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Nudge theory in an employability context

August 2020

Peer-to-peer mentoring can increase student engagement with careers services and successfully nudge and encourage students to take positive career-related action, writes Elissa Day

Since 2018, the University of Liverpool has been home to the innovative peer-to-peer Career Studio, a space where trained student career coaches answer career-related queries, and work through applications, or even career exploration exercises, with their fellow students. The coaches are additionally supported by a large team of full-time career experts, and together makes up the comprehensive Careers & Employability Team.

The studio operates on a drop-in basis, where students can visit without an appointment during its opening hours and speak to a career coach. Interactions are short and sharp, usually focused on one task at a time. Each interaction made in the Career Studio is recorded and assigned a zone:

  • Apply - for job applications, CVs, mock interviews etc.
  • Connect - for interactions focused on building networks.
  • Explore - for students in the early stages of their career journey and unsure of what to do next.

We were keen to explore the impact of peer-to-peer interaction in this context, and thus successfully bid for funding from HECSU to examine the benefits of peer engagement in an employability setting.  On the Friday of the week following a student's visit to the studio, they were emailed a survey, which asked them a range of questions, including if and which actions they had taken following their visit. The answers from this then formed a key part of our research.

77% of student visitors noted that they were 'likely' or 'very likely' to ‘engage with other areas of the university' following their visit to the studio

As an incentive, students were entered into a draw to win an Amazon voucher at the end of each month, should they complete the survey. During the survey timeframe from 30 September 2019 to 13 March 2020 we received 267 viable responses from 2,590 unique visitors. From this, we found that 91% of recipients took some kind of career-related action. Of these, 56% took the actions recommended, while 35% took the recommended actions, as well as additional, career-related actions as well.

This concept of taking action following a visit, and a prompt of a survey for the Careers & Employability Team to record their actions, comes from the concept of Nudge Theory, defined as follows: 'A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be cheap and easy to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level [hoping that people then choose fruit over unhealthy alternatives] counts as a nudge' (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009: 6).

The theory is widely used in a higher education context but, due to the uniqueness of the employability offer at the University of Liverpool, has rarely been used in this context before. One study from the University of Edinburgh, however, found that using an online platform which showed users vacancies which were specific to their interests as a 'nudge', led to an increase in call backs to job interviews, especially in those who had previously not searched as widely (Briscese and Tan, 2018: 11; Belot, Kircher and Muller, 2015).

Indeed, the theory has been considerably successful around the world (Kosters and van der Heijden, 2015: 283), in a range of industries, including law and medicine (Kosters and van der Heijden, 2015: 284), for example, when encouraging potential organ donors (Johnson and Goldstein, 2003), or using personalised text messages when chasing up court fines (Gallagher, 2012).

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Exploring the benefits of implementing peer support principles into careers and employability delivery

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At the University of Liverpool, short, sharp interactions with career coaches prompt a student to take a singular, or small number of actions, which stops them being overwhelmed, and encourages them to undertake practical actions which will have an immediate impact, such as creating a CV in order to apply for jobs, or organising a mock interview for an upcoming real one. These interactions replace a traditional careers consultation interview, but are supported by ongoing faculty work, where careers staff deliver in-curriculum sessions. In this way, students are 'nudged' from a number of angles.

While the level of survey response gives us a good picture of student actions undertaken following a visit to the studio, the 'silent majority' cannot be underestimated here. It is likely that many students will only present as being impacted by the nudge in years to come, e.g. 20% of students took the action of editing or creating a CV after their visit, and this will likely translate to job applications in the future. Evaluation of nudge theory is still relatively new (Kosters and van der Heijden, 2015: 287), and, as the Career Studio continues to go from strength to strength, and student actions become results (e.g. obtaining a graduate job or gaining a place on a postgraduate course), more data will become available. Indeed, as noted by Kosters and van der Heijden (2015), the theory has worked in a range of different contexts.

Finally, 77% of student visitors noted that they were 'likely' or 'very likely' to ‘engage with other areas of the university' following their visit to the studio. As such, with our continued work and future research on this topic, we are likely to see a real impact of nudging on student visitors in the next few years.

Notes

  1. Belot, M., Kircher, P. and Muller, P. 2015. ‘Providing Advice to Job Seekers at Low Cost: An Experimental Study on On-Line Advice’. London, Centre for Economic Policy Research.
  2. Briscese, G. and Tan, C. 2018. ‘Applying Behavioural Insights to Labour Markets’. Sydney, The Behavioural Insights Team.
  3. Heitmann, M., Goldstein, D. and Johnson, E and H,. (2008). Nudge Your Customers Toward Better Choices. Harvard Business Review. 86. 99-106. Gallagher.
  4. Van der Heijden, J. and Kosters, M., 2015. From Mechanism to Virtue: Evaluating Nudge-Theory. SSRN Electronic Journal, [online] Available at: <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2620082> [Accessed 13 July 2020].

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