Behavioural economics and education

Currently, it seems Learning/Instructional Design is borrowing ideas from fields like User Experience and Customer Experience in the business world. I suggest we add another field to that list: Behavioural economics.

Behavioural economics is studying how real people make choices. Not conveniently-rational, utility-optimising, economic-theory people. But irrational, real people.

These are the same people we teach every day. Real people who don’t all love to hear a teacher speak or love to write notes; who don’t all rationally stick to deadlines — the people at the fringes, as well as those in the middle.

That is why I was so excited to see choice architecture mentioned in the wonderful book UDL in the Cloud: How to Design and Deliver Online Education Using Universal Design for Learning by Katie Novak and Tom Thibodeau. Some people have said choice architecture and behavioural economics are the same thing.

Richard Thaler (who happens to be the co-author of a behavioural economics book called Nudge) said,

If anything you do influences the way people choose, then you are a choice architect

To be expert learning designers, then, we need to learn more about what influences the choices people make.

Adopting a UDL (universal design for learning) framework in the way we design learning requires an appreciation that learning is all about multiple means; it is all about choices.

Here are some ideas that have been jostling for space in my head as behavioural economics gets folded into designing a learning experience.

Learners’ choice to complete learning tasks vs other tasks

Two concepts from behavioural economics that could help are:

  • Loss Aversion — that we focus more on what we may lose than what we may gain,
  • the Endowment Effect — that we value something more because we own it.

An example from Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational tells of a study he was involved in where die-hard Duke basketball fans were allocated tickets to a Duke basketball game by lottery. After the lottery, he called students who didn’t get tickets and asked them how much they would pay for a ticket. On average it was $175.00. He also asked people who had won a ticket how much they would sell it for. On average it was $2,400.00. Even though the allocation of tickets was random, those who had the tickets valued them more. He concludes this is because their feelings about the tickets have changes because they own them.

Leap with me to an education setting. What if we gave everyone full grades and a certificate at the start of a course? Then, if learners completed assessments at a level that matched the grades they had already been given, they got to keep them.

Could these same effects happen in education with something like grades and completion certificates? Would learners value the qualifications and good grades more because they felt they already owned them? Would they focus more on what they would lose when deciding to complete coursework or procrastinate? It is a small change, but it could have a big difference in the way learners approach completing courses.

How about another example related to choices made to complete assessment.

The power of expectations.

You may be familiar with this power already. Sometimes we feel it in relation to price. The more we pay for something, the better we think it is. It also happens in social situations. If you get dragged to a party you think will be bad, it probably will be. If you are looking forward to going out for dinner, it will probably be a good time.

Let’s look at another of Ariely’s experiments. This time it involves beer and vinegar.

Ariely tells of an experiment where they offered US College students two samples of beer and asked them to choose which one they would like. In one condition, students tasted the two samples without being told anything about them. One was beer, the other was a sample of beer that had two drops of balsamic vinegar added. In this blind condition, most students preferred the beer with balsamic vinegar.

In the second condition, students were offered the same two samples of beer, but this time they were told which one had vinegar added. This time, when students tried the beer with vinegar they grimaced and said they preferred the regular beer. Their expectations affected their experience.

Let’s leap to education again.

Assume you’re a student and you find writing an essay boring and tedious. You look at the options for submitting an assessment for one of your courses and you see an essay. “Again?”, you think, “this is going to be horrible”.

But, then you see there are multiple means of completing this assessment. You show you’ve met learning outcomes by drawing something, building something, recording something, singing something, annotating something.

“Oh”, you think, “building something is fun, I’m going to do that!” Your expectation then is priming you to have a more positive experience. You choose the option you expect you would enjoy more and chances are you will. All because the designer of that course was thinking of ways to give you multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression.

Don’t we owe it to everyone we design courses for to be the best choice architects we can be? Understanding not only what choices to offer, but how people make choices in their learning.

I think so.

Postscript: I’m not trying to say these ideas are capital T truths. A party can be better than you expected, there may be some things you own that you don’t overvalue. Rather, there are people out there studying how people make choices whose research should be of interest to anyone who designs learning.


Books mentioned in this post:

Ariely, D. (2010) Predictably Irrational: the hidden forces that shape our decisions (revised and expanded edition). USA: HarperCollins Publishers
Novak, K., & Thibodeau, T. (2016) UDL in the cloud: how to design and deliver online education using Universal Design for Learning. Massachusetts, USA: CAST Professional Publishing
Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009) Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happinessUK: Penguin Books Ltd

Photo attribution:

Desire path: by wetwebwork (2008) under CC.2.0 (found on

Image of book spines: by the author

Dr Lachlan McLaren

Dr Lachie McLaren is part of the Learning Experience team at CORE Education. He is driven by understanding how people process information, make choices, and interact online, and uses this knowledge to create the best learning experience for learners. He has extensive experience teaching, designing and evaluating online and flexible learning as well as training others in effective use of technology for teaching. Lachie has tertiary qualifications in Marketing and Higher Education Learning and Teaching and his latest research with CORE colleagues is about engaging and retaining learners online. Lachie joined CORE Education in 2015 after working as a lecturer in e-learning at Victoria University of Wellington.
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