Purposeful Nudging as a Means to Engage Students in Learning

LEE Zheng-Wei, aLex
Department of Biochemistry, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (YLLSOM)

aLex talks about how he applies nudging communication strategies to more effectively engage his students during his course.

Lee, Z.-W. (2023, January 30). Purposeful nudging as a means to engage students in learning. Teaching Connections. https://blog.nus.edu.sg/teachingconnections/2023/01/30/purposeful-nudging-as-a-means-to-engage-students-in-learning/

Nudging refers to the purposeful approach of framing a learning environment in order to improve student outcomes (Damgaard & Nielsen, 2018). The idea, founded by Thaler and Sunstein (2008), defines a nudge communication as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (p. 6). It is a promising strategy in engaging students and conditioning students’ behaviour (Brown et al., 2022). A nudge communication appears personal as it gives room for students to consider and decide what they think would be important to them. In this reflection post, I share how I use a questionnaire to get to know my students and apply purposeful nudging to engage them in learning.


Nudging Approaches

A week prior to the first lesson of a course, I post a welcome message to all my students on the university’s learning management platform. I create a questionnaire that asks students to individually reflect on their respective prior learning experiences. Students are prompted to respond to it before our first lesson. As an instructor, by reading their responses I hope to get to know my students at a more personal level. Table 1 provides details of the questions and how I use the information furnished by students as nudges.


Table 1
List of pre-lesson questions and how the instructor utilised the information as nudges



Use of Info as Nudges

Module or subject you score well /badly, and the factor(s) that contributed to the outcome?

Students will be able to reflect on the positive and negative factors based on their prior learning experiences.

Typically, ‘being interested in the topic’, ‘consistent practices’, and ‘pleasant teaching and learning’ are positive reasons identified from their responses. Lacking ‘self-discipline’, ‘timely practices’ and ‘self-motivation’ are negative factors commonly reported by students. Exemplar responses are presented in the Table in Appendix A.


I summarise the responses and highlight the findings to students during our first lesson. I then emphasise the importance of soft skills (eg. communication, writing and self-management) in academic success.

Preference of mode of lesson delivery

Instructor will be able to understand and consider different preferences by students when planning lessons.

I acknowledge the different preferences of lesson delivery modes by students and adopt a blended design (see Figure in Appendix B). Videos delivering content are released weekly. Students have a-week to attempt tutorial problems before a solution video is posted. Thereafter, at live sessions, I go through discussions on key concepts to strengthen their understanding and clarify doubts they may have. 

Perceived behaviours in self- and peer learning

Students will be able to reflect on their own behaviour during learning.

The instructor will be able to recognise students’ inadequacies and promote positive behaviour.

I emphasise the importance of being disciplined and seeking clarification proactively at times. I also demonstrate the value of information-sharing and collaborative learning amongst peers when solving problems. The perceived behaviours of students in self- and peer learning is presented in the Figure in Appendix C.

Descriptions about self

Instructor will be able to get to know students.

I can relate to each student with their specific characteristics and individually address concerns they face in their learning. Particularly, I encourage those who are shy or lack confidence in expressing her-/himself.

Expectation on instructor to support one’s learning

Students will be able to express what matters to them in their learning.


With the info, the instructor will be more equipped to manage the teaching and learning processes.

I give them assurance that I will be supporting their learning throughout the course with scaffolding and clarification when in need. However, I also convey my expectations to students in terms of their academic performance during the course, emphasising that they should take ownership on their own learning.


Takeaways From Applying Nudging Approaches

1. When/How: The instructor releases the nudges in an organised manner (see Figure 1 for some classroom examples). The learning materials and instructions should be given to students following a logical learning path. Verbal communication in class or written announcements could be used to acknowledge and promote positive learning behaviours.Alex Lee Zheng Wei - Figure 1

Figure 1. Example of purposeful nudges released following a logical learning path using Microsoft Teams. The release of the tutorial videos are staggered and include descriptions that highlight main learning outcomes of the course.

2. Who: The instructor can refer to the nudges to identify students who require more contact. Students often feel worried when they ask questions or express themselves in front of their peers. Instructor can use the information to identify non-engaged students within the cohort, and initiate ways of encouraging them to participate. This communication can be done at a personal level verbally, or via the Microsoft Teams chat function or email. Additionally, the instructor should establish a learning environment where students perceive it to be a safe space to make mistakes and be willing to re-attempt practices.

3. What: Utilise nudges to personalise comments to students (see Figure 2 for some examples). Referencing a student’s description about self, the instructor could suggest to students the ways in which they can better manage their studies and offer encouragement regarding their progress. When students present their understanding or solution to a problem, the instructor should provide targeted feedback on individual misconceptions and consolidate valid learning points to all students.

Alex Lee Zheng Wei - Figure 2Figure 2. Examples of personalised feedback to students in their assignment submission. The feedback recognises the student’s progress and further encourages positive learning behaviours.


In adopting nudging approaches in my teaching over the past few years, I have received positive feedback from my students. They appreciated the effort made by the instructor “beyond expectations” to “build meaningful connections with the class” and “provide individual feedback catered to one’s strengths and weaknesses”. Using purposeful nudges, we as educators could be personable towards our students and continue to maintain our presence throughout their learning journey. The nudging strategy is a simple yet powerful way to sustain students’ engagement in learning.



Brown, A., Lawrence, J., Basson, M., & Redmond, P. (2022). A conceptual framework to enhance student online learning and engagement in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 41(2), 284–299. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2020.1860912

Damgaard, M. T., & Nielsen, H. S. (2018). Nudging in education. Economics of Education Review, 64, 313–342. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2018.03.008

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. In Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press.



Appendix A. Exemplar Responses by Students

Appendix B. Students’ Preferred Modes of Lesson Delivery

Appendix C. Perceived Behaviours by Students in Self- and Peer Learning


Alex Lee Zheng Wei - profile pic

LEE Zheng-Wei, aLex is a Lecturer, Medical Education at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He is also a Specialist Adult Educator (SAE) accredited by the Institute for Adult Learning Singapore. He was previously an Instructor at the Department of Biochemistry at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS, where he taught molecular and cell biology and scientific presentation at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. His current research interests focus on blended learning design, application of technology in learning and student’s engagement in learning.

aLex can be reached at zhengwei.lee@ntu.edu.sg.


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