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Nudge theory and learning

'Nudge' theory is a concept from behavioural economics which states that, whilst people like the freedom to make their own decisions, when given options, most people will take the option that seems easier, more timely, more attractive, or more socially acceptable. The most effective 'nudges' combine one or more of these factors. Nudge theory recognises that people have choice - and it is way more effective to influence and persuade than use harsh or over-zealous techniques that are likely to make people push back.

It’s not only used in marketing

Since nudges are concerned with behaviour change, it’s not surprising that nudge theory is commonly used in sales and marketing. For example, we’re all familiar with the fast food industry where staff were trained to ask, ‘Would you like fries with that’ to nudge customers to buy more.

However, nudges have also been used in areas you may not expect:

The potential applications for nudge theory are limitless!

What about using nudges for learning?

At its core, nudge theory is about motivating people to change their behaviour. Learning is challenging – it involves real effort to create new neural pathways in the brain when learning something new. Making the decision to make the effort to learn something new can be made easier through nudge theory – by making it easier, more timely, more attractive or more socially acceptable to learn. 

1. For overcoming the forgetting curve by making it easy to learn

Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve is the hypothesis that memory retention decays over time. Learners need spaced repetition of content in order to retain what they’ve learnt. Making it easier to revise new learning is one way to nudge repetition and practice. For example, placing new information in locations where people will see it as a normal part of their day is a great way to nudge learning. Visual job aids in commercial kitchens, credit-card-sized WHS reminder cards, a ‘sticky’ post on the team online communication channel, or even a post-it note stuck to a computer monitor are all examples of learning nudges.

2. Just-in-time learning as a timely nudge

Timeliness is important when motivating people to learn. Rather than requiring people to take courses in advance, using just-in-time learning strategies makes it easy for staff to access specific learning content when they actually need it. Software applications (such as Adobe Creative Suite) integrate learning brief tutorials into the actual software, so that it’s available as needed. Likewise, emerging technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) can be used to provide a virtual layer of performance support on top of real-life objects, making job-specific learning available at the touch of a button.

3. Enticing people to learn 

People are more likely to be motivated to learn if the resources are attractive to them. This is nothing new; Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction (1965) states that capturing the learner’s attention is a pre-requisite for any learning activity. At BSI, our creative team specialise in engaging learners’ attention through humour, storytelling, emotion, animation, video and beautiful graphic design. Another way to make learning more attractive is to gamify it by including increasing challenges (with levels that unlock with achievement), rewards (such as digital badges), and social competition (such as leader boards).

4. Making learning collaborative and social

People are more likely to be persuaded to learn when they can see others doing it, when it’s socially desirable, or where there is social status attached to the learning attainment. Conversely, they will avoid learning if it’s perceived by peers to be useless, boring or otherwise undesirable.

When designing learning experiences, it’s important to consider the social aspect of how people will see and promote the learning with their peers. When people see ‘champions’ in their team using the new learning, they’re more likely to also participate in the learning.

Likewise, putting people into supportive groups (e.g. Communities of practice or Working out loud groups) helps sustain motivation to continue with learning over a period of time. 


These are just a few examples of how nudge theory can be used in learning. If you’d like to talk to us more about how we use nudge theory, or any other aspect of digital workplace learning, drop us a line.

Simon Dewar
Managing Director