Nudge for Learning Series Part 3 of 5:


Nudging More Efficient Training Sessions

Once participants are enrolled in a training session, our job as trainers is to help them learn efficiently and boost their performance. No doubt, experienced trainers are intuitively aware of many tactics that behavioral science can bring.  But do they really apply them consistently?

Using reciprocity to engage

If someone gives you something, then you intuitively know that you owe them something in return.

Professor Robert Cialdini has conducted several experiments to demonstrate the impact of reciprocity.  In one experiment he demonstrated the power of reciprocity, relying on an anchoring mechanism. He initially asked for a major commitment from participants, which acted as an anchor.   Later, he reduced the ask, which served as a form of kindness and successfully activated feelings of reciprocity. 

So if you want your trainees to read one academic research paper per week (and we know that reading a research paper is a huge effort for non-academics!), you may want to initially ask them to read two papers.  You can then be kind and allow them to read only the one they prefer, amongst the initial two. They will probably end up reading it, in reciprocity to your kindness.

Find the right level of difficulty

In a famous experiment, researchers demonstrated that the sense of effort required by a task influences people’s appreciation and ownership of the result achieved .  This is called the IKEA effect, as people who assemble an IKEA storage box on their own tend to value it more than those who were just asked to inspect an identical pre-assembled box.  In other words, effort brings value.

It’s important to note that there are limits to this. Participants who spent a lot of time constructing the box or those who failed to construct the box placed a lower value on the object. As a trainer, we have to find the correct balance between making things easy, yet also requiring some effort.

How do we find the right balance when designing training sessions? Again, there is no universal answer.  We simply need to experiment according to the behavioral science mantra: test, learn, adapt.

Too easy vs. Too hard Image credit: Adrien Liard

Be positive about learners

Researchers administered intelligence tests to children. They then told teachers who were the most gifted students and asked them not to treat these children differently from the others. But not surprisingly, by the end of the year, the students identified as the most gifted had performed the best.


However, there’s a twist to this story:  In fact, these children were not the most gifted.  Instead, they had been chosen randomly.  Thus, their superior performance was not tied to test scores, but rather to what’s called the Pygmalion Effect, which says that having positive thoughts and self-perceptions is self-fulfilling.  And the Pygmalion Effect works in many ways. For example, telling learners that their trainers are the cream of the crop will make them more successful in learning.

If you put people in a positive mindset, they will perform better.  In fact, happy doctors were shown to make an accurate diagnosis almost twice as quickly as their colleagues.  Students who were asked to recall the happiest day of their lives (just before a math exam) performed better than others[1].  So being happy is one key to being successful.

Provide the right physical environment

Put some plants in a classroom, and your trainees’ learning will progress by 10 to 14%[2]. Find the right decoration in a room, with inspiring icons on a poster, and you will stimulate your learners to achieve.  Find the right color and you can boost creativity[3].  Without question, there’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that the physical environment influences learning.

English researchers created an acronym SALIENT[4] to summarize the physical factors that can influence wellbeing and performance at work. It stands for Sound, Air, Light, Image, Ergonomics, Nature and Tint.  This is a great roadmap for small changes that can make a big difference.  So please use it.

This article is inspired by the book: ‘Nudge et autres coups de pouce pour mieux apprendre’,written by the author and published in French, Pearson éd. 2020.

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[1] Achor, S. (2010).The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Virgin Books.

[2] Raanaas, R. K., Evensen, K. H., Rich, D., Sjøstrøm, G., & Patil, G. (2011). Benefits of indoor plants on attention capacity in an office setting. Journal of Environmental Psychology31(1), 99-105.

[3] Mehta, R., & Zhu, R. J. (2009). Blue or red? Exploring the effect of color on cognitive task performances. Science, 323(5918), 1226-1229

[4] Dolan, P., Foy, C., & Smith, S. (2016). The SALIENT checklist: gathering up the ways in which built environments affect what we do and how we feel. Buildings6(1), 9