Can Behavioral Tools Improve Online Student Outcomes? Experimental Evidence from a Massive Open Online Course

Well-written and intelligently argued paper from Richard W. Patterson, using an experimental (well, nearly) approach to discover the effects of a commitment device, reminder and focus tool to improve course completion and performance in a MOOC.  It seems that providing tools to support students to  pre-commit to limiting ‘distracting Internet time’ (and that both measures and controls this) has a striking positive effect, though largely on those that appear to be extrinsically motivated: they want to successfully complete the course, rather than to enjoy the process of learning. Reminders are pretty useless for anyone (I concur – personally I find them irritating and, after a while, guilt-inducing and thus more liable to cause procrastination) and blocking distracting websites has very little if any effect – unsurprising really, because they don’t really block distractions at all: if you want to be distracted, you will simply find another way. This is good information.

It seems to me that those who have learned to be extrinsically motivated might benefit from this, though it will reinforce their dangerous predeliction, encourage bad habits, and benefit most those that have already figured out how to work within a traditional university system and that are focused on the end point rather than the journey. While I can see some superficially attractive merit in providing tools that help you to achieve your goals by managing the process, it reminds me a little of diet plans and techniques that, though sometimes successful in the short term, are positively harmful in the long term. This is the pattern that underlies all behaviourist models – it sort-of works up to a point (the course-setter’s goals are complied with), but the long-term impact on the learner is generally counter-productive. This approach will lead to more people completing the course, not more people learning to love the subject and hungry to apply that knowledge and learn more. In fact, it opposes such a goal. This is not about inculcating habits of mind but of making people do things that, though they want to reach some further end as a result, they do not actually want to do and, once the stimulus is taken away, will likely never want to do again. It is far better to concentrate on supporting intrinsic motivation and to build learning activities that people will actually want to do – challenges that they feel impelled to solve, supporting social needs, over which they feel some control. For that, the instructivist course format is ill suited to the needs of most. 


Online education is an increasingly popular alternative to traditional classroom- based courses. However, completion rates in online courses are often very low. One explanation for poor performance in online courses is that aspects of the online environ- ment lead students to procrastinate, forget about, or be distracted from coursework. To address student time-management issues, I leverage insights from behavioral economics to design three software tools including (1) a commitment device that allows students to pre-commit to time limits on distracting Internet activities, (2) a reminder tool that is triggered by time spent on distracting websites, and (3) a focusing tool that allows students to block distracting sites when they go to the course website. I test the impact of these tools in a large-scale randomized experiment (n=657) conducted in a massive open online course (MOOC) hosted by Stanford University. Relative to students in the control group, students in the commitment device treatment spend 24% more time working on the course, receive course grades that are 0.29 standard deviations higher, and are 40% more likely to complete the course. In contrast, outcomes for students in the reminder and focusing treatments are not statistically distinguishable from the control. These results suggest that tools designed to address procrastination can have a significant impact on online student performance. 

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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