Nudge paper (update)

Tomorrow is the last day of classes, so naturally, I have a paper due which I have not started. In the same spirit as last semester’s philosophy 231 post, I will collect my ideas here and synthesize my final paper. In the spirit of procrastination, I conveniently left iPad at home today. However, my need is great enough to tolerate writing this post on my iPhone.

A. Bartlett Giamatti said that “A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching”
Excellence in education feeds the economic engines of societies with the creativity and knowledge afforded by its beneficiaries; moreover, in continuing Giamatti’s sentiment, excellence in education ideally feeds the political process with citizens better equipped to think about political problems (although Griffin seems to suggest that “political elites” don’t make decisions significantly different than others).

US falling behind in STEM. STEM important for modern economies based on technology.

Area for improvement: feedback. Main source of feedback for both students and teachers is grades. Grades are awful feedback for learning (cite): Encourages cheating, discourages learning, discourages taking on difficult tasks, spoils relationships, etc. Better feedback comes from immediate qualitative assessment.

Khan academy as a model for better feedback: Teachers have access to data at all scales. From Individual student progress to overall class progress. This helps teachers make decisions about how to allocate resources across students. For students, exercises give immediate feedback on skill progress. Furthermore , badges provide a feedback mechanism that rewards qualitative learning rather than correct answers.

Update: here’s the paper I turned in last week:

Nudges Inspired by Khan Academy

​A. Bartlett Giamatti said that “A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching”(BrainyQuote). If education is the measure of civilized society, then citizens of the United States have reason to be worried. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States is ranked 17th in reading, 31st in math, and 23rd in science among developed countries as of 2009 (OECD). In order to address the issue of encouraging excellence in education, and hence excellence in society, this paper tackles a critical impediment to decision-making for both students and teachers: feedback. Although several nudges will be explored, the main nudge has to do with broad implementation of Khan Academy’s concept of “badges” to encourage learning-based assessment rather than result-based assessment. This paper is organized as follows: First, there is a discussion of current methods of feedback and assessment and how they fail to encourage learning; second, there is a description and discussion of educational strategies offered by the nonprofit educational organization Khan Academy; next, there is a discussion of Libertarian Paternalism, nudges, and the possible role of nudges in education; and last, the ideas behind the Khan Academy approaches are expanded into nudges aimed at teachers and nudges aimed at students.

​The main source by which teachers give and students receive feedback is grades. Grades-based assessment negatively affects the way that students make decisions about academic habits. In Kohn’s paper entitled “From Grading to De-Grading”, the author outlines several ways in which grade-based assessments fail as a feedback mechanism. The first is that “grades tend to reduce students’ interest in learning itself”(Kohn). At every level of education, students become “less interested in learning as a result of being graded” (Kohn). Kohn goes on to explain that “grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks” (Kohn). When the goal is to get an “A”, students rationally find the path of least resistance to meet that end. The “A” incentive effectively discourages students from learning more than they have to. Kohn provides several other notable and evidence-based objections such as: “Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking…Grades encourage cheating…Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students…” and “Grades spoil students’ relationships with each other” (Kohn). It’s as if grades become the goal, and actual learning only secondary. This backward incentive scheme is especially deleterious to Mathematics learning because Mathematics is cumulative in nature. Mathematics is a discipline of precision and mastery, and so must be learned honestly—not used as a means to a grade. On the other hand, alternative assessments that do not involve grades “[encourage] children to become lifelong learners, rather than ‘memorizers and forgetters’ of information…and encourage them to produce high-quality work that will be useful to them, not just in school but also throughout their lives” (Culbertson et al.). So students make decisions about how to approach academics based on a system of incentives and feedback that discourages learning. If ever a mechanism could be improved by a gentle nudge, it is feedback and incentives in schools.

​There are many exciting possibilities for aligning incentives and feedback in education with learning. Some of these possibilities are being vigorously explored by the nonprofit educational organization, Khan Academy. Khan Academy, whose mission is to let anyone around the world “learn almost anything for free”, manifests itself as a website with two distinct components: a video lecture component, including 10-15 minute lectures on a spectrum of topics from Mathematics (elementary through college), to science and history; and an exercise module component ( The philosophy of the video lecture content is to “humanize the classroom” in the following sense: Instead of students using class time to passively listen to a one-pace-fits-all lecture and home time to do problems with which they might get frustrated because of a lack of support, students spend home time learning lecture material at their own pace and class time working on problems with much more one-on-one time with the teacher. The teacher transforms from a speech-giver to a guide of sorts. The second, and perhaps much more exciting, component of Khan Academy is the exercise software. Currently, the only exercise modules are in Mathematics, from basic addition all the way to freshman Calculus. What makes the modules so exciting is the instant visual feedback of mastery-based learning outcomes. The modules range over a variety of topics in Mathematics like addition, fractions, calculus, functions, etc. Each topic has several subtopics, and underlying the framework of topics and subtopics is a list of skills. Each module is about eight problems. When a student gets a problem correct, a happy face is shown, which, as discussed in Nudge, is a surprisingly effective positive reinforcement (Thaler et al. 70). If the student is having trouble, there are step-by-step hints available, as well as a link to the video lecture on the relevant topic. Immediately after having completed the module, students can see their fire streaks (questions quickly answered in a row), lightning streaks (questions answered lightning-quick in a row), and overall module leaves (green leaves that are subtracted as a penalty for looking at hints or getting incorrect answers). Along with the leaves, the module is analyzed instantly, and the student is greeted with a list of the skills exhibited in the module, each with an animated progress bar. Once a bar is filled, it turns from green to blue signaling that the student has reached a new level of proficiency. So the student is immediately aware of where she stands in the skills that she has been practicing. These modules touch on most aspects of nudges to encourage students who want to learn; namely, the modules provide immediate feedback on each correct or incorrect answer, help students understand mappings from their work to their overall progress by way of animated skill progress bars, and expect error by providing hints and links to the relevant video lecture. Only defaults and incentives are neglected in the iNcentives, Understanding mappings, Defaults, Give feedback, Expect error (nudge) scheme (Thaler et al. 102). While smiley faces can be considered incentives, Khan Academy offers a much more robust system of incentives. This system employs “energy points” and space-themed (cool!) “badges,” ranging from Meteorite to Moon to Earth to Sun to Black Hole to Challenge Patches. The challenge patches are given for completing various difficult challenges in the exercises. The other badges are given for a variety of learning-based accomplishments. Students are rewarded with a difficult-to-obtain Moon badge for, say, sticking to a subject after having trouble and overcoming that difficulty (called the “Sticktoitiveness” badge). Sun badges can take years to obtain, and it is unknown just how ridiculously difficult it is to obtain either of the two elusive Black Hole badges. Unlike grades, badges are directly representative of tangible accomplishments students have made. Also unlike grades, badges are rewarded for deeper exploration, effectively unleashing curious students to go as far as they can. A grade-based system may put a certain percentage as an anchor for bright students, whereas badges allow—or even expect—such students to push the boundaries. In addition to these learning tools, Khan Academy offers a suite of statistical tools for teachers. Teachers can monitor individual student activity down to the minute, with options to sift through play-by-plays of students’ attempts at problems in order to finely diagnose gaps in understanding. Furthermore, teachers have access to an easy-to-read, color-coded snapshot of class progress. A column represents a student, and a row represents a module topic. Blue indicates proficiency, orange indicates that the student may need some review, light blue means the student just started that topic, and red means that the student is struggling with that material. In this way, teachers can instantly identify areas that the class is struggling with, and even pair excelling students with struggling students for peer instruction. Preliminary results from a pilot program in Los Altos, California shows promising results for the Khan Academy platform. In the year that Khan Academy was implemented in a couple of Los Altos 7th grade classrooms, the percentage of Advanced and Proficient students soared from 23% to 41% on the CST exam (Sinha).

​So Khan Academy offers educational strategies that resonate deeply with nearly all aspects of nudges as defined in Nudge. How, then, does Khan Academy fit into the scheme of Libertarian Paternalism? Teachers are perhaps the most fundamental examples of choice architects. Teachers have disproportionate influence on many lives, and the default classroom policies they set can have drastic impact of those lives. School administrators, moreover, have the power to establish defaults such as bell schedules and curricula that lay the groundwork for the educational experience. So long as it seems reasonable to paternalistically structure young peoples’ lives by requiring years of basic scholarship, administrators and teachers cannot help but set guidelines that affect many people. In this respect, nudges can go a long way in helping young people find their passions and develop skills that they will cherish throughout their years. In addition, there are many opportunities to nudge teachers themselves to make it easier for them to make the quality assessments that they want to make.

​ With a firm understanding of the ways that Khan Academy exceeds in providing students with quality incentives and feedbacks, there are several ways to expand the platform to nudge students and teachers. Perhaps the most significant nudge is to expand Khan Academy’s badge rewards on a school-wide level. Without changing policies like the implementation of grades, schools could still foster learning-based incentives by offering a badge scheme in lieu of, say, class rank. A student who spends the summer in Europe, journals about the experience, and gives a presentation to a class or just teachers might be eligible for, say, an Earth or Sun badge. Perfect attendance could score an Earth badge. A student who falls in love with Dostoevsky could earn a Sun badge for reading additional books and giving a small presentation. A student who works with a nearby university professor and gets his name on an official publication might earn a Black Hole badge. Every month, several students could be featured in the school newspaper for their recent accomplishments. Best yet, with class rank a distant memory, valedictorian would be chosen based on qualitative assessment and badge history. Only students who show outstanding passion for learning, skill, and sense of adventure would taste valedictorian glory. It is important to notice that full implementation of a badge system need not have any technological component.

​Many nudges are also available to aim at teachers, the choice architects themselves. Administrators could give default teachers into implementing Khan Academy in full on an opt-out basis. Teachers would be free to choose their own teaching methods, even though Khan Academy only stands to enhance many traditional teaching styles. In a similar capacity, teachers could be encouraged to use systems such as CRS (Clicker Response Systems). Kelly Cline explains that CRS encourages active participation, which has been shown to increase learning (Cline 100). Furthermore, CRS need not be technology heavy, although full use of technology has its benefits (Cline 104).

​The Khan Academy is a compelling platform from which many nudges can be found and expanded. This is an exciting time to be a teacher, and thinking about choice architecture is an exercise that will be invaluable as I step into the world of teaching.

Works Cited
BrainyQuote. Xplore. Web. .
Cline, Kelly. “Classroom Voting in Mathematics.” Mathematics Teacher 100.2 (2006): 100-04.
Culbertson, Linda D., and Mary R. Jalongo. “”But What’s Wrong with Letter Grades?””
Childhood Education 7.3 (1999): 130-35. Http:// Web. .
Kohn, Alfie. “From Degrading to De-Grading.” High School Magazine. Mar. 1999. Web.
OECD (2010), PISA 2009 Results: Executive Summary
Sinha, Shantanu. “Does Khan Academy Really Work?” The Huffington Post.


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