Student Choice + Choice Architecture

When we walk into retail stores – Home Depot, Target, or whatever your personal flavor – effective store designers know how to encourage from us particular choices. Sunstein and Thaler would call such experience-creators “choice architects”. By presenting our shopping options visually and geographically (in the store or in relation to other products) in this way rather than that, they can nudge us toward one choice rather than another. A good store designer can encourage lengthy perusal and perpetual browsing, having us pause at price-sensitive impulse-buy endcaps, and can steer us toward the rear of the store rather than the exit doors.

When we sign up for that frequent-sandwich-buyers’ club to get every tenth sandwich free, we usually agree at the same time to receive promotional emails from that shop. We can opt out of those emails, but the default selection is to receive rather than not to receive the ads. Good marketers know that people will usually go with whatever options are pre-selected for them rather than opt out of the default choice.

And again, store designers – insofar as they are better or worse choice architects – do not present us with forty microwaves from which to choose. They offer us three or four. They do this for a few reasons, if they’re smart about it. First, far fewer people will choose to buy any microwave if you set out only one without comparison. Better still, they’ll offer us a false choice: one obviously bad choice and one or two options that are more realistic and comparable to one another. If we’re already thinking, “Well that one isn’t the one I want; how about these other two?” we’re more likely to buy the non-bunk alternatives. They won’t put out thirty or forty microwaves because we’ll be overwhelmed with options. This is usually called choice paralysis. Too many options and we’ll walk away empty-handed.

Teachers have a lot to learn from behavioral economists and psychologists. When we’re presenting students with options of almost any sort we should be aware of what offering too many choices does to students’ ability to choose anything – and what good choice architecture looks like in other ways. (We should be asking “What is our learning objective? How will students respond to our option offerings?” and similar questions). This second thing is not obvious and requires more careful thought and research. Where should we be offering opt-in or opt-out defaults? Which learning choices do we present first or last among options? Do we ask students why they’re making the choices they’re making? Students who suffer from cognitive- or attention deficits or learning differences in other areas will be affected by the choices we make about offering students choices. We should be aware of – and watch out for – the effects of our modes of presentation.

Selected sources on Choice Architecture:

Thaler, Richard H. and Sunstein, Cass R. and Balz, John P., Choice Architecture (April 2, 2010). Available at SSRN: or ( )

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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