What economics can tell us about teaching in higher education

This is the second post in a series which looks at higher education learning and teaching through a disciplinary lens. What can the knowledges, theories, methods and practices of particular disciplines tell us about learning and teaching at a university level? In each post, I will be speaking to disciplinary experts from my university and seeking their insights to inform the teaching practices of colleagues in other disciplines. Cross-posted at Teche.

You can read the first post in the series What psychology can tell us about teaching in higher education here.

Today’s post comes from Behavioural Economics, which offers insights into why people do – or don’t do – certain things in the economic sphere.

I spoke with discipline expert Wylie Bradford. Wylie is an Associate Professor of Economics and a Teaching & Leadership academic with significant experience in University governance and policy work.

He is also Macquarie University’s longest-serving Indigenous staff member having been at the university for 26 years. He currently teaches history of economic thought, behavioural economics and environmental economics.

Our conversation taught me some fascinating concepts, such as choice architecture, gain-loss framing and hyperbolic discounting. Wylie uses these ideas to design learning activities and assessment tasks that engage students.

What is behavioural economics?

Simply put, economics analyses the choices that people make and the consequences of choices, especially things like consumption, saving and investment. Traditional models and theories to explain economic choices make assumptions that people are consistent, well-informed, rational, and make decisions based on their best interests.

Unfortunately this is not the case! Behavioural economics takes what we know from social psychology to challenge these assumptions.

The reality is that humans do not make choices by taking into account all available information, evaluating the costs and benefits, and deciding on the best outcome. Humans are inconsistent. We are subject to various heuristics and biases which mean that we don’t behave in textbook ways.

What does behavioural economics tell us about making choices?

We tend to understand making a choice as a change – a movement from one point to another – and we ask ourselves: ‘where do I go from here?’ ‘Here’ is a reference point for evaluating our options and making a choice. The reference point is subjective and varies from person to person.

We know that choice architecture matters. That’s a fancy way of saying that how a choice is presented to someone has an impact on their decision-making. That’s probably the ultimate message of behavioural economics – choice architecture matters because humans make decisions in context. They are not context-free. We make choices that are inconsistent, subjective, and influenced by multiple factors.

What insights can behavioural economics offer about student behaviour?

A key concept is framing, and loss aversion in particular. Loss aversion is the idea that humans put more weight on negative outcomes than they do on positive outcomes. That is, we would be prepared to do more to avoid a given loss than we would to get the equivalent gain. That’s where the reference point comes in. It really matters whether or not people see things as a loss frame or whether they see them as a gain.

Where people see a situation as a loss – so they’ve set a reference point and the see the outcome as being a loss from that – they tend to behave in a more risky fashion. In a gain frame – where the reference point is lower and the outcome is an improvement – then people tend to play it safe.

Wylie describes loss aversion using the analogy of the half-full or half-empty glass in this one minute audio excerpt:

For university students, loss aversion can offer insights into the decision about whether or not to come to campus for a lecture. Images of empty lecture theatres have been doing the rounds on social media. With the option of listening to or watching lectures online, being in the room at university doesn’t hold value for accessing learning materials. If a student applies a loss frame, they a more likely to take the risk of not engaging with the lecture on campus.

In this 45 second audio excerpt, Wylie suggests that coming to campus to attend a lecture is like a half-empty glass:

From a behavioural economics perspective, studying at university is challenging. A student has to decide to spend time doing something now that will pay off at some point in the future. In deciding that is worth doing, they need to consider how they value the future relative to the present. This is where they idea of discounting is relevant.

What is hyperbolic discounting and how does it relate to procrastination?

Hyperbolic discounting is that idea that humans do not evaluate the future in a consistent way.

Wylie explains the concept of hyperbolic discounting in this two minute audio excerpt:

Procrastination is a kind of time inconsistency.

Think about it: imagine you are a student with an assignment due next week on Friday. You plan to work on it on Monday. You make a judgement that this will be enough time. On Monday, you don’t want to start work on the assessment so you tell yourself you will do it on Wednesday.

In other words, the way you envisaged how much it was worth doing the assignment last week no longer applies. You are applying a higher discount rate. The closer you get, the more painful it is to give up your time and the greater the risk you are willing to take. If an assessment task is due at midnight on Friday, teachers will see lots of submissions coming in at 11.59pm.

That’s procrastination. We all do it. Humans are not good at planning over time. We don’t use a consistent discount rate. We are always using a reference point of where we are now compared with a future point. Remember you only ever make decisions in the present, and the reference point for evaluating those decisions is constantly changing.

So hyperbolic discounting is that idea that humans do not evaluate the future in a consistent way. Their evaluation changes the closer they get to a given event in the future. This makes holding on to a plan difficult. This is not a character failing. It is a consequence of being a human moving through time.

How can teachers design assessment with these behaviours in mind?

The way in which assessment is set up will affect the way in which students allocate effort. Assessment should not push students into the path of behaviour that is not going to be in their best interests.

Progressive assessment helps cut across hyperbolic discounting, as does minimising high stakes exams at the end of a unit. Students are not left to make big decisions about how to allocate their time over long stretches of time.

Wylie includes a weekly blog activity in his Behavioural Economics unit. Following an interactive class discussion, students write a reflection on what they think is the most important idea and why. In evaluations of the unit, students say that the weekly blogs are beneficial as a type of assessment for learning. They agree that the progressive approach cuts through the time inconsistency problems they would otherwise face.

This post is just a snapshot of our conversation. Wylie experiments with assessment design based on principles of behavioural economics, such as starting students with a mark of 100% to trigger loss aversion with each assessment task. Many of Wylie’s suggestions run counter to common higher education teaching practice – the problems with practice exam papers, why students don’t turn up for final exams or complete MOOCs, and why exam results should be released before final grades.

Listen to the full 48 minute conversation:

Download a pdf transcript of the full conversation.

Further reading

Arkes, H.R. and Blumer, C. (1985) “The psychology of sunk cost”, Organisational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 124-140.

Fryer, R,G. et.al. (2012) “Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment”, NBER Working Paper 18237 (http://www.nber.org/papers/w18237)

Hsee, C.K. et.al. (2003) “Medium Maximisation”, Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 1-14.

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A. (1979) “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk”, Econometrica, 47, 263-291.

Lowenstein, G. and Thaler, R.H. (1989) “Anomalies: Intertemporal Choice”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 3, 181-193.

Thaler, R.H. (1999) “Mental Accounting Matters”, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 12, 183-206.

Image sources: Hyperbolic discounting. Banner image by Shutterstock.

E is for experiential learning

Welcome to the fifth post in the ABCs of Pedagogy, cross-posted at the university blog Teche. This series is progressing slowly!

Its aim is to provide university teachers with the theoretical language to describe their teaching practice. This is useful for the purposes of reflection, scholarship of learning and teaching, career progression and recognition such as teaching awards and fellowships.

See the previous posts in the series here.

What scholarship can you use to describe your experiential or experience-based teaching practice?

Your initial definition of experiential learning might be something like ‘learning by doing’ but, as with most things, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A key part of experiential learning is reflection, so a better definition would be ‘learning by reflecting on doing’.

Experiential learning builds on the principles of constructivism (see C is for Constructivism): students are active participants in their learning, which occurs through social interaction and is based on prior knowledge. Experience is central to learning. “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (Kolb 1984, p 38).

As a pedagogical practice, experiential learning recognises that learners have an ever-increasing reservoir of experience that can be a valuable resource for learning. It is a holistic approach incorporating the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains of learning (Bloom et al, 1956). More on these ideas when we reach L is for learners and learning.

Ongoing reflection is crucial for experiential learning. As Andresen, Boud & Cohen (2001) put it: “The quality of reflective thought brought by the learner is of greater significance to the eventual learning outcomes than the nature of the experience itself” (p 226). Students individually and collectively reflect, evaluate and reconstruct their experiences in order to make meaning and stimulate deeper understanding.

When reflecting on your teaching for experiential learning, consider the following questions:

  • Does your unit include experiential learning activities such as  practicums, fieldwork, community engagement, work-integrated learning or an interactive simulation? What background knowledge, skills and experiences do your students have?
  • How do learning activities invite students to draw on their life experiences to make sense of disciplinary concepts, theories and methods?
  • What feedback do students provide on experiential learning opportunities?
  • How do you address inclusion and accessibility in experiential learning activities?
  • Do you promote reflection for learning? What opportunities do students have to practice various approaches for reflection?
  • Do students learn independently and collaboratively? How is experience assessed?
  • In what ways to you incorporate the cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning domains?

Kolb’s (1984) model for experiential learning includes four stages:

Image: Harvey, Lloyd, McLachlan, Semple & Walkerden (2020)

Students start with a concrete learning experience. This might be something new or a learning opportunity inspired by previous experience. Experiences can be life events, informal or incidental learning, as well as participation in learning activities in the classroom, within the community and in work contexts.

Reflective observation enables students make meaning of their experience by questioning their actions and understandings. Reflection can defined as “a deliberate and conscientious process that employs a person’s cognitive, emotional and somatic capacities to mindfully contemplate past, present or future actions in order to learn, and to better understand and potentially improve their actions (Harvey et al., 2020).

In the abstract conceptualisation stage, students make connections between practice and theory leading to new, modified or deeper understanding and a greater capacity for analytical and critical thinking.

Finally, active experimentation involves applying new knowledges and understandings to different contexts and participating in new experiences for ongoing learning.

How do you scaffold the stages of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle for your students?

Other topics in the series will expand on the ideas in this post, including O is for outdoor education, R is for reflective practice and W is for work-integrated learning.


Andresen, L., Boud, D. & Cohen, R. (2001) Experience-based Learning: Contemporary Issues.  Foley, G. (Ed.). Understanding Adult Education and Training. Second Edition. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, pp 225-239.

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Harvey, M., Lloyd, K., McLachlan, K., Semple, A-L. & Walkerden, G. (2020). Reflection for learning: a scholarly practice guide for educators. AdvanceHE.https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/Learning-to-reflect%E2%80%93a-guide-for-educators

Kolb, DA (1984). Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Acknowledgement: In developing this series on the ABCs of Pedagogy, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and scholarship of current and former Macquarie University staff members including Vanessa Fredericks, Marina Harvey, Mathew Hillier, Olga Kozar, Danny Liu, Karina Luzia, Margot McNeil, Anna Rowe, Cathy Rytmeister, Theresa Winchester-Seeto and others.

What makes a quality SOTL publication?

What makes a quality scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) publication?

This was the title of a recent guest panel session facilitated by Anna Rowe from the University of New South Wales. Attracting over 130 registrants from seven countries, the session demonstrated the high demand for information on publishing SOTL. The panel members were : Karsten Zegwaard (University of Waikato), Henk Huijser (Queensland University of Technology) and Agnes Bosanquet (Macquarie University).

We are scholars in higher education learning and teaching, and have experience as editors and reviewers for key journals in the field. Karsten is Editor-in-Chief for the International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, Hank is Associate Editor for the International Journal for Academic Development, the Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, and the Journal of Peer Learning. I was an Associate Editor for Higher Education Research and Development for 8 years, and have reviewed articles for over 20 journals including Studies in Higher Education, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Higher Education, Teaching in Higher Education and International Journal for Academic Development.

Top left: Anna Rowe, top right: Henk Huijser, bottom left: Agnes Bosanquet, bottom right: Karsten Zegwaard.

A recording of the one hour event is available at the end of this post.

What are the key features you look for as editors and reviewers in a quality SOTL publication?

Generally speaking, we look for an interesting story that adds something new to current understanding. We look closely at research methods, review the writing (is it scholarly?) and check the quality of the literature review. A quality SOTL publication joins a conversation (to repeat: knowledge of the literature is crucial) and makes an explicit contribution to the field, whether that contribution is theoretical, methodological or pedagogical.

For a slightly different perspective, this article from Peter Felten (2013) on principles of good practice in SOTL is worth reading and includes the following table:

What are some common mistakes that you see as editors and reviewers?

These are things to avoid: submissions that are small in scale or inward looking, with little awareness of the existing literature. Submissions that can be summed up as ‘we did this and it worked very well’ without theoretical framing or scholarly engagement with the literature or evaluation of the practice. Avoid blurring the results and the discussion in one section of the paper as this tends to be descriptive rather than analytical (and can signal a weaker paper).

The most common mistake is submitting manuscripts without reading the aims and scope of the journal. An editor has no choice but to reject an article, even if it is really good, if it falls outside the scope of the journal.

What tips do you have for those new to publishing SOTL?

As noted above, making a theoretical, methodological or pedagogical contribution to scholarship is important. Make sure you know something about these! Start by reading journal articles. Subscribe to table of contents alerts for higher education journals. You won’t be able to read all the articles, but you get to know what is being published and what interests you.

SOTL is not always recognised by institutions, and there can be a lot of pressure to publish in top journals. Collaborating with others can help! It takes time to become an expert and collaboration offers a shortcut. You can share knowledge around pedagogy and discipline expertise.

Start small, and remind yourself you don’t need to win a Nobel Prize for your first publication! You can start researching your own practice. Refereed conference proceedings or book chapters can offer a good way into SOTL publishing. Look for journals that are willing to publish practice-based pieces, such as Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice (JUTLP)  or journals that offer to support early career scholars and provide constructive feedback. Consider newer journals such as HERDSA’s Advancing Scholarship and Research in Higher Education Journal (ASRHE).

What are your tips for publishing a good practice paper?

Journal choice is important, as not all journals will publish papers on learning and teaching practice. Consider how your practice is adding to new knowledge, as some journals will consider making an exception if you make a good case. It is important that your research is informed by theory and literature. Include an evaluation and consider your evidence for the quality and impact of your practice. The International Journal for Academic Development publishes short (1500) word reflections on practice. The key question to consider is: how can this practice add value for people in different contexts?

If you are publishing in a little known area, what can help you be successful?

It could be a new discipline, but you might also be working with a theory or method that is not well known to reviewers. You need to teach the reader about your context. Avoid jargon and making assumptions about what readers already know. Be explicit that this is new and how it applies in different contexts. Offer a historical overview. Make connections with other theories or methods or disciplines. Pitch your work to an international and multi-disciplinary audience. Consider the acceptance rates of the journal you want to publish in and aim accordingly. Your time and energy are finite. Studies in Higher Education, for example, has an acceptance rate of only 5%.

How different is publishing in SOTL from discipline-based research?

Possibly not that different. It may depend on your disciplinary background. You may be familiar with short papers with many co-authors, or longer single-authored publications. It depends which aspect of SOTL is a stretch for you. Perhaps you find applying a theoretical lens to your practice is tricky. (This learning theories map may help you locate your ideas). Think about your challenges in the transition from discipline-based research to SOTL. Collaborate with others to share expertise with theories, methods and pedagogies.

How do these ideas apply to independent researchers outside of a university context?

Research is research, but there are particular challenges for independent researchers. It may be tricky to access databases and repositories for scholarly literature. You may want to consider approaches to SOTL that do not require ethics approval or classroom practice, such as policy analysis or publicly available data sets. If possible, consider joining associations such as HERDSA or ISSOTL or ICED for access to resources and opportunities to connect with others. Volunteer to be a peer reviewer for journals, or consider writing book reviews by getting in touch with the book reviews editor for a particular journal.

Which journals should I check out? Where else to start?

High quality higher education research journals include Studies in Higher Education, Higher Education Research and Development, and Higher Education. SOTL journals include Teaching in Higher Education, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education and Teaching and Learning Inquiry. For theory, consider Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education, and for practice Journal for University Teaching and Learning Practice. For academic development, look at the International Journal of Academic Development. There are technology journals including Distance Education, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, British Journal of Educational Technology, or Innovations in Education and Teaching International. For WIL, try the International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning. There are also discipline-specific education journals.

Look at articles or authors who are well cited. Follow authors whose work you admire, and see who is citing their work. Dig through their Google Scholar account. Find a mentor – your institution may have a formal mentoring scheme or you can approach a colleague or supervisor informally. Look at databases in your institutional library, especially of you are interested in doing a systematic literature review. Our final tip: make friends with your research librarian!

Watch the full recording here (1 hour):

What makes a quality SOTL publication?