laziness factor. It’s easier if we do nothing compared to doing something.

“It’s a question of putting the best outcome along the path of least resistance and letting your automatic system do its thing.” Mark W Riepe writes regarding nudges.

What implications does Nudge Theory have in the math classroom?

 Nudging in Math Education

In my opinion one of the most poorly designed calculator features on my smartphone is the percent button.

Students often misuse the % button the calculator and are not sure what is going one behind that it. It’s like a black box of percent calculation. Many misconceptions arise in my grade 9 applied class when students use this button without knowing the math behind it.

Compare that to what Desmos is doing.

Desmos has auto-added the word “of” after the percent symbol. There is no way for a student to delete the word of. It’s stuck there. It forces us to think about how we use that button. Both teachers and students are now auto-enrolled in finding the percent of a number before doing anything else. It’s an amazingly small change that has a huge impact on learning. They have made it easy to do the right thing. And impossible to do the wrong thing. That is a nudge!

Have you seen these charging stations for phones in classrooms?

Teachers are making it super easy for students to choose to put their phone away if it’s a distraction to their learning. A student will gladly get the juice and put that phone away for an hour. Nudge!

I want students to regularly self assess their learning in my classroom. I want them to be more accountable to get what they need. I make it very easy for them to see their own progress on the learning goals in our course. By auto-enrolling them in their Freshgrade portfolios student can access all the learning goals anytime and work towards showing improvement on them! It’s my way of giving them a nudge to make good decisions regarding their assessment.

What kind of nudges are you trying?

What are you doing to make the right behaviours easy and the wrong ones hard? What are you doing to affect choices your students make in your classroom? 

10 Tools in My Teaching Day

Looking to stay productive? Wonder what tools are out there to keep organized? I’ve tried a lot of tools, apps, websites over the last few years; some I kept using and some I tossed away. Here are the 10 tools that I use on a regular basis in my teaching in a video blog format!! If video is not for you scroll below to read the transcript.

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My Favourite Desmos Feature

If you follow me you know Desmos is my go-to software for graphing and calculator functions with my students. I'm pretty excited to let you know that coming soon I'll release a 3 part video series on using Desmos in the classroom to enhance classroom discussions. To get started I wanted to share my favourite Desmos feature: The Moveable Point Watch the 1 min 44 second video: Can't see the video? Click here to see the post page. Sign Up below to get notified when the 3 part series goes live. You won't want to miss it!! p.s. Here are the activities seen in the video. The Great Collide Charge: Edited Sugar Sugar Pondering Percent Pentomino Puzzles Or You can also download the free Multi-Touch Book from iBooks to use on your iPad Beautiful Functions  

3 New Desmos Activities: Talkers & Drawers

Goals of the activity:

Students will:
  • Begin to recognize characteristics of linear, quadratic, or periodic functions.
  • Generate a need to use proper vocabulary around linear, quadratic, or periodic functions.

Specific recommendations:

  • The “talker” cannot use their hands and should keep them behind his/her back. This will help the student be careful and direct the language they choose to describe the graph.
  • The “drawer” cannot talk.
  • Set a time limit. Possibly 3-4 minutes for the “talker” to describe the graph to the “drawer” with the goal to reproduce the graph.
  • Consider having all the “drawers” reveal the graphs at the same time for dramatic effect.
There are three different versions of the activity based on topic
Links to the three activities:

What the student experiences:

Once students choose a role tell them “Talkers, your goal is describe the graph perfectly to the drawer. Drawers, your goal is to listen carefully and without talking try to match the talkers graph. You will have 3 to 4 minutes for each graph.
When the time is up, tell all the drawers to click the REVEAL button at the same time to see how close your sketch was.
 

What the teacher experiences:

While students are describing and sketching take time to listen to the words they use. Store these words for later in the class so you can link them to the proper names.
Example: 
You heard Jose Adem Chain say, “The pattern starts at 2 and goes up…” If most students are using the phrase “starts at..” We can introduce the term y-intercept.
Or on the periodic function version:
A student might say, “…it does that and then repeats 4 units later” You now have a gateway into introducing the period of the function.
After each round use the Teacher View to showcase some student graphs to the class.
Consider restricting the students to the current sketch and move from sketch to sketch as a class.
Last question.

The words generated on this slide will most likely be informal. As a class discuss the informal use of the word and then introduce the more formal words relating to the topic.
Inspired by Brian McBain and also the team at Desmos