Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Nudges as a Teaching Technique

When we think about teaching and discuss teaching, we are usually focused on the framework, teaching methods, how to organize groups, assembling rich mathematical tasks, and more. This post is about thinking in human terms. It's about one specific (seemingly peripheral) action that can potentially have a large impact. It's called the nudge.

The basic idea of the nudge is to check in with students during group work time, before or after class, or via email. A nudge is a way to touch base with students to see how they are doing and to open a dialogue. It gives students opportunities to engage, and is an invitation by the instructor to students to discuss Math.  Here are just a small set of examples.

1. "Hi Sandy! How are you doing with the homework?" as a student settles in before class. Sometimes it'll be that it's going fine. Other times the student will be reminded to ask you a question about one of the problems.

2. When visiting a student who has been quiet... "Hi Amy, show me what you have for #7... That's a nice idea. You know we haven't seen you present in a while, would you be willing to share your ideas with the class later?"  Affirmation and success are great ways to get people more involved.

3. Or sometimes students are stressed about the course, and it isn't right to discuss personal issues in class. Perhaps sending an email is useful. "Dear Matt, I thought I'd follow up and see if you can make office hours this week to discuss your situation..."

4. You notice a group is not talking much. "Hi! I thought I'd come over here and encourage your group to work with each other. Take turns sharing how you did the problem..." Nudges can be used for accountability without raising the stakes, keeping things friendly and focused on the task at hand.

5. A student looks frustrated working on problem. Go over and check in. "Let's see if we can talk this through together..." Usually the student has something you can work with, and then setting them in a fruitful direction via a hint and some structure, can be help. Even just talking through the thought process can help and be calming. Reassurances that the struggle is part of the process also helps.

Teaching is a cultural activity. I've mentioned this repeatedly on this blog. Teaching is much more than following a script or clear presentations or putting people into groups. Beyond the framework are the human interactions and the teacher-as-coach idea, going past cheerleading. (The difference between cheerleading and coaching has been talked about on this blog HERE.)  Nudges (AKA good communication, attentiveness, and building rapport) helps complete the package.

To dig a bit deeper, an instructor could mention in the front of the class for students to email to setup appointments or that making mistakes is okay, and that can have some effect on some students. But following up and nudging students takes this up a notch. Imagine you're a student and there's good advice being mentioned by the instructor up at the front of class. That can be influential. But what if the instructor also comes to visit your group and checks in. That can be a far more impactful experience.

Nudges also send the message via your actions (not words) that you care. Words matter. So do actions. Saying and doing, can then be the proof to the students that their instructor cares and wants them to succeed.

So here's a nudge to readers to try some nudges. And share with us how it goes!