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Action Design for Instruction and Assessment

March 1, 2017  | By  | Leave a comment

There are many areas of life where people have the desire to take actions, but have difficulty following through. This is particularly true in any type of long term behavioral change such as exercising, saving money, or studying for an exam. Research from several fields has identified a number of tools that can help provide the right kind of additional support. These techniques, which can help shape behavior, are sometimes called “nudges” (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008), and the method can be referred to “behavioral design” or “action design” (Wendel, 2014). When these methods are implemented well they can support a person in making behavioral changes that he or she wants to make and that helps the person become his or her best self.

The Effects

For instructional and assessment applications, action design methods can be used to help support goals related to examinee behaviors such as:

  • Better retention in courses and programs
  • Increased completion of entire surveys
  • Reduced cheating in remote assessments
  • Greater candidate trust for the sponsoring organization

The Primary Characteristics

When action design is used in the development of an application or website it often includes these elements.

Good usability

The application should be easy to learn and easy to use, work without problems, and avoid user frustration.

Good instructional design

When action design is applied to a tutorial, online course, or certain types of remote assessment, it should have good instructional design features such as: small “chunks” of information, step-by-step sequencing, appropriate difficulty, and good reporting on incremental progress as the user moves through the application.

Good motivation techniques

Any challenging action or behavioral change that a user wants to take can be helped by motivational encouragements.  Rewards are more effective if they are provided for small behavioral steps along the way towards the end goal.

Good communication

The majority of the unique contribution provided by action design is affected through how information is framed. The next section gives examples of potential communication changes that are highly effective.

The Tools

Action design comprises a suite of tools to help build products that are behaviorally effective. When messaging to users is framed using these behavioral tools, the users are more likely to take the desired action. Here are a few examples of action design tools, and possible applications in instruction and assessment.

Loss aversion

People typically experience greater pain about the possibility of loss than pleasure about gain (Kahneman, 2011). For this reason, a test-taker is more likely to take an action when it is described in terms of loss (“Take the online tutorial now, because no tutorial will be available at the test center.”), rather than gain (“An online tutorial is available to you…”).


People have a tendency to procrastinate, or even fail to carry out, actions without a specific, urgent, deadline. Online self-study programs and self-assessments could benefit from action design tools that address this timing challenge. For example, assignments could include default due dates, though students might have the flexibility to change them, when needed. And email or text reminders to the students could be framed to emphasize near-term benefits (“Your skills in this content area will increase through this week’s lesson”) rather than long-term goals (“This chapter will help you on the comprehensive exam at the end of the course”).

Planning prompts

The planning prompt is another behavioral tool to help people take action when there is no specific time associated with the activity. Users can be prompted to make a plan along the lines of “when situation x arises, I will implement response y.” Students in an online course can be encouraged to specify a regular time to study. Automated calendar appointments and text message reminders can then be used to cue students for their planned study time. This messaging can also build on people’s strong desire to be consistent with their previously written intentions and to carry out commitments that they personally made.

Social norms

People are highly affected, more than they usually realize, by the social norms around them. When these norms are communicated to users, it can have a powerful effect on their behavior. If examinees are (truthfully) told that “The vast majority of our test-takers are honest” this will influence them away from cheating on the exam.


The tools and techniques in action design are based on research into what best influences people and on how people actually make decisions. With good use of action design “nudges” we can help our students and test-takers make better choices and accomplish their goals. These approaches can also be applied in other program areas, such as encouraging professionals to elect to use a new program or service, to register for an exam, or to recertify in a timely manner. In these ways, we can realize broader program goals by helping individuals accomplish their goals and become their best selves.

For more information go to Action Design Approaches For Survey Administration

References for Action Design

Go to Additional Resources for Action Design for references.

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