While writing my recent blog on “Undergraduate Academic Research Writing in Groups: Pitfalls and Strategies for Success”, the issue of nudging students undertaking group projects, the mentor–mentee context, and the role of supervisors in guiding their students came up. Instead of focusing on using strict supervisor-driven regulations, I consider using the "nudge theory” concept as the best approach.
The nudge theory was introduced by Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein in their book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” (Yale University Press, 2008). It uses a behavioural science approach to influence actions, without depending on punishment, legislation, or enforcement. It is based on the idea that human beings sometimes act irrationally, driven by some identified cognitive biases. Instead of applying a rule to force people into making the right choices, the theory advocates for a change of environment, so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered in favour of a desired outcome.
Nudge theory uses a behavioural science approach to influence actions without depending on punishment, legislation, or enforcement.
Here, I discuss some strategies that can be explored to create a favourable environment that nudges students towards successful academic work and how specific cognitive biases can be addressed to shape students’ expertise in working together as a group. While Thaler and Sunstein (2008) touched on the need to enhance the environment, the following specific examples of environmental changes come from my own experiences of working in research groups, and I believe that they are useful in enhancing general outcomes.
Defining and Changing the Environment for a Research Project
The first thing that students need for collaboration and good productivity is the environment within which they will interact over the course of a project. Thus, defining the environment at an early stage will help clarify expectations and give credence to nudging strategies.
Setting a Periodic (e.g. Weekly) Meeting Time: Students may find it difficult to set timetables to help them progress their academic work, and even when they do, it is sometimes hard to adjust when there inew agenda items come up. Setting a weekly meeting time will help group members manage their time, knowing when to attend such events so that they can plan time to dedicate to their research work.
Using Trackable Online Collaborative Resources: It is vital to involve all members in collaborating on an online trackable platform that allows for transparency. Thus, all members can track and know how much a specific group member has contributed to the progress of their work. This will make it hard for students who may want to hide behind the numbers to avoid their responsibilities. Also, this approach solves issues with inconveniences related to setting specific times and places for physical meetings.
Dividing Projects among Members Based on Timelines: It is easier for students to work together when specific aspects are allocated to each group member, especially with timelines attached. This gives students the ability to work on and present a particular project within a given timeframe. It also prevents leaving the workload to one person and allows every member to contribute fairly to the progress of their joint research.
Having Periodic Evaluation Meetings: Just like how real-world projects have a baseline, midline, and end-line assessments, it is vital to have periodic internal assessments as to how the project is progressing. This will allow members to share their challenges and address them early instead of waiting until the last minute, which would result in a lack of productivity among the members or the team as a whole.
Giving Room for Sharing, Critiquing, and Selecting the Best Ideas: Making all group members feel that their views are important is one thing that drives them to make contributions during group meetings. This is why it is good to create an environment that allows every member to share their ideas, allowing others to critique their arguments. This approach could help train young researchers who can analyse ideas critically before agreeing to or accepting them.
Agreeing on a List of Research Reference Materials to Use: Team members could be unaware of certain best approaches to conducting their research. Agreeing at an early time and sharing referencing materials among members can help reduce the amount of time used for revising the work and enhance the productivity of the team as a whole. To make it easier, students can take short research courses like those run by AuthorAID, watch a specific list of comprehensive research videos online, or even refer to research methods and materials they were taught earlier.
Cognitive Biases, Project Outcomes, and Application of Nudge Theory
In the Thaler and Sunstein book, the authors noted that there are five cognitive biases based on which people make mistakes when taking decisions. These biases include anchoring, availability heuristics, representativeness heuristics, status quo bias, and herd mentality. Using examples, I discuss how nudge theory can be used in the research space, focusing on the definition of each of the biases and ways to address them to achieve desired outcomes.
Anchoring Bias: This is people's tendency to give disproportionate weight to the first piece of information they receive in a decision-making context. This first piece of information may not be true but it could be the basis of their perceptions and future behaviours. Students may anchor on the idea that research is difficult and complex, which may be true when the research environment is not conducive to productivity. We need to make students aware that research is a systematic process that can be simple, and trigger the mechanics that will make the process smoother and more interesting, such as byproviding the requisite resources.
We need to make students aware that research is a systematic process that can be simple, and trigger the mechanics that will make the process smoother and more interesting, such as providing the requisite resources.
Availability Heuristic Bias: This talks about drawing immediate conclusions based on easily accessed information from the mind. An example is when students focus on a few general statements, without conducting research and critically evaluating the issues. To change this behaviour, we can select a fundamental list of literature sources for members to consult. It is also relevant that there should be room to constructively critique the arguments proposed by every member of the group, so that false generalisations are not made and do not take root.
Representativeness Heuristic Bias: This occurs when two situations are mistakenly correlated based on the probability of an outcome. In this case, students tend to think that a particular group member may be cut out for high-quality research work, but not them. However, we want every member to contribute, irrespective of their prior knowledge, and given the resources provided, everyone should be able to add new knowledge to their collaborative work. This can be addressed by sharing the work among members with specific timelines for peer-to-peer review and discussion.
Status Quo Bias: This bias causes people to resist change and leave things the way they are, which may be caused by fear of leaving one’s comfort zone. Sometimes, research involves challenging fundamental beliefs or producing results different from those found in other contexts. It is not enough to just repeat explanations from others; instead, allow for discussions to explore how the issues relate to the context at hand.
Herd Mentality Bias: This happens when the majority opinion is seen to be more important than individually held opinions. Because of the huge recent patronage of large language models such as ChatGPT to develop write-ups, most team members tend to abuse this by generating discussions from prompts on these platforms when academically rigorous work requires researchers to engage with the extant literature and use it to generate arguments. To address this, members could be required to cite the fundamental articles collated at the initial stage and defend the points made at internal meetings.
Conclusions and Implications
Universities or supervisors have to abide by regulations regarding research contributions as sole author or in a group. For undergraduate project work, what is most needed is not enforcement of such regulations but the quest to drive motivation towards research internally by students through the creation of a conducive research environment.
I have shown how the research environment can be aligned to address the cognitive biases that may make students suffer from low motivation to contribute to research. I believe that these ideas also apply to a mentor–mentee research context. These ideas should not be applied in silos but holistically, to support project execution.
Rhoda Ladjer Akuaku is currently the Secretary for the AuthorAID Ghana Hub and a Fellow of the Aspire Institute, a programme founded at Harvard University. She is also an administrative volunteer at the University of Chicago Medicine, Illinois, USA. Her recent research focuses on the drivers of TikTok usage and their effect on academic performance. She is also a sustainability associate with the Dataking Research Lab. Rhoda is a recent graduate of the University of Ghana and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Education.