Behaviour change theory or 'nudge theory' has been used successfully by policymakers to change public behaviour. This research asks whether it can be used in higher education setting to change student behaviour
The behavioural insight principle of reciprocity within nudge theory was found to prompt positive student career behaviour. However:
- The reciprocity principle is tricky to operationalise effectively.
- The social bond between 'nudger' and 'nudgee' is a key factor in nudging action.
- When enlisting reciprocity, consideration should be given to the underpinning contextual relationship.
- Reciprocity works best when based on a known and trusted partnership.
Thus behaviour change theory is applicable to employability within an HE context. However, to optimise its effectiveness:
- careers practitioners need to focus on building personable relationships with undergraduates/graduates
- such relationships have the potential to increase positive employability behaviour i.e., the take-up of careers services on offer.
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Using behaviour change theory to enhance employability
This research investigated whether behaviour change theory (used by governments to influence public behaviour) can be specifically applied to graduate and undergraduate behaviour to enhance employability.
In Study 1, graduates were sent an email implicitly containing many of the behavioural insight principles which were predicted to prompt graduates into signing up to the university's Graduate Support Package. The number of sign-ups was compared with a control group of graduates who received no behavioural insight email. Results showed no increase in sign-up as a consequence of the intervention email.
In Study 2, a cohort of undergraduates, having recently studied on an employability module, were requested to complete an evaluation survey. The survey request was sent via email and participants were randomly assigned to receive the email request either from a known tutor (implicitly representing the behavioural insight principle of reciprocity) or from the Careers Centre (control condition).
Survey completion rates were higher from the group who received the 'tutor' compared to 'organisation' email. Results from both studies combined suggest that the behavioural insight principle of reciprocity works best when based on a tangible partnership and is a key factor in nudging action. Therefore reciprocity as a principle, and the underpinning contextual relationship, should both be considered when promoting careers services to students.
About the report
This HECSU-funded research and subsequent report Using Behaviour Change Theory to Enhance Employability was undertaken and authored by Dr Helen Standage who works as a senior employability education manager at the University of Essex.
The aim of this project was to test whether behaviour change theory can be applied to undergraduate and graduate behaviour and enhance employability.1 Behaviour change or nudge theory uses subtle adjustments in communication to make significant changes in individual and/or group behaviour.2
This research focused on the behavioural insight (BI) principles of personalisation and reciprocity. Personalisation is where one's own name or a familiar name within an individual's social sphere will automatically attract attention. Reciprocity is where a good deed automatically elicits an obligation to return the favour and has been reported to close the gap between intention and action.3
Study 1 - introduction
The aim of this research was to use an existing and mutually respected relationship between academic departments and recent graduates as a basis for communication and apply BI techniques in order to encourage graduates without work to sign up to university graduate support package.
The method involved an email being sent to graduates from self-selected departments/schools across the university. The email was personalised by addressing each graduate by name and congratulating them on their degree (including the specific band awarded) plus it was signed by the head of department/school.
The email enlisted the reciprocity principle by the head of department/school wishing each individual student 'good luck' followed by a request to visit an electronically linked careers support package to further their employability.
Seven departments/schools agreed to be part of the project and were assigned to the experimental group. A remaining eight departments/schools that declined were assigned to the control group.
Sign-up to the graduate support package did not increase after receiving the intervention email, making the findings inconsistent with behaviour change theory.
The principles of personalisation and reciprocity were inherent within the intervention email but did not nudge graduates into taking up the employability support on offer. Specific reasons as to why the BI principles had no effect on behaviour are difficult to identify.
However, Letwin et al. (2015) stress that understanding the context of the behaviour is vital and building, testing and adapting interventions help with this process of refining understanding and pinpointing how to operationalise the principles so that they trigger the desired behaviour change.
Study 2 - introduction
Given the null findings from Study 1, a secondary study was conducted, which focused on the nature of the human relationship between the 'nudger' and 'nudgee'. A sample of first year literature students, who had taken an employability module as part of their degree were emailed a survey requesting module feedback.
Half of the students were randomly selected to receive the survey completion request via email from their employability tutors, with whom they had built up a positive relationship. The remaining 50% received an email signed off, less personally, by the Careers Centre at the university.
Based on the reciprocity principle, it was predicted that students receiving the email from known and supportive tutors would comply with the request to a greater extent than students who received the request from an organisation (Careers Centre).
Survey completion rates were higher for the group who received the request from their tutor compared with those who received the request from a detached organisation.
The results demonstrate that reciprocity was evident as students completed the survey in exchange for receiving support and learning from their tutor. Students had built up a relationship with their tutors characterised by support, trust and familiarity and, as one good turn deserves another, responded positively to their tutor's request at a subsequent point in time.
In contrast, students who received the unknown source email, which did not provide the loyalty aspect of the student/tutor relationship, were less likely to respond positively to the survey completion request.
Results of Studies 1 and 2 suggest that the reciprocity principle is key in nudging behaviour but tricky to operationalise correctly. What seems important is the relationship upon which the reciprocity is based.
In Study 1, reciprocity relied upon the social connection between the head of department and the graduate. While the graduate may have had utmost respect for a senior member of the university, it is doubtful that the relationship was personable or evoked any form of loyalty, and the null results of Study 1 accord with this explanation.
In contrast, the reciprocity principle in Study 2 was based upon a more substantial relationship. Students and tutors in small classes had worked together on a ten-week module and thus had time to build up a rapport and cooperative social bond. This meaningful tie served as a firm basis from which reciprocity could be easily triggered within the experimental manipulation.
This research has shown that behaviour change theory is applicable to employability within an HE context. Findings suggest that the BI principle of reciprocity is more effective when based upon a known and trusted relationship between the 'nudger' and 'nudgee' (e.g. tutor vs. student).
Thus the recommendation for HE employability policymakers is to place emphasis and resources into the building of personable relationships between careers practitioners and under/graduates in order to maximise the take up of services on offer.
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Using behaviour change theory to enhance employability
- Letwin, O., Halpern, D., Service, O., Hanes, S., Hallsworth, M., Algate, F., …& Gallagher, R. (July 2015). Update Report 2013-2015. Retrieved 5 April 2016 from http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/publications/the-behavioural-insights-team-update-report-2013-2015/
- Service, O., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D. Algate, F., Gallagher, R., Nguyen, S., …. & Kirkman, E, (April 2014). EAST Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. Retrieved 5 April 2016 from http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/publications/east-four-simple-ways-to-apply-behavioural-insights/
- Thaler, R., & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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