Monday, 20 August 2018

A simple nudge for (online) students to complete assignments

Following on from yesterday's post about extra credit to encourage student attendance at lectures, another challenge for lecturers is to encourage students to put sufficient effort into relatively low-stakes assignments or homework. We set these homework assignments to assist with students' long-term recall of their learning, to encourage them to work throughout the semester (since it spreads the assessment load more evenly), and to help them to prepare for the high-stakes assessments like in-class tests or examinations. Small stakes do appear to have an out-sized influence on student behaviour (which was something I noticed when I introduced weekly assignments in my ECON110 (now ECONS102) class in 2006, the second year I taught that paper). However, the effort that students put into the assignments does vary significantly (presumably based on the students' workload in their other papers).

So, I was interested to read this recent article in the Journal of Economics Education (I don't see an ungated version online unfortunately) by Ben Smith (University of Nebraska at Omaha), Dustin White, Patricia Kuzyk (both Washington State University), and James Tierney (Pennsylvania State University). I originally read a working paper version of this article from 2016, which excluded the last two authors and had slightly different results (more on that in a bit).

In the paper, the authors describe a very simple 'nudge' to improve student effort on regular homework assignments. Nudge theory was brought to prominence by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's excellent 2008 book Nudge. The idea is that relatively subtle changes to the decision environment can have significant effects on behaviour.

The authors' nudge involves sending a short message to each student as each assignment due date approaches (or the message could be appended to the assignment itself in Google Docs):
Hi [Name],
As of now, you have a(n) [Grade] in the class. This assignment is worth [Points] points. If you get more than [X] on this assignment, your class grade will increase to a(n) [Higher Grade]. If you get less than [Y] on this assignment, your grade will drop at least one grade. Not doing the assignment will result in a(n) [Lower Grade].
The authors then test the effect of the nudge on student performance in three online courses (two sports economics courses, and one microeconomics course), and find that the grade nudge improves student performance, by 3.8 percentage points. This suggests that the nudge induced the students to put more effort into their homework assignments. Moreover, they find that the effect is larger for the first nudge of the semester (around 10 percentage points), and they suggest that:
...[t]he first nudge could have “primed” the student to be more aware of their grade throughout the semester...
The results are quite encouraging. However, in the 2016 version of the paper, the authors presented some slightly different results. The microeconomics course was not included in that version of the paper, but a face-to-face (i.e. not online) version of the sports economics course was. Those results demonstrated no effect of the nudge on student performance in the face-to-face sports economics course. It's a pity those results didn't survive to the final paper, because they make it clear that this nudge only appears to work for online courses. This may be because online students are more likely to carefully read any emails (or other online communications) related to the course than face-to-face students.

So, the takeaway from this paper (combining the results from both versions) is that it is possible to nudge students into greater effort in homework assignments, but the context of the nudge is important.

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