As a teacher, I have always struggled to strike a balance between “teacher knows best” and “you are old enough to take care of yourselves”.  For example, do I require attendance or not?  Do I require homework or not?  I have experimented with varying degrees of each, but I have tended to favor the hands-off approach because I think that students should have some measure of control over their learning experience.  On the other hand, I have also seen the negative effects of the hands-off approach; it usually ends up that the students who most need to attend class or do the homework are the ones who choose not to do it.

I recently read a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.  One part that I found particularly interesting was a comparison of organ donation rates in two particular demographically similar, neighboring countries.  One country had a very high donation rate, while the other had a very low donation rate.  The difference seemed to stem from the fact that organ donation was “opt-in” in one country and “opt-out” in the other country.  In both cases, people had a freedom of choice, but the default option was a strong determining factor for that choice.  Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago have been studying this effect to see how organizations can help people make better decisions (they even wrote a book about it called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness), and they have given the name Libertarian Paternalism to the practice of taking advantage of this effect.

I’m wondering whether this could be leveraged in the classroom.  For example, telling students that attendance is not mandatory is likely to yield different results from telling students that they should email you if they aren’t going to show up to class.  Or suppose I want students to take more advantage of office hours.  Would I get better results if I scheduled specific times for each student and gave them all the option of opting-out by sending me an email?

What other sorts of practices could benefit from this approach?  Does it sound like a bad idea?  I’m interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on this.



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