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Isaiah D. Vance, The Texas A&M University System

Isaiah Vance.jpgWhy don’t students do what we want—what we believe to be best—for them?

As educators, our first collective concern is teaching and learning. This includes faculty and staff. Naturally, staff are generally concerned with creating co-curricular learning experiences, and much has been written about what students learn outside of the classroom. I have not found nearly as much writing and research about what higher education professionals should not be teaching, what ought not be a student learning outcome (SLO). This should not be construed as meaning that some topics are off-limits; perhaps some issues and student needs are simply out of the scope of the normal role of faculty and staff, but certainly not disallowed. What is meant by those things that educators ought not to teach are those behaviors and bits of knowledge that may not be worth learning at all. Certainly, students do not need to undertake all activity and obtain all knowledge currently needed to progress through an academic program.

To move from the abstract to the concrete, consider those basic activities that students undergo to move into and through the academic program. To engage in the curriculum, students are presented with a series of common tasks they must complete. These are likely germane to most academic programs: scheduling an appointment to meet with an advisor; selecting a curriculum and becoming familiar with the course requirements; registering for classes; and, then repeating this cycle until, finally, the student completes all requirements. While these activities may be necessary from a process perspective, how many of those actions do we really believe should be learned? Is learning to navigate the school’s registration system truly an essential skill?

It seems the activities are driving the learning rather than learning outcomes driving the activity. But why? There are two prevalent reasons: institutions have not figured out a way to successfully move students through the programs without this type of process and there persists a sort of patronizing, unspoken mode of thinking that learning to navigate this process somehow demonstrates ownership of one’s education and is how responsible students behave. To justify this, SLOs are formulated, such as this basic example: “Students will know how to read their degree audit.” Corresponding measures are then developed and a whole system for assessing this learning is implemented. This is not an isolated example. Beyond navigating the system that the institution has designed, is there really a justifiable reason that students should learn to read a degree audit?

I do not enjoy paying medical bills. I also do not find delight in doing my taxes. Why? Because I do not—really—understand either one (not to mention the price I pay!). I don’t work in the healthcare field, and I am not a CPA. In short, I am not an expert in these realms, nor do I care to be. My use of these fields is quite limited, and so my knowledge and understanding can be similarly narrow. Why do we as higher education professionals believe students should know how to navigate higher education? More specifically, why do we believe students should learn to navigate the processes of higher education? Maybe some of us believe learning the process of higher education is a proxy (or indicator?) of becoming a lifelong learner. Regardless, this approach—our current approach—seems indefensible. Yet we collectively wonder why many students do not enter higher education or leave before completing a credential.

How can academic advisors limit our student learning outcomes to what we (truly) want students to know, do, and value, while acknowledging that there are also less important behaviors and knowledge essential to get them through the wickets of their education?

I suggest that we start by examining the defaults of our current operational structures. Here are three simple (and common) examples of such defaults and corresponding results:

  • Student/advisor meeting: If a student fails to schedule an advising appoint, then they do not meet with an advisor.
  • Course registration: If a student fails to select courses for the subsequent semester, then they are not enrolled in coursework (meaning they do not attend, considered a stop out)
  • Course substitution: If a student does not request a course substitution, then the course is not applied to the degree/graduation requirements (and the student will take another course to satisfy that requirement).

Do advisors think students want this? Do educators—and the institutions—desire these situations? If these default conditions are not our desired outcomes, why have we set up our structures this way so that the default is failure? In other words, these models make it incumbent for the student to take an action to achieve our desired outcome. What if we flipped the model?

For roughly the last decade, pockets of higher education have sought to implement a concept called nudging. An Inside Higher Ed article explains nudging as “low-cost, low-touch interventions aimed at driving people toward particular behaviors without mandating action or restricting options” (Burdick & Peeler, 2021). While this definition adequately explains and defines the way nudging has been interpreted and implemented in higher education, it misses the mark and is only partially accurate. “[W]ithout mandating action or restricting options” certainly captures the libertarian spirit of nudges, but this freedom of choice is only part of nudging.

A vast number of colleges and universities, and even the FAFSA (Bird et al., 2021) have implemented activities using—what they have termed—nudge campaigns, such as text or email reminders, phone calls, and the like. These initiatives have reportedly had minimal success (Anderson, 2019). Yet those efforts are more accurately termed “reminders” or “exhortations” and not nudges.

Richard Thaler, widely recognized as the father (or, at least, the popularizer) of nudging within behavioral economics, describes a nudge this way: “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Choice architecture then becomes the central point of concern, addressing how various choices and processes are constructed.

Behavioral economics is concerned with studying both the choices humans have made and how to help us make better choices. These approaches to ‘better choices’ take the form of choice architecture. Choice architecture is all around us, and all individuals encounter it every day. The well-designed ones engage us without our even realizing it. Choice architecture is meant to lead us to something. A common example is the arrangement of shelves in stores. Those products at eye level are the ones that we see, and, therefore, purchase more frequently. The Coca-Cola or Doritos are placed on eye-level shelves—not because that is what customers frequently buy (though it is)—but to affect our purchasing behavior. Often, however, our institutions do not give much thought to how we are constructing our processes and what those structures and systems may communicate to students. Unfortunately, many of these decision and action points are (unintentionally) designed to move students out of our schools rather than through the programs. For this reason, by and large, nudge efforts in higher education have been unsuccessful: the nudges have been reminders, but the onus has remained on the student to take action to avoid an adverse event.

What would our structures look like if we designed them so that retaining students—and student success, in general—was the default? Before we can address that question, the preferred path or action needs to be determined. Frequently, in situations with binary outcomes, the answer is evident: we don’t want a student to stop out; we want the student to persist. In other instances, there may be a host of options, and the preferred outcome may be a bit more difficult to determine. I would assert that most outcomes staff support are of the first sort—quite straightforward—though the work required of staff to set up a positive, default outcome may not be as simple.

Returning to the three examples and the negative default results of student inaction, here are potential alternative structures and processes that could be enacted that would lead to a positive outcome, while keeping the same level of freedom for students:

  • Student/advisor meeting: What if the student is automatically assigned an appointment slot with an advisor? The student could cancel, change this meeting time, or, as we would hope, confirm, and attend.
  • Course registration: What if the student is automatically enrolled in the subsequent semester? This, admittedly, is a bit more difficult, but can easily be accomplished: the student would need to have a semester-by-semester graduation plan in place. The student could change the courses or class sections but would continue from term-to-term without needing to take any other action.
  • Course substitution: What if a faculty or staff advisor reviews all unused coursework for potential application to the degree? The advisor is much more knowledgeable and qualified to know what might and might not be considered. The process could allow students to opt out of the substitution, and there could be good reason why they might do so.

These are basic examples. The nudges could become much more refined, and commonplace as other student choices are considered.

As faculty and staff work to create greater equity and a level playing field for all students, could nudges help our institutions accomplish this? Nudges do not create new choices; nudging defaults to the desired behavior but still allows flexibility. We should ask ourselves which students are likely skipping or misunderstanding these requirements right now, and who could benefit most from these redesigns. First generation? Low income? Minorities? Other marginalized groups? We probably don’t need a full-fledged assessment to know the answer.

Isaiah D. Vance
Assistant Provost
Academic Affairs
The Texas A&M University System
[email protected]


Anderson, G. (2019, August 26). Nudging doesn't scale nationally. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2019/08/26/national-nudging-campaign-failed-produce-results

Bird, K., Castleman, B., Denning, J., Goodman, J., Lamberton, C., & Rosinger, K. (2021). Nudging at scale: Experimental evidence from FAFSA completion campaigns. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 183(C), 105–128. https://doi.org/10.3386/w26158

Burdick, J., & Peeler, E. (2021, February 23). The value of effective nudging during COVID. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2021/02/23/how-strong-nudge-campaign-can-improve-student-outcomes-during-covid-opinion

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin Books.

Cite this article using APA style as: Vance, I.D. (2022, December). Revisiting nudges. Academic Advising Today, 45(4). [insert url here] 


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