Nudge, Sludge, and Choice Architecture: Applying Practical Lessons from Behavioral Economics to Instructional Design of Online Courses.

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Taking as its point of departure a recent new edition of a book by award winning authors (Nobel and Holberg prizes), this presentation explores the relevance of behavioral economics concepts of “nudge” for the design of online courses, offering practical, field-tested solutions that work.


George Jura is the Director of Academic Technology at the U of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing (SoN) where he leads a team of academic technology staff in helping faculty identify, explore, and implement technology-enhanced teaching & learning solutions that best support and complement the School's undergraduate and graduate programs. The driving force behind his work is the realization that even the most sophisticated technology is useless, if people who could benefit from it don't know how to use it effectively; consequently, his passion is making information about technology easier to find and understand, and making technology easier to use. His primary long-term interests include evidence-based instructional design and course development, the use of student-response systems to increase student engagement in large undergraduate courses, and helping faculty develop generative learning activities that promote understanding. His immediate present focus is on leading the UW-Madison School of Nursing academic technology team in the planning and design of courses for two new graduate (Doctor of Nursing Practice) programs to be launched in the fall of 2021. In the past, he has lead campus-wide technology training initiatives for students and University staff at U of Wisconsin-Whitewater, as its first Technology Advancement and Training Coordinator, including managing the UW-W TechQuest project, an innovative online technology training for incoming students. Before focusing entirely on instructional technology, George developed broad teaching expertise as a faculty member at Iowa State U. (Ames, IA), and Lawrence U. (Appleton, WI), where he taught numerous technology-enhanced courses on Spanish Mediaeval & Renaissance Literature; Spanish Art; Film and Narrative Theory; and Linguistics. He shared his ideas on teaching with technology with audiences at numerous forums, including presentations and workshops at several EDUCAUSE National, and Midwest-Regional Conferences; ELI Annual Meetings; National Forums on Active Learning Classrooms; Distance Learning Conferences (Madison, WI) incl. 2020 virtual conference; OLC Accelerate 2019, several Modern Language Association conferences, and many regional conferences and events. OLC Innovate 2022 session is titled 'Nudge, Sludge, and Choice Architecture: Applying the Lessons of Behavioral Economics to Instructional Design.' Session preview info at:

Extended Abstract

For expanded, illustrated version of this proposal, with links to relevant / related resources, please see my blog ( 

Taking as its point of departure a recent new edition of a book by award winning authors (Nobel and Holberg prizes), this presentation explores the relevance of behavioral economics concepts of “nudge, sludge, and choice architecture” for the design of online courses, offering practical, field-tested solutions that work. Many ideas and lessons shared in this presentation can be used in blended or face-to-face courses successfully, but my focus is on online courses because they are often subject to specific constraints imposed by the LMS and the predominantly asynchronous nature of such courses. Online courses also present specific challenges to students (for example, self-determined planning and timing of course activities, not determined by course meeting schedule), and some of the "nudging" techniques discussed here are intended to overcome such drawbacks.  

When Nobel Prize laureate (2017) Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (Holberg Prize, 2018) published their book, very simply titled “Nudge,” in 2008, few expected that it would start a revolution in economics, and that its title would become a standard technical term of behavioral economics. “Nudge” is an umbrella term that describes small, deliberate design choices that gently move (“nudge”) audiences (in our case, students), to (unconsciously) make desirable choices that lead to preferred outcomes. The idea, originally referred to as “channel factors”, and spearheaded at theoretical level by influential psychologist Kurt Levin, was later made famous by a Yale campus experiment developed and described by Howard Leventhal, Robert Singer, and Susan Jones has evolved, and today, transformed into more readily understandable concept of “nudge” has had impact on entire industries, positively affecting and improving millions of lives around the globe.

Earlier this year the authors of “Nudge” published the updated “final” largely updated edition of their book. In the meantime, since its original publication, countries and governments have used their “nudging” techniques in myriad contexts, and the authors have have served as consultants and officials for various government administrations: their impact ranges from the design of tax forms in several countries, to the design of consent cards for organ donors, and improvements to public health and financial stability for large populations. And yet, among the areas of impact where “nudging” has been successful, described in the recent edition of the book, “nudging” in educational setting is hardly mentioned. Although the book uses the word “education” 28 times, it’s always in passing, talking about related, but different topics (for example, school meals and nutrition/health), but not strictly education and educational outcomes. 

The question this presentation explores how instructors and instructional designers can use some of the “nudge” techniques developed in behavioral economics and apply them directly and deliberately to the design of online courses, to improve a range of student outcomes, from increasing assignment completion rates, and increased student satisfaction, to better grades and lower drop-out rates. 

Ironically, most “nudging” techniques are very simple, low-tech, and low-cost, which is perhaps why they are often assumed to have very small impact (hardly worth the effort). An important part of considering such design techniques in the context of experimentally tested behavioral economics is the realization that accumulating several positive, small-impact factors often results in relatively large gains, as the accumulation of such effects often increases the impact in an exponential, rather than linear way, resulting in surprisingly large positive impacts. 

We will explore such “nudge-based” ideas as using simple techniques to counteract what Thaler and Sunstein call “conformity effects,” and "pluralistic ignorance" (both concepts explained and illustrated with example during the presentation) that plague (poorly designed) online discussions; or course planning approaches and techniques that employ our knowledge of positive habit-formation, by creating a predictable, recurring “course rhythm” to minimize missed deadlines and, consequently, lower scores, as well as simple yet surprisingly effective, experimentally-supported ways to maximize the effects of simple (but carefully crafted) reminder emails sent to students.

The presentation also considers the dangers and detrimental use of various techniques (named “sludge” if they harm, rather than benefit students). We discuss the fact that many online courses use teaching techniques that actually have a very substantial amount of “sludge,” although, in my experience, this presence of “sludge” is almost entirely accidental, and clearly attributable to lack of forethought given to course design, and not deliberate intent. Still, whether intended or not, if the lack of attention leads to negative outcomes, taking proactive (low-cost, easily implemented) steps to reduce or eliminate them is worth consideration. 

PRACTICAL ASPECTS OF THE PRESENTATION: The presentation is a combination of idea-centered approach (aka “theory”), but it has a very practical aspect, using three real-live courses developed in my department’s newly created doctoral program as “case studies” in practical implementation some of these nudging techniques. 

Using the approach pioneered by Linda Hodges  in her 2015 influential ad innovative book “Teaching Undergraduate Science: A Guide to Overcoming obstacles to Student Learning,” this presentation will not only discuss various nudging techniques, but will also estimate each in terms of its impact (possible, likely, or demonstrable), effort needed to implement (minimal, medium, considerable, high), time expenditure needed to prepare,  time taken during class / time needed of students (if applicable), and time needed to provide feedback or analyze results (if any). While presently (September 2021) I can only address the specifics of course design used in these three courses as examples of practical application of “nudging”, the timing of the conference and the presentation (if the proposal is accepted) will also allow me to include the report of student feedback collected at the conclusion of these courses (the three courses in question will conclude in December 2021, with data collection planned for Dec/Jan 2022, and collection/interpretation of results in early Jan/Feb 2022, with results to be incorporated in the final presentation). 

INTERACTIVITY / AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: The presentation will include a “reasoned catalogue” of nudging techniques and ideas for their potential application; the audience will be asked to rank these techniques in terms of their PAST use in their courses, and later in the second half of the presentation, to estimate the likelihood of using the same techniques in their future courses, based on the new information about their impact and feasibility. In the past, OLC audiences liked the additional information provided on my website / blog, that was made available at the time of the presentation (and is still available now) at my teaching related blog (see: ); If I have the opportunity to present this content at the 2022 OLC Innovate conference, I plan to make presentation-related information available online in a similar format. 

NOTE: The proposal submission form forces me to choose the preferred format, and I chose "Either onsite or virtual" while in fact, I'd prefer to present in both formats (online AND in-person/live) if possible and if my proposal is accepted.