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?