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Bringing Behavioral Science to Teaching and Learning Innovation

Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate

Holly Derry, Associate Director of Behavioral Science

Carly Thanhouser, Behavioral Scientist

Molly Maher, Behavioral Scientist

Behind every good learner is good behavior.

We continue to learn that much of the success students and online learners experience comes from choosing the right behaviors, but that doesn’t make choosing easy. That’s why the Office of Academic Innovation is dedicated to integrating behavioral science principles into teaching and learning. Amy Homkes-Hayes, Lead Innovation Advocate, sat down with Holly Derry, Associate Director of Behavioral Science, to explore how she and her team support Academic Innovation’s portfolio of work including educational technology software, MOOCs, and more.

How you would describe behavioral science at Academic Innovation?

We use Behavioral Science to motivate people or spur behavior change. We draw from a collection of strategies and techniques, which have been studied in lab settings or in the field, and apply them to Academic Innovation’s tools. In our work, for example, we focus on how we want learners to behave to be successful in a course. We look through our behavioral science toolbox for ideas on how to keep learners accessing the material every week, completing assignments on time, or engaging on a deeper level in a discussion board. These are just a few examples of where we apply behavioral science in our work at Academic Innovation.


Behavioral science is often used in healthcare settings, but it’s fairly new to edtech. What have you noticed about health behavior change versus behavior change in education?

We’ve been surprised by the similarities. In health and in education, people are working toward goals. In both contexts, some goals are concrete (think: scores) while others are more conceptual (think: feeling better or studying harder). The actions people take to reach their goals might be different, but the ways to motivate people toward these goals are not.

In addition, a lot of the action in healthcare, and education, happens outside of the classroom, or clinical setting. Both patients and learners need self-regulation skills, sustained motivation, and a sense of belonging to continue their health management or learning independent of physicians or faculty.


I hear you talk a lot about how central motivation is to behavioral science. Why?

Anything anyone does is motivated by something. It’s our job to find that something. ECoach, for example, uses both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators to help students succeed in large courses. While tapping into intrinsic motivation may have a longer lasting and more meaningful impact, it’s not always a luxury we can rely on. (How many people are intrinsically motivated to read the textbook?) The extrinsic motivators we have access to (grade feedback, credit, and extra credit) are often better at encouraging students to do something they may not obviously see value in, at first. For example, after students use ECoach’s Exam Playbook, a metacognitive tool that helps them strategize and plan out their use of study resources before and exam, they may become intrinsically motivated to use it again, but we rely on extra credit to encourage them to give it a try.

In the end, we often rely on a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic ways to motivate learners because we know both are valuable in different ways.


How do you account for the differences in intrinsic motivation among learners. In other words, how do you determine what motivates them?

This is where personalization comes in. Each person is different, and when possible, it’s best to offer people choices that will fit with their situation, needs, and desires. This might mean giving people choices on whether they get credit or not, which parts of a course they complete, the time they need to complete it, and so on.

We can also go to the other end of the personalization spectrum and present students with messages written for their specific characteristics. All we need is the data. A few of our projects are powered by the Michigan Tailoring System (MTS), tailoring software developed here at the University of Michigan in 2008. Our projects that use MTS can collect data from people and then deliver a tailored experience to match why they’re taking a course, what grade they want to get, how motivated they are to get that grade, and so on. We can really tailor anything we want, and soon (summer 2018), all of Academic Innovation’s tools can incorporate MTS, and tailoring as well.

Many people assume the tailored messages are computer-generated — they’re not. We’re not using robots to do this. All of the tailored communication and interventions we use are carefully crafted by the behavioral science team.


How do you guide people toward successful behaviors without telling them what to do?

We respect a learner’s right to make their own choices. We see our role as helping people make informed choices. We don’t tell learners what their goals should be, and we don’t tell them what steps they should take. We may say, “here’s what the research says about the best ways of doing something, and here are recommendations you could follow based on that research,” but then it’s up to each learner what they do next. We never say “you must do this or can’t do that.”

We use behavioral science and tailoring to grab people’s attention, to help them see what’s most relevant to them, and to help them make informed choices. We want to share best practices and help people make decisions that are right for them.


What kinds of methods and techniques are you using?

We use methods from many fields, including Public Health, Behavioral Economics, Social Psychology, and User Experience. We rely heavily on Motivational Interviewing (MI), a counseling strategy that has its roots in substance abuse counseling but has expanded into many areas including education. It’s based on the notion that knowledge does not, in and of itself, change behavior. Motivational Interviewing (along with the ability to tailor messages) enables us to find out what motivates people, to build discrepancy between their desired behavior and actual behavior, and to help them more clearly see the path toward behavior change.

We also often use the behavior change recipe from the book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath. They use the analogy of an elephant (motivation), a rider (logic and reason), and a path (the environment). The goal is to motivate the elephant (because otherwise the rider gets exhausted), direct the rider (so a motivated elephant doesn’t walk in circles), and clear the path (so that the two can get to where they need to go). This is exactly what we’re trying to do here in Academic Innovation by applying behavioral science to our suite of tools, experiences, and opportunities.

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