Liberal Education

Nudges, the Learning Economy, and a New Three Rs: Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection

EDITOR’S NOTE: The New American Colleges and Universities sponsors a national award to honor the legacy of Ernest L. Boyer by recognizing an individual whose achievements in higher education exemplify Boyer’s quest for connecting theory to practice and thought to action, in and out of the classroom. The 2018 Boyer Award was presented to José Antonio Bowen at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The following article was adapted from the address Bowen gave on that occasion.

If we want our new technological society to be inclusive of all our students and graduates, we will need a new model of education geared toward the learning economy, where more—maybe even most—content learning takes place after graduation. To prepare students for this new economy, educators will need to focus less on the content we input and more on the potential we release, prompting our graduates to become voracious self-regulating learners. With an emphasis on helping students master the process of learning rather than only the specific content of any field, we have the chance to reimagine everything we do as we reevaluate how we deliver on our most important promises to students.

With significant change comes significant opportunity, but also risk. While most of us see releasing potential as one of the most rewarding parts of our work, we have to ask: Is this goal really embedded in our core missions? Are grades, credit hours, majors, two- and four-year degrees, departments, classrooms, and office hours essential representations of our values, or merely structural reflections of our cultures? Can we restructure our institutions around the things we know most help students learn to change?

American liberal education is essential for democracy, and the goal of an undergraduate degree has always been, in part, to open minds. But we could be even more successful in this regard by drawing on new research demonstrating the relationship between learning and change. A convergence of behavioral economics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology suggests a new educational “three Rs”: relationships, resilience, and reflection. These three Rs can supply a new focus (the “what”), while behavioral science suggests new techniques (the “how”) for designing and delivering education keyed to the new learning economy.

A new learning economy and jobs of the future

In the new learning economy, students need to prepare for jobs that do not yet exist, in which they will use information that has not yet been discovered. While this has always been true, and is one reason why liberal education has proved so broadly useful for so long, the disconnect between our current and likely future states of knowledge has grown precipitously in recent years due to new developments in technology. This gap partially explains why the liberal arts are now seen as less practical than more vocational training; indeed, the public often perceives the liberal arts as overly theoretical or involving arcane subject matter that is irrelevant to the new world of work. But, contrary to this image—and despite our allegiance to and expertise in specific disciplines—higher education, and the liberal arts in particular, have always been more focused on creating thinkers and explorers than on transferring content. The key to reclaiming the public trust in higher education and the liberal arts is to foreground our existing commitment to graduating self-regulated learners, and to embrace the fact that one’s choice of major matters less now than it has in the past.

Multiple surveys have demonstrated that employers are more concerned about students’ capacities for critical thinking, solving complex problems, working in diverse groups, and writing well than they are about students’ particular choice of major.1 A recent study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne predicts that many of today’s most popular majors (such as accounting and finance) may be useless in a few years as artificial intelligence improves.2 Whether or not Frey and Osborne’s predictions come to pass, it is clear that picking a major based upon past returns is no more than a bet, a gamble with one’s future (or that of one’s children, as parents are often the ones pushing these bets). Deep dives into specific disciplinary content remain critical and relevant, but a student’s choice of major should be more about what will most inspire the student to change (and thereby come to understand the central process of learning) and less about which specific content the student might need later (which is also much harder to know).

In a sense, each discipline is a specific tool one might use to attack a complex problem. Physics might be a hammer, and poetry a screwdriver. But which tool will you need in ten years? If you knew that your future problems would only involve nails, you could focus on perfecting your hammering. But no one knows what sort of unstructured problems they will encounter, or whether those problems will involve nails or screws. Having a better hammer can be useful, but not having a screwdriver could be career-limiting. Thus, a liberal education should give students a complete toolbox so they will be prepared for complex problems we cannot yet imagine—problems that might even require us to invent new tools.

What employers want, and what students need, is a broad set of tools and the ability to practice applying these tools to real-world problems. At Goucher College, we have tried to do both at once by eliminating stand-alone courses that serve as disciplinary introductions from the curriculum, instead offering a series of seminars that introduce students to discipline pairs by prompting them to solve complex problems (which generally require multiple disciplinary approaches to engage deeply with the complexities). This curricular change involves a trade-off, of course: more motivation and time for application and synthesis, and less time for transmitting disciplinary knowledge.

But that trade-off is in sync with the needs of our future world, which is shifting with technology. In the past, content was available from relatively scarce but generally reliable sources, such as encyclopedias and other books; today, content found on the internet is abundant, but largely unreliable. In Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, I focused on the implications of these changes for classroom design and the business model of higher education.3 I concluded then, and believe now, that higher education needs to rethink how we use technology inside and outside of the classroom. Moreover, physical universities need to improve and better leverage the face-to-face relationships that contribute to our high cost and are not replicable online.

Even as our new relationship with knowledge challenges us to rethink higher education, it also has the potential to create more inclusive economies. As the pace of content generation increases, new types of jobs will emerge, privileging those with the ability to learn over those with only prior knowledge. The ability to analyze, integrate, adapt, and change one’s mind will confer a massive advantage over the ability simply to accumulate information. Computers will continue to get better at storing and analyzing data, so future workers will need to offer skills that complement these machines’ superior information-storage abilities.4 Smartphones have sown confusion about what it means to be smart, but colleges and universities are in a position to reclaim the notion that being smart does not mean knowing the most, but having the ability to change one’s mind, ask better questions, access new information, discern the useful from the fraudulent or irrelevant, reframe the problem, and integrate new information to transform old thinking. In short, being smart is really having the ability to learn, and learning involves change.

Admittedly, there is little that is new in these observations: the broad value of a liberal education has long been apparent, even to those who claim that a liberal arts degree is a luxury that they or their children cannot afford. The economic value of our ability to continue growing and changing, however, has increased. If we educators can free ourselves from our disciplinary loyalties and focus on teaching for change rather than conveying content, we will be better positioned to argue that studying the liberal arts prepares students for future jobs as well as life.

Learning is SWEET: designing for the brain in the body

The call to rethink education is motivated not just by the needs of the workforce, but also by new information about how people learn. A convergence of the fields of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, education, design thinking, and behavioral economics has provided substantial new insights into how learning works. In Teaching Naked Techniques: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Classes, C. Edward Watson and I reimagined teaching as a design problem focused on motivating the brain in the body.5 Just as more exercise equipment does not necessarily result in better fitness, more knowledge does not inevitably produce better thinking or more learning. More is not necessarily better—unless one actually puts one’s resources to use and learns to change.

Like libraries, gyms are most useful for the self-motivated. Many people, however, need a fitness coach: someone who is knowledgeable about the body, behavior, and equipment, but whose most valuable expertise is understanding the client. Just as faculty members may like to study, fitness coaches like to work out, and they probably do not need extrinsic motivation. Their clients, however, have come to them for help precisely because they need motivation. In many ways, the relationship between fitness coaches and clients is an apt metaphor for the relationship between faculty and students: in either case, the one who does the work gets the benefit.6 Watching someone else do push-ups (even intellectual push-ups) is not as useful as doing so yourself. In the end, both coaches and teachers want to make ourselves obsolete: we want to help our students find their own motivation, discover their own voices, and become able to learn, change, and grow without us. Expertise is necessary but not sufficient: the role of the teacher needs to be reimagined, from that of primarily professing information, to something more like being a cognitive coach.

Faculty, administrators, and students also need to understand that learning is SWEET: that adequate sleep, water, exercise, eating, and time are its most important conditions. We now know much more about the biology and behaviors of learning than we have in the past. A lack of sleep impairs cognitive function, but a complete night of sleep is also important because our memories move from the hippocampus (short-term storage) to the neocortex (long-term memory) primarily during the last two hours of the night.7 Water and exercise both foster the production of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which then collects in pools near brain synapses to stimulate every aspect of learning.8 T seems like it might be for teaching, but time is more important, because learning requires work. Again, as with fitness, learning is highly correlated with effort and time on task.

A cognitive coach can apply this improving understanding of brain biology to designing better pedagogy. Consider, for example, how the brain evaluates all impulses for threat. The emotion-controlling amygdala is close to the spinal cord, prompting us to take immediate fight-or-flight action before analytically processing the beauty or speed of the panther charging toward us. In the forest or savanna, the reward of living longer vastly outweighs the risk of being mistaken about the source of a moving shadow. In the classroom, however, the risk of short-circuiting the often slower-processing neocortex can entirely defeat the purpose. Each person’s entry point and motivation are different, and good teachers anticipate where anxiety or fear will inhibit learning.

Video game designers use precisely this understanding of our cognitive processes to design entertainment that encourages players to stay engaged (by adapting to our individual skill levels), to try new things (by rewarding those who learn from failure), and ultimately to master information and move on to the next level (where challenges become more complex).9 In other words, games are designed to be excellent learning systems. A private tutor or personal fitness coach who adjusts and motivates one’s learning at every instant is equally effective, but not scalable. Behavioral science, however, suggests the possibility that we might design systems that can nudge larger groups of students into better behaviors.

A new three Rs: relationships, resilience, and reflection

The demands of the new economy and our new understanding of the biology of learning suggest that the focus of education could fruitfully be reimagined around a new three Rs of relationships, resilience, and reflection. To expand opportunities for our most vulnerable students, we need to ensure that they are able to understand and direct the learning process themselves—that is, that they become self-regulated learners. We need to replace a focus on content with a focus on process. Content and information are the bones that allow us to stand, but we also need muscles in order to move. We need to deliver content in ways that make visible to students the processes they will use to guide their own future learning.

While discomfort and even failure are essential for learning, our biology determines that they can only result in learning when there is no threat. This is why the first R is for relationships. If we feel confident and understood, we can be motivated to explore further, to do the work that only we can do to learn. Relationships—specifically, having a mentor or someone who believes in your potential—have been demonstrated to matter more than any knowledge acquired in college in measures of lifetime well-being, including financial and physical health.10

We have started to learn how to measure resilience, the second R. Angela Duckworth has developed a new “grit” scale that seems to predict success in a range of activities.11 Carol Dweck has written about the importance of moving from a fixed to a growth mind-set.12 We know that resilience usually improves with age and that the military can have a positive effect on that growth.13 It seems clear that believing in your potential, even in the face of failure, is important, especially in an economy where what you can learn is even more important than what you already know. Building on this work to understand how resilience can be improved will be critical.

If learning is ultimately about change, then it requires the third R, reflection. Computers are good at scale and volume of content, but real learning is about integration: new information changes our understanding of what we thought we knew. Integrating new information is difficult, because human beings have strong confirmation and optimism biases.14 While useful in building human society during an era of slow change, these biases make changing our minds difficult. They explain why so many people still treat the “entry fobs” for their new cars as though they are traditional keys, removing the device from a pocket or purse as they approach the car even though such action is no longer necessary. The real learning comes as we reflect on the idea that the object is not a key, but a personal identity device. To prompt students toward such reflection, educational institutions are now widely implementing research on metacognition and mindfulness, including my own practical contribution of “cognitive wrappers” (single-sheet ungraded surveys given to students along with feedback about papers or assignments to prompt metacognitive reflection).15

The sequence of the three Rs also matters. Relationships have to come first. Once students feel safe, they are more willing to explore cognitive discomfort, build resilience, and eventually reflect on how new information changes their assumptions and biases. Our economy will only become more inclusive when our graduates are comfortable with this cycle and resilient enough to change their minds repeatedly.

Behavior and nudges

The fields of financial planning and health care have already benefited from behavioral economics and nudge theory; we know, for example, that the likelihood of positive outcomes increases with automation of one’s retirement savings or of medical appointment scheduling.16 If teaching is largely about designing systems that motivate students to do the work of learning, then how might nudges be applied to education?

Economists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper have demonstrated that when consumers have too many choices, they may stop and sample more, but they buy less.17 More is not always better for our brains, and choice architecture can influence the quality of our decisions. If too many types of jam can be overwhelming to consumers, then how must first-year students feel when confronted with thousands of courses? Why not ask students a few questions about their experiences, interests, and aspirations and then provide a default schedule that puts them on the best path toward timely graduation? Students could certainly make changes to the default, but they might make better choices with a different decision structure.

Nudges and behavioral science might also have applications in areas beyond registration. Consider, for example, orientation and new residence halls. Students now arrive on campus carrying their high school friends with them on their phones. As a result, social isolation and social media anxiety are increasing alongside the fear of missing something back home. How might we nudge students to spend less time with their old friends and more time being uncomfortable making new ones?

At Goucher, we used data to answer a simple related question: if the goal is better retention, should first-year students be housed in singles, doubles, triples, or quads? Students and parents are increasingly requesting singles, and those who can afford it are willing to pay a substantial premium. But singles, which are socially isolating, are the worst place for first-year students. Students who live in singles are more likely to transfer away, often moving closer to home. Triples are the next worse in terms of retention outcomes, as they may create a two-against-one dynamic.

School administrators are often accused of treating students as customers. But in our data on housing, Goucher saw a strategy for giving students what they need, not what they want. In fall 2016, we opened the first of three buildings in Goucher’s new first-year village, each designed with smaller and narrower double rooms, larger lounges, a common kitchen, big screens and faster internet in public spaces, an airy laundry room on the main floor, centralized bathrooms, and other design elements that nudge students toward spending more time with others. These design nudges seem to have worked: our initial data show higher grades and retention for students living in the new residence hall than for their peers in other housing options without these design features.18

Student housing designed to support retention is only the beginning, and we are now asking how we might coax students into better learning behaviors. How can we encourage students to drink more water or build the relationships that will make them more resilient and able to reflect on their own learning? If the three Rs constitute the “what” of a new educational focus, behavioral science can provide the “how.” Other colleges and universities may want or need to focus on different behaviors and different nudges, but there is a growing body of research to inform how we guide student choices for improved outcomes. It is an aspect of design that needs our attention.

We have left the information age and entered the learning economy, where expanding our students’ potential to guide their future learning has more value than simply increasing what they know. Knowledge is more readily available today than ever before, but it becomes the raw material of economic power only when we are learning, integrating, and changing. Teaching is a design problem where the goal is motivating students to do the work only they can do, and the new three Rs define a process for producing self-regulated learners ready to adapt and solve the complex problems of the future. With our new understanding of how the brain works and of the behaviors most needed for learning, nudges can help us redesign the structures of higher education.


1. See, for example, Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013),

2. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” (Oxford, UK: University of Oxford, 2013).

3. José Antonio Bowen, Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012).

4. Tyler Cowen, Average Is Over: Powering America beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation (New York: Dutton, 2013).

5. José Antonio Bowen and C. Edward Watson, Teaching Naked Techniques: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Classes (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017).

6. Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek, The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2014).

7. M. P. Walker, R. Stickgold, D. Alsop, N. Gaab, and G. Schlaug, “Sleep-Dependent Motor Memory Plasticity in the Human Brain,” Neuroscience 133, no. 4 (2005): 911–17, 2005.04.007.

8. Doyle and Zakrajsek, The New Science.

9. James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

10. Gallup-Purdue, Great Jobs, Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index (Washington, DC: Gallup, 2014), downloaded from

11. Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (New York: Scribner, 2016).

12. Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006).

13. Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, Elizabeth P. Shulman, Scott A. Beal, and Angela L. Duckworth, “The Grit Effect: Predicting Retention in the Military, the Workplace, School and Marriage,” Frontiers in Psychology 5, no. 36 (February 2014): 1–12.

14. Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (New York: Vintage, 2012).

15. José Antonio Bowen, “Cognitive Wrappers,” Teaching Naked website, accessed February 27, 2018,

16. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).

17. Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79, no. 6 (January 2001): 995–1006.

18. José Antonio Bowen, “Designing for Integrative Learning,” Chapter 1 in President2President 2016–2017: Integrated Approaches to Student Living and Campus Housing—Enhancing Quality of Life and Performance, October 4, 2016,

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José Antonio Bowen is president of Goucher College.

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