Nudgespotting: Back to School


We’ve all witnessed it: it’s the end of the semester and the professor’s office is overflowing with nervous students. They’re asking for extra credit, extra assignments, or just a little extra sympathy. Meanwhile, the professors across the desks are annoyed or perplexed as to why students are only now caring about their grades.

To address this problem, professors Ben O. Smith (University of Nebraska – Omaha) and Dustin R. White (Washington St. University) teamed up to create a simple nudge. It took the form of a short message appended to email reminders about course assignments:

Hi [Name],

Here’s your next assignment.

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 rationale is that because many students are present-biased – focused more on tomorrow night’s party than next week’s exam – they tend to wait until it’s too late in the semester for any coursework to significantly impact their final grade. If the consequences of their immediate performance are made salient, it will be harder for students to shirk and easier for them to work.

The reasoning is sound, but do the results follow? Smith and White used a randomized evaluation across three sections of the same course – two online sections and one in-person, all taught by the same instructor – to find out. In each section, students received an email reminder for upcoming assignments. From the second assignment onward, every student had a 50% chance of receiving the nudge.

Across the two online classes, the nudge had a positive effect on the students’ assignment scores at the 10% significance level. That is, there is only a 10% chance the authors would have observed a difference as large or greater between the nudge and no-nudge treatments if the nudge truly had no effect. However, the email nudge did not have a significant effect on the in-person section. As the authors point out, this is not surprising: students in the in-person sections often receive assignment reminders in class, so they likely feel less of a need to read their email (which contains the nudge) than do online sections, who rely exclusively on electronic communications.

If students are present-biased, it makes sense that a nudge earlier in the semester (when students are least focused on their grade) would have a greater effect than nudges later in the semester (when students are waiting outside office hours to beg for extra credit). This bore out: across all online classes, the first nudge students received had a greater effect than the average for all subsequent nudges over the entire term (p=.10). The first nudge could also be more powerful because it may cause students to attend to their grade in subsequent assignments, even when they do not receive the nudge.

Given what we know about the importance of timely and salient feedback, the results were not surprising. In fact, if the nudge could be directly appended to the assignment rather than in the reminder email, the effect would likely be larger and more certain. But do students appreciate this nudge, or do they feel coerced? A small survey of an MBA class that also received this nudge shows that 75% of students felt this nudge made them work harder – and even more (85%) wanted to see it in their other courses.

While this study will need to be replicated in different contexts and with larger samples, it still teaches us a very important lesson. Educators across the country, with a little effort (or using the tool the authors put together), can use insights from behavioral economics to help their students maximize their grades – and minimize their pleading for extra credit.