How to 'nudge' your learners towards success in L&D

Reading time: 10m

AuthorNatalie Ann HolborowDigital Content Specialist
Reading Time10 minutes

In learning and development, you will often find yourself faced with the challenge of building and maintaining engagement with corporate learning. You’re not alone: last year, Linkedin’s survey of over 6,000 respondents revealed that 35% of L&D professionals are looking for new ways to boost learner engagement.

Perhaps you’re painstakingly seeking ways of encouraging positive learning behaviours for time-poor employees. Or maybe, despite investing in that state-of-the-art new learning management system (LMS), you still face disappointingly low login and completion rates for training modules.

How can you gently influence behaviour without compromising the modern learners’ sense of independence?

Let us introduce you to nudge theory.

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What is nudge theory?

In a previous blog post, we looked at behavioural science and the idea that behaviour can be shaped and moulded by external and internal stimuli. Nudge theory, commonly associated with behavioural science, suggests that you can design ‘choice environments’ that enable you to subtly influence the behaviour and decision-making of others. This is achieved via strategically-placed ‘nudges’ to prompt particular actions.

What is a ‘nudge’? Put simply, a nudge is a subtle action that encourages people to make a particular decision. In the 2014 paper ‘EAST: Four Simple Ways to Apply Behavioural Insights’, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) found that nudging people owing Courts Service fines with a text message 10 days before bailiffs were due doubled the value of payments made without the need for further investigation.

Can we harness the power of nudge theory to drive positive behaviours in L&D?

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How to apply nudge theory in L&D

Nudge theory can encourage your employees to learn, and embed positive behaviours that will help improve performance and positively impact your organisation’s bottom-line.

Working with the British government, BIT has extensively researched nudge theory and achieved notable successes. Here, we will use the basis of their EAST (Easy, Attractive, Timely, Social) framework and apply this to the learning context.

1. Make it easy

You can nudge learners towards the learning content by organising it in a user-friendly and intuitive system. If accessing the content is perceived as a hassle, any nudges you create will fail to have an impact. Consider any barriers that are stopping your learners from getting to what they need. Could you simplify the process? If you’re using an LMS, consider your sign-in process. Is it single sign on (SSO) like the Thinqi learning system? This authentication method enables people to use one set of login credentials for multiple applications. Is the system intuitive and easy-to-use, with clear direction on the tasks learners need to complete? Is it mobile-accessible?

Think also about harnessing the power of defaults. For example, how long have you remained with the same default tariff for your energy or broadband provider despite potentially missing out on cheaper options elsewhere? Did you put it off due to the inconvenience of searching and switching? In a learning context, having employees automatically enrolled onto learning pathways relevant to their personal learning journey ensures they are always clear on the next steps—minus any perceived hassle.

Your messaging should also be clear and simple. This means avoiding lengthy emails and reams of complex instructions. Set clear and achievable learning outcomes and include concise instructions when setting tasks or assignments. Want to find out how to write more effective learning outcomes? See our previous blog post ‘Could your learning outcomes be better in L&D?’ .

2. Make it attractive

Time-poor employees can easily fall out of routine with learning. To nudge them into returning, your offering needs to be made attractive. This doesn’t mean you need to seek out a learning system loaded with all the latest bells and whistles. You still need to put learning at the forefront and see technology as the enabler. This is about making your learning offering stand out against the noise. As stated in the BIT paper, individuals are more likely to undertake a particular action if they have an incentive to do so–for example, in government, tax subsidies and grants can encourage particular behaviours. In the learning context, reward mechanisms such as badges and gamification can likewise draw in more hesitant learners.

Stuck? You don’t need to have a degree in marketing, but you can borrow five simple tactics used by marketers to spark interest, boost learner participation and raise the profile of learning in your organisation. Let’s consider the AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) model used by marketers:

  • Awareness - What actions are you taking to raise awareness of your learning programmes (e.g. emails, adverts, recommendations)? Does your L&D have a particular ‘brand’ or recognisable tone of voice?

  • Interest - Once you have people’s attention, you need to maintain their interest. Is your learning content personal and relevant to your audience? Do titles and summaries pique their curiosity? Can you craft a compelling message to promote it?

  • Desire - The beauty of L&D is that your audience is internal, meaning you can get to know your learners and collect key information through questionnaires, surveys, interviews or just an informal chat. This will ensure your messaging is relevant and effective. Remember to communicate value—what are the benefits that will make people want to sign up?

  • Action - Now it’s time to drive people to take action. Create a sense of urgency with a clear call-to-action; for example: ‘Last few places remaining—sign up today!’ or use a social nudge such as ‘Sign up today and join 1,000 learners taking their sales career to the next level’. Include a link so they are able to take the appropriate action in the moment.

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Take a good look at the content you plan to make available. What do learners really need to know in order to achieve the learning outcomes? Does that lengthy article you plan to share really provide value or is it simply an unnecessary extra to bulk out your resources? Remove anything which is not immediately relevant and consider a range of options for your learning content. These could include:

  • Online learning modules
  • Assignments
  • Discussion forums
  • Videos
  • Articles
  • Audio content

For example, Thinqi allows you to incorporate many of the above examples in the form of a digestible playlist that’s ready to access at point-of-need. It’s also designed to provide an appealing and personalised learning experience, with recommended content tailored to individual learning pathways.

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3. Make it social

Humans are social creatures and are constantly influenced by those around them. How can we harness this to help drive desired behaviours?

If people see that the majority of people take a certain action, they’re likely to follow suit. BIT ran a series of trials with HMRC where they included factual statements in their messaging. These messages stated that most people in the recipients’ local area had already paid their tax. The result?

£1.2 million more being paid to HMRC in the first month than the control group.

In the learning context, consider using networks of learning communities to facilitate discussion and influence positive behaviour. Thinqi provides dedicated networking and discussion spaces to ensure people have one central place to access formal, informal and collaborative learning.

Commitment devices are a powerful way to bridge the gap between intended behaviour and action. Consider this example, where BIT developed an intervention with Jobcentre Plus that introduced commitment devices between job seekers and their advisors. Job seekers were asked to write down commitments to job-seeking activities for the coming week. A randomised controlled trial showed that the intervention led to an increase of those off benefits. Professor Peter M. Gollwitzer’s study on implementation intentions found similar results in university students who were asked to identify two achievable goals for the upcoming Christmas break. Half the students were asked to outline a specific implementation plan to accomplish their goal. The result was that two-thirds of those who set implementation intentions achieved their goal, whereas most of those who didn’t failed. Consider employing this method in mentoring sessions or performance reviews, breaking actions down into small, manageable and agreed steps.

Reviews and ratings on learning content within the learning system are also powerful tools for social proof and help guide learners to the content worth engaging with.

4. Make it timely

Finally, consider the timing of your nudges. Sending out email reminders for an overdue assignment is going to be far less effective if sent at 7pm on a Saturday than 2pm on a Wednesday, for example.

Perhaps you recently ran a workshop that had excellent levels of engagement. People were actively participating in discussions, forthcoming with group activities and gave great feedback. This would have been the perfect opportunity to send out a timely notification the next day to recommend the next workshop. Hooking people’s interest when they’re most receptive means they’re more likely to respond positively.

In summary...

Used intelligently, nudge theory is a powerful way to gently encourage people to continuously learn and develop.

Consider why people want to learn. What are their career ambitions? What skills do they want to improve to help them perform better? Finally, what role does L&D play in supporting the strategic goals of the organisation as a whole?

By setting up achievable goals, building a support network of coaches, line managers and peers, you can nudge people towards success.


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