Do you think that the choices your students make shape what they get out of your class? Most teachers, if not all, would respond to that question with a rousing “Of course!” Now, don’t you wish there was an easy way to get them to make better choices? I’m Celia, a PhD candidate in Political Science and a Fellow with the Yale Teaching Center, and today I’m going to describe why thinking of yourself as a “choice architect” might help.
“Choice architecture” is not simply about physical buildings and structures (although they do play a role). Rather, choice architecture is about the norms, habits, practices, and patterns that structure our social, political, and institutional lives.
Of course, these aren’t just my ideas – I’m working with a framework developed by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their recent book Nudge:Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. While Sunstein is a legal scholar and Thaler is a behavioral economist, political scientists frequently draw on Sunstein and Thaler’s work as well. What do all these disciplines have in common? They all share a concern with how people make choices and the factors that determine whether those choices are optimal or less than optimal.
Sunstein and Thaler make a few key claims about choices:
- Small changes in context make a big difference in the choices people make.
- Individuals’ “true” preferences are hard to define and often not set in stone.
- When you are organizing a context in which people make decisions, “there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ design.” (Sunstein and Thaler, p. 3)
Now, just think about all the choices your students make when it comes to your class. Every week, they decide whether or not to do the reading. They decide whether or not to speak in class. They decide whether or not to take notes, and they decide whether to be there in class in the first place. Moreover, they decide what kind of attitude to take – skeptical, engaged, bored, distracted, excited, or domineering.
You don’t have full control over ANY of these decisions. Sure, you can lay down class rules and determine grades, and these are important instruments for shaping some of your students’ behaviors – but rules and grades are just too blunt to shape every single decision your students will be faced with.
That’s where choice architecture comes in. You want to organize your classroom to nudge students towards the best choices. What are some ways to do that? Here are a few:
1) Leverage the power of habit. For example, you want to get your students talking during discussions? Have them fill out weekly online response forms. Just the act of writing something, anything about what they’ve read will help get them in the habit of A) doing the reading and B) having something to say about it. Even if the response forms only account for some small percentage of their participation grade, they can have an outsize effect on student readiness to engage in class discussion.
2) Use social pressure to your advantage. Split students up randomly into pairs to discuss a question, and walk around the room listening in. The goal is not to create a high pressure situation, but rather to create a situation where the default is to participate. Your students will feel more awkward if they sit silently with their partner than if they talk about the readings, especially if they see you walking around and listening in.
3) Change the physical space. Consider how you can modify the physical space of the classroom to address any challenges you might be facing. If you’ve got only a few students in a big classroom, conversation often lags – you could try to get assigned a new room or get to the classroom early and use the chairs to create a smaller area in which to hold class.
Some of my favorite activities are those that combine several of these elements at once. For example, last semester, when we were reviewing major Supreme Court cases relating to the Interstate Commerce Clause, I came up with a jigsaw activity for my students. I split students up into four groups and assigned one Supreme Court case to each group. Each group had just ten minutes to prepare a brief presentation on the case and write an outline of their presentation on the board. After the first set of presentations, each case would be passed to another group, and that group would have just a few minutes to prepare a presentation on the interpretation of the Commerce Clause in that particular case. Then there would be a second round of presentations, after which each case would be passed to a third group, who would apply legal principles from that case to a new case currently before the Court. Before each case was passed, the group about to receive the case would have the chance to ask questions of the group currently in possession of the case.
This activity ended up being a lot of fun – the students were engaged and enthusiastic – so that’s part of why I remember it fondly. But it’s also a nice illustration of choice architecture in action. Since students were in small groups, there was some social pressure to participate. Because the activity involved writing on the board and time pressure, it got students moving and raised the energy level in the room. Finally, because students had to ask each other questions before the cases were handed from group to group, they started to develop the habit of talking to each other about the material, and not just directing all their comments towards me.
I'd love to hear reactions to these ideas in the comments below. What are other ways you could apply the principles of choice architecture to your classroom? How might the features of choice architecture vary across classrooms in different disciplines? What other insights about teaching can we draw from Nudge, or from other work in behavioral economics and behavioral psychology?