April 14, 2010

Course Evaluations: A Nudge Approach

As an aspiring economist, I am always on the lookout for reading material on the intimate connection between incentives and human behavior. Having read and reread both Freakonomics and its super sequel, I recently picked up a copy of Nudge, written by The University of Chicago’s very own Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

As proponents of “libertarian paternalism,” Thaler and Sunstein present a compelling argument that human beings are rarely fully-informed rational utility optimizers. They smoke, play the lottery, and think that driving is safer than flying. Rather than calling for government decrees and bans, however, the two authors call for a wider use of “nudges”—intentional changes in the “choice architecture” that induce individuals to make decisions that make them better off as judged by themselves. If you want to increase tax compliance, for example, it is much more effective to tell people that most of their neighbors already filed, rather than informing them of the projects that the proceeds help fund.

Inspired, I decided to apply Thaler’s and Sunstein’s six principles of successful choice architecture to the course evaluation system. That is, what can the University do to increase the course evaluation response rate? Four suggestions come to mind:

1. Social pressure. Research has consistently shown that if we see other people engaging in a certain behavior, this increases the chance of us replicating such behavior (see above tax example). The University should alter its promotional message to suggest that most students have already completed the survey; not doing so makes you the social oddball out.

2. Defaults. Defaults (i.e. what happens if user takes no action) are critical in choice architecture. The University made the right decision to institute an “opt-out” model (you have to opt-out if you don’t want to complete the survey), but the current wording under the opt-out check box only emphasizes the benefits of not completing the survey: it still counts as participation and you will receive your grade as soon as it’s available. This wording should be changed to emphasize the costs, such as other students not knowing what their peers thought of the class.

3. Priming. Studies show that simply asking people the day before the election if they intend to vote increases the probability of them actually voting by as much as 25%. In that light, before students can register for classes for the upcoming quarter, they should be directed to a very brief mandatory survey page that asks whether they plan to complete the evaluations and when they think will be the most convenient time for them to do so.

4. Feedback. In addition to emphasizing that most of the students’ peers have already completed the survey, the University should consider placing a visual feedback symbol (i.e. sad smiley face, or even a sad face of a cute animal) next to the opt-out option. Nothing says “you shouldn’t be clicking this” like a sad panda face.