Leveraging Behavioural Science for Students

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In recent years, the use of behavioural science has gained increasing recognition and importance across various domains. Grounded in the understanding of how people make decisions and behave in different contexts, behavioural science offers valuable insights into the factors influencing human behaviour. 

Despite behavioural science impacting our day to day lives (particularly as consumers), the adoption of these principles within universities is somewhat limited.  Based on our own research and experience, we believe the application of behavioural science principles does have a place – and if used ethically and soundly, the ability to bring about significant change.  

As universities face increasing pressure to demonstrate value to students, parents, and policymakers, we believe there is a growing demand for evidence-based strategies that can drive positive outcomes. Behavioural science provides a framework for evaluating the effectiveness of interventions and optimising resources to achieve desired outcomes. 

This article seeks to discuss the application of theory into practice – drawing on case studies, including our own – proposing that leveraging behavioural science holds immense potential for universities.

Applying Behavioural science in universities 

Behavioural science draws on insights from psychology, sociology, economics, neuroscience, and other disciplines to understand how people (individuals and groups) make decisions, interact with each other, and navigate their environments.

Nudge theory, also known as behavioural economics or choice architecture, is a concept within behavioural science that suggests small changes in the way choices are presented can influence people’s behavior in predictable ways, without restricting their freedom of choice. The term “nudge” was popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.[1]

The core idea behind nudge theory is that individuals often make decisions that are not entirely rational and are influenced by cognitive biases, social norms, and environmental cues (more below). Nudging strategies offer a subtle yet powerful approach to behavioural interventions – and we believe that these can be used to gently steer students towards making positive choices without restricting their freedom of choice. 

Understanding Student Behaviour Shapes Outcomes

Understanding student behavior is key to being able to identify barriers to specific problems (e.g. for example, academic success, such as procrastination, lack of motivation, or mental health concerns) and then the design and implementation of targeted interventions to address these issues proactively. 

Student behavior is influenced by many factors that interact in complex ways (specifically to their “own population”) which in turn shape attitudes, choices, and actions. Any behavioural scientist will advocate that understanding the audience – in this case being the student population – is paramount for successful intervention. Research suggests three prominent factors that interplay: cognitive biases, social influences, and emotional factors.[2]  

Cognitive biases influence student tendencies to process information in certain ways and can impact how students perceive academic tasks, assess risks, and make choices. Social influences play out via students’ network of peers, instructors, and university norms – of which they are part of.  And then there are emotional factors – stress, anxiety, and motivation – which can impact academic performance and engagement. 

By gaining insight into the motivations, challenges, and decision-making processes of students, targeted interventions and support systems that effectively address student behavior and promote positive academic outcomes can be created.[3]

A gap in the market? 

There is a significant gap in the market for using behavioural science to support universities. While statistics on the number of universities using behavioural science is limited, anecdotal evidence and case studies indicate there are at least some successful interventions. 

Case studies

There are reports of an increasing use of technology and data analytics to personalise interventions – particularly around enhancing student engagement (E.g. using predictive analytics and adaptive learning platforms to gain data-driven insights).[4]

We’ve found that some universities are applying behavioural insights to address systemic barriers and biases (e.g. with matters relating to EDI).  One study we found tested the hypotheses that young people from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to apply to university and apply to less selective universities compared to more advantaged peers with similar grades or abilities (patterns that exist in the United Kingdom and the United States).[5] A randomised controlled trial over three years showed results that a simple intervention, targeted at high achieving students from low-income families (in the form of role model letters) can substantially increase the rate at which students apply to selective universities, are made offers by those universities, and accept those offers once received. 

There has also been emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and partnerships.[6] One study analysing a more holistic approach to integrating behavioural science into higher education purported three recommendations. Use behavioural science as a lens – which allows universities to be curious about students and ‘get to know them’; Seeing the whole system in higher education (policies, classroom practices, technology tools, design of learning spaces etc) which in turn would support a focus on redesigning the processes and structures; and building behavioural science into universities (through culture) including leveraging their own internal resources and faculties.[7]

Caja Case Study: University of East London 

In 2023, the University of East London (UEL), Caja and strategic partner 3i Infotech, commenced the development of a trial to support UEL’s launch of an ‘Active Trail’ Campus: the first of its kind in the UK.[8] Primarily, with the core focus of increasing physical activity of students across the campus. 

UEL has been striving to blend traditional university experiences with modern digital classrooms, aiming to create an inclusive future for students through education at UEL. Central to this vision is the provision of sports-related courses and facilities for both students and the local community, positioning UEL as an ‘anchor institution’ in the region. 

Data analysis

Phase one data analysis determined the behavioural characteristics of several typical personae from different student population segments. Data acquired from public sources (Census, 2021) showed a predominant white population in the local area, with the second largest category being from BAME communities. Those aged between 23 and 39 years of age, were the predominate age group. Data showed UK and Indian nationals to be predominate in different UEL schools. Furthermore, that student ethnicities were different across each UEL school. Practically, this information shows that cultural and ethnic considerations are needed when designing both interventions and the types of physical activities.

Technology & Cognitive Computing 

Measuring the impact of Behaviour Change projects can be difficult; however, we proposed small-scale Cognitive Computing trials as a proof of concept to measure levels of activation on the campus.Our recommendations provided several options to support a technical solution and the measurement of activity across the campus. This included using student familiar apps (i.e the Moves App) and the installation of trial sensors (infrared, Wifi MAC sensors, radar) and geo-fencing. 

Interventions 

Combining research, theory, data, analysis, and stakeholder feedback, a long list of ideas for interventions was generated.[9] These principles considered what was needed for long term sustainable change and allowed for the application of behaviour science practices, and the development of nudges to positively influence behaviour and choice of students.  

Recommendations and Next Steps 

Phase 1 of the project provided a solid opportunity to understand objectives, explore data, scope technical solutions, educate and build trust with stakeholders and commence the development of interventions. Recommendations centralised around planning activities, the physical markup of the Active Trail and utilising the Moves App. Phase 2 will see us moving into more depth as we test ideas, come to understand behavior and choice through continued engagement and move to deploying technology to support measures and evidencing impact.

The future: Perspectives and Opportunities

As the field of behavioural science continues to evolve and gain recognition, we predict that more universities will incorporate behavioural insights to better meet the needs of their students. However, we also believe that to gain real impact, collaborations between researchers, employers and universities will be required, to design and evaluate evidence-based strategies for supporting students. 

Challenges and Ethical Considerations

Outside of challenges that revolve around the complexity of human behavior, inability for a one-size-fits-all intervention, and privacy and ethical concerns regarding data protection, we believe that one of the biggest challenges for further will be the resistance to change from stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and students.  

Addressing these hurdles requires a multifaceted approach that includes interdisciplinary collaboration, ethical oversight, stakeholder buy-in, and adequate resources to ensure the successful integration of behavioural science into university practices. It’s for this reason that we support co-working, co-design and co-delivery with interventions.[10]

The Road Ahead  

While some universities have started to incorporate behavioural insights into their practices, many institutions have yet to fully embrace this approach. This presents an opportunity for behavioural science experts, consulting firms, and technology companies to offer innovative solutions tailored to the unique challenges faced by universities. 

Applying behavioural science principles such as nudging techniques, personalised interventions, and behavioural insights, universities can better understand and address the diverse needs of their student populations. Supported by our own research at Caja[11] we strongly feel that through the strategic application of behavioural science, universities can create environments that facilitate academic success, foster student engagement, and promote overall well-being. 


[1] Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.  Thaler, R.H & Sustain, C.R. 2009, ‎ Penguin Books, US.

[2] Using behavioural science to increase engagement with online learning: Reflecting on a term of online delivery. CBC Digi-Hub Blog, on 15 December 2020. UCL. https://www.ucl.ac.uk

[3] The COM-B model, developed by Susan Michie, Maartje van Stralen, and Robert West, sets out an approach to characterising and designing behavioural interventions based on enhancing the Capability, Opportunity and Motivation associated with the target behaviour.

[4] At Caja, our analytics capability is highly developed. We use a range of client datasets in addition to data available in the public domain (e.g. ONS and Census data). We also use advanced Business Intelligence skills and Data Visualisation tools to produce actionable Behavioural Insights that support developing and targeting the most effective strategies (e.g. using tools such as Tableau and Power BI).

[5] Encouraging People into University Research report (March 2017). https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a82ed3f40f0b6230269d6cd/Encouraging_people_into_university.pdf)

[6] How Leaders in Higher Education Can Embed Behavioral Science in Their Institutions, O’Hara, Ross. Behavioral Science, 2023. (https://behavioralscientist.org/how-leaders-in-higher-education-can-embed-behavioral-science-in-their-institutions/_

[7] A Manifesto for Applying Behavioral Science, Hallsworth, M. The Behavioral Insights Team, Nesta.

[8] The trial was broken into two phases to accommodate student and teaching curriculums. At the time of writing this report, it should be noted this project is currently waiting for Phase 2 approval.

[9] The approach to forming recommendations vis-a-vis specific principles, were adopted from Sport England’s Behaviour change model.

[10] Caja’s tried and tested model is built around the core principles.

[11] Refer to https://www.cajagroup.com/experience/ for a list of case studies.