A small nudge for the learner; a giant push to build a productive habit

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Is there a connection between the image of a fly and learning? There is!

Enter the urinal at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. This is where you will see the famous fly, strategically placed inside the bowl. Result? The unsanitary target helped to ensure that relieving men hit the mark and got the message. The airport achieved an 80% reduction in spillage and an 8% reduction in cost. Talk of learning on the fly!

This is an example of nudge behavior that Richard Thaler (economist and Nobel laureate) cites in the path-breaking book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness he co-authored with Cass Sunstein (legal scholar). There have been more instances where a little nudge has brought about a big positive change in behavior.

Nudge in a nutshell
The book defines nudge as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” Could we also apply that definition to any microlearning program that alters behavior for better health, wealth, and happiness?

There can be a sharply worded directive from the management embedded with implied threats to get employees to behave. Or, as Thaler puts it, “you can design their choices to ‘nudge’ them toward better decisions. They’re still free to do as they want, even to act self-destructively, but you’ve increased the odds that they will act sensibly instead.”

People make mistakes, more so when under stress. So, organizations should set up choices in such a way that takes advantage of the science of decision-making.

Let us borrow the suggestions from nudge theory and apply those to microlearning. To help people make learn and act better, give them clear, frequent feedback. For example, when people are interacting with an app on safety, go beyond the correct choices, and let them understand the implications of their choices. Thaler suggests a RECAP approach to decision-making: “Record” how a chosen plan of action works, “Evaluate” it, and “Compare Alternative Prices.”

Knowledge of how we decide is of great importance to every learning professional. People go astray in different ways, thanks to their biases and the rules of thumb they tend to follow, says Thaler. Like these:

  • Anchoring
    A familiar fact influences later reasoning
  • Availability
    Ease of availability of information affects risk judgment. Newspapers have reported a surge in inquiries for health insurance products post-COVID.
  • Representativeness
    The perceived similarity to a past event suggests non-existent patterns.
  • Irrational optimism
    “90% of all drivers believe they have above-average skills.”
  • Status quo bias
    Reluctance to accept change. An incentive would help to offset the inertia.
  • Projection bias
    If the focus is on a 90% survival rate as against a 10% mortality rate, more are likely to agree to surgery.

Microlearning is an effective model to deliver little nudges just at the right time across various devices.

Micro habits matter

Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results also advocates the power of small steps to develop transformational habits. A mini habit is the smallest possible iteration of a positive habit (“like one push-up”). It is “too small to fail” because it requires only a tiny bit of willpower, and you quickly accumulate a record of success.

Guise cites a research study at Duke University that concluded that habits make up 45% of human behavior. People form habits over time through repeated actions. The brain develops neural pathways, conduits that carry messages from one area of the brain to another. Repeating a behavior strengthens the pathway associated with that activity.

The organization that seeks to change a well-entrenched behavior would do well to develop a microlearning program to cultivate a mini habit that incrementally pushes employees towards a radical change without straining anyone’s will power while eating away at the inertial resistance.

MIT researchers have found that habit formation is driven by neurons that represent the cost of a habit, as well as the reward (neurons must make good traders!). Every habit is a neurological loop that starts with a cue, triggering a routine that ultimately yields a reward.

The cue could be a prominent sign at the entrance. The routine should ideally start soon after the cue without any pain. And the reward should be instantaneous as in the successful completion of a game. Yes, it makes sense to clearly establish “what’s in it for me” right at the outset.

Learning, shrunk
It would be difficult to get to Amsterdam right away, but the point is no longer the fly. There have been experiments with other objects (a tiny tree, a bee, a little flag) and all of those apparently achieved the desired reduction in the nasty “splashback”.

Now that we have a good understanding of how the human mind works and how habits are formed, the knowledge of the former can be used to develop or modify the latter. Unfortunately, we tend to spend more time worrying about the length of the micro than the best way to bring about learning.

Microlearning is a great science that can deliver nifty results. As the neural pathways reroute themselves, the productivity numbers too would change.

We would not like to suggest that microlearning is the proverbial fly in the urinal. Nevertheless, one cannot swat away an 80% reduction in an unproductive, unhealthy habit and an 8% uptick in savings. Microlearning can deliver that and more.

Has this got your mind buzzing? Want to gain a bird’s-eye view of microlearning? Download your free copy of Microlearning: Go Beyond the Hype.

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