One of the most powerful lessons for educators is that a group of students sitting in a class can each have very different learning experiences. And those different experiences are often based on the degree to which they get involved and the amount of effort they apply.  It’s strikingly simple, and yet the implications for us are complex.

Some students will do just what is required to get by—maximizing their “grade per effort” formula.  Others will not even get by. Still, some will make the most of the opportunities by participating and leading in class, forming study groups, attending lectures and plays, playing a sport or running student government, joining a community organization.  Their experiences will be dramatically superior to other students in spite of being offered the same opportunities.

It’s easy to be a bit complacent about this and assume it is the way of the world.  We certainly have enough familiar sayings on the subject: “You get out of it what you put into it.”

Similarly, we have sayings that reflect the pedagogical equivalent of this laissez-faire. “You can lead a horse to water. . .” is the cowboy version of motivation.  And teaching has long been dominated by a blanket metaphor by which we measure our teaching by how much we “cover.”  Then there is infectious disease pedagogy, in which students are “exposed” to certain ideas and skills.  Some of them, we assume, catch it.

Well, all of us in education certainly experienced, as students, our share of courses that left us entirely on our own to read the texts, annotate the lectures, and take the tests.  One can learn that way, but it isn’t ideal.

We do know that how we structure student experience influences how students behave, which, in turn, influences how engaged they become and how much they learn and grow.

This is the time of year to remember what great teachers exemplify: that there are multiple ways to nudge ordinary students into extraordinary performance.  At Sage, we share those techniques or “best practices”; we try new methods and technologies and winnow the successful experiments from the less effective.

I use the word “nudge” here deliberately, with a nod to Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, co-authors of the book of the same name.

“Nudging,” those authors tell us, is about “altering people’s behaviors in a predictable way” through policies or practices which increase the likelihood of people making choices that are beneficial to them.   For example, they discuss “default bias”—dramatically more people opt for a retirement plan if you have to make the effort to opt out of it, instead of opting in.  Their research shows the value of deadlines and breaking big projects into smaller units.  Peer behavior is also a great motivator of behavior and so are “informational nudges.”

Faculty know from experience that freshmen won’t do as well in a course with only two graded assignments , seven weeks apart, and that regular quizzes or mini-assignments will increase the number of students who show up in class prepared.  In other words, there are ways to influence whether the horse will drink.

That process is called by the behavioral economists “choice architecture.” Building the choice architecture students encounter can help them make better choices about their education and have more fulfilling college experiences. It is based on years of observation that confirm that not only do people not behave rationally, but that their irrationality is predictable.  The student who most needs to visit the professor’s office is the least likely to do so.

This nudge principle applies outside the classroom as well.  How students manage choosing a college and selecting classes,  making decisions about financial aid or getting involved in a student club—all these things can be crafted in ways that improve smart decisions and participation.  As Thaler and Sunstein point out, no presentation of a choice or action is ever neutral, so we might as well craft that choice architecture intentionally.

The implications are far-reaching, as a European article summarizing “nudging” in education reveals.  Many of our faculty discussions sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning are ultimately about how to structure assignments and syllabi in ways that inspire optimal student performance.  And our current review at Sage of work processes in our quest for truly “student-centered service” is similarly structured, looking to tailor campus procedures in sensible and affirming ways. We recognize that we can’t just rely on our friendliness and personal attention to smooth the way for students; we need processes that are well-designed and that facilitate students making good choices, going to the right office, filling out the right form.

At Sage, we value the small scale of our institution and the way that it allows for attention to students as individuals and for being extraordinarily responsive to student needs. We do not accept those metaphors that depict us as powerless to inspire student excellence and success.  Students will always differ on how they respond to what college offers, but we do our best to guide them, inspire them, engage and interact with them in a spirit that is more collaborative than “exposing” or “covering.”