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Predictably irrational: decision-making in teaching

I’m busy reading Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, and wanted to share some of the takeaway points that made me think about how I could change my own teaching practice. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I may update this post when I do.

The premise of the book is that we aren’t always the rational beings we believe we are, and that there are powerful emotional factors that cause us to make decisions that are often counterintuitive. If we understand how these factors predictably make us less rational, we might be able to affect greater self-control over our lives, and be better off for it.

One of the ideas that really got my attention was how we respond to social and market norms in our everyday interactions with other people. When you think about it, a lot of what we do as teachers has nothing to do with market norms i.e. we don’t work the hours we do because we’re paid appropriately. Social norms mean that we go above and beyond what is required of us possibly because we have a sense of shared purpose or a belief that we’re contributing to something more important than money. In other words, people are motivated to work harder when they believe they’re in a socially-orientated relationship, rather than one in which market values dominate. Ariely also conducted experiments showing that when market and social norms collide, relationships that were based on the social norms are disrupted and can take years to rebuild. This has implications when we start thinking about building communities of practice in our professional domains, and it seems that we would do well to base our interactions on a shared sense of purpose, rather than financial reward. I know from recent conversations with students with whom I have a good relationship, that they try harder to impress me with their work, and worry less about the mark they receive, than they do with other lecturers who don’t engage with them at all. For me, this is a powerful incentive to engage with students not only on a cognitive level, but on a social level as well.

Ariely also shows clearly how emotionally heightened states cause us to make bad decisions for ourselves and for those around us. How many times have we made a bad decision when we’re angry? When I think about it (and if I’m honest with myself), I know that I’ve been guilty of being a stricter assessor when I’m in a bad mood, than when I’m having a good day. I know that my marking isn’t as objective as I’d like it to be, but to be shown the evidence of how much it influences my behaviour has made me commit to avoid marking students’ work when I’m upset.

When discussing procrastination, Ariely makes the observation that when students are given absolute submission dates for assignments that are appropriately spaced, they do better than students who are given flexibility in determining their own submission dates. I know that recently I’ve started including draft deadlines into assignments to “encourage” students to begin work their on assignments early, and to continue improving their work up until the final submission date. Last year I saw students who participated in the drafting process score significantly higher marks than those who chose to submit only one, final version of the assignment. Students will procrastinate if left to themselves, and I guess we need to decide if we’re OK with that, or to rather try and figure out how to more effectively guide them through the process of making regular improvement through regular feedback.

The final point I wanted to highlight is from a TED presentation that Ariely gave (although it might be in the book too), where he finds that students are less likely to cheat after thinking about the 10 commandments. It turns out that signing an honour code might not be as pointless as I’d previously thought.

You can also see Ariely discuss some of his ideas at these 2 TED talks:

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.