How a strong nudge campaign can improve student outcomes during COVID (opinion)

Until recently, the concept of nudging — low-cost, low-touch interventions aimed at driving people toward particular behaviors without mandating action or restricting options — was a popular strategy with student support units across higher education. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein popularized this approach, based on behavioral science, in their 2008 book, Nudge, and scholars like Ben Castleman at the University of Virginia and Caroline Hoxby at Stanford University shortly thereafter adapted it for use in higher education. Recognizing that social, physical and psychological factors can often discourage students from acting in their own self-interest, those scholars showed that nudging could help students navigate college and the complex bureaucratic processes that often create barriers to academic success.

In the years that followed, admissions, financial aid and registrar departments across the country began using nudging — through digital platforms like emails, learning management systems and especially text messaging — as a means to help students act on things like paying a bill, submitting a FAFSA or meeting a deadline. Even Michelle Obama got on board with the Reach Higher Initiative, which used text message and email-based nudges to increase awareness of the value of a postsecondary education and provided students with access to financial aid resources. People hoped that this simple, affordable and easily scalable use of technology would help colleges address some of the consistent challenges related to student access and achievement. Following the 2008 recession, resource-strapped institutions viewed nudging as a simple and cost-effective way to offer structured and intrusive support to students, especially for those most vulnerable.

But as more student support teams applied this strategy, and more research was conducted, nudging’s potential to influence change in students’ behaviors came increasingly into question. In 2019, for instance, Philip Oreopoulos and Uros Petronijevic published a research study that argued that none of the relatively large nudging initiatives that they examined seemed to have significant influence on academic outcomes, especially when it came to driving students toward anything more than straightforward, task-oriented actions. Another study even showed that when scaled nationally, repeated text messages and emails did not prompt more students to apply to college or complete the FAFSA.

Nudging, once labeled the $6 solution, seems to have been increasingly discounted as the magic bullet that can solve the big issues in higher education. Many administrators who have turned to this tool to help drive access and enrollment goals have been left wondering if nudging is nothing more than a new way to send students reminder messages.

Nudging and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Then came the pandemic.

During the last several months, our students have not only been undergoing the COVID-19 pandemic but also a devastated economy, police violence and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protesting, and the political turmoil of the election and its aftermath. They’re experiencing a level of stress that is unprecedented for students in modern American history. Surely this stress is impacting how students are navigating the rigors of college life and learning in ways we’re not even fully aware of yet. It’s up to faculty and administrators to find creative ways to support and engage with our students during this trying context.

While the debate on the viability of nudging has continued, we in the New York University Office of Student Success believe that text message-based nudging, if done correctly and with an appropriate level of intention, can improve student outcomes. It can also increase levels of curricular and co-curricular engagement and, perhaps most important, increase student perception of support and connectedness during this challenging time. Thus, for the start of the past fall semester, we designed and implemented a large text message-based nudge campaign that had two primary intentions.

The first and more prevailing was to send students passive content. The goal was not to drive immediate action, like many of the early nudging campaigns, which focused on task-driven behavior like submitting a FAFSA or registering for courses. Rather, we wanted to positively influence academic behavior over a prolonged period of time by sending students a series of quick tips that encourage behaviors that lead to academic and personal growth. Those tips, which include learning-to-learn content such as goal setting, time management and learning strategies, along with wellness and mindfulness suggestions, weren’t designed to elicit an immediate response from students. Rather, their purpose was to subconsciously redirect students’ attention at key moments during the academic semester. For example: here is an example of a goal-setting reminder that we sent to students in the first week of the semester: “Hi <Student Name>! New semester, new you, new goals! Remember, make your goals SMART. S – Specific. M – Measurable. A – Actionable. R – Realistic. T – Timely. What is one goal you have for the spring semester?”

The second intent was to give students an open channel of communication that allowed for individualized support opportunities. Students can choose to answer but often are not prompted to do so, and a professional case manager will respond, offering support in real time. That has allowed us to be mindful of the time commitment required of our team, while still providing the support students need.

In partnership with faculty members, we’ve focused our outreach efforts on first-year students and those in a large introductory biology course. We chose this population in part because of the distinct challenges they face as they begin their college experience. We saw the benefits of this particular campaign as multifold, including the ease of scalability, the relatively low cost (we worked with a third-party vendor for the technology component) and the ability to target at-risk student groups through real-time communication and interaction.

What We Found

We are optimistic that this approach is moving us in the right direction. This is a new initiative at a challenging moment, so we continue to experiment, survey students and adapt to continually improve the process. But while further assessment is needed, early results have shown a positive relationship between receiving academic nudges and student academic performance in high-enrollment, high-stumble-rate STEM courses. The opt-out rate for the biology course was a mere 0.5 percent.

Moreover, a fall survey of nudge recipients showed that 94 percent of students said the texts made them feel like someone at NYU cared about their success, 95 percent said they felt comfortable reaching out for help, 96 percent said the texts made them feel more informed about university resources and 95 percent found text messaging to be an effective form of communication during remote learning. And in a large universitywide survey, first-year students also reported feeling more connected to the university community at large — a result that our nudge campaign surely influenced. Student responses to our messages have been highly positive, with many students expressing gratitude for the content and to be hearing from a real person. Common responses are expressions of thanks, appreciation and “I needed this.”

A particularly poignant example was a message of affirmation we sent to students on the same day many of them learned they’d need to quarantine in their dorms. Students were feeling unprepared, anxious and scared. In interacting with our text message, many realized for the first time that a real person was on the other side — someone who cared about their success and was available to chat, joke and let them vent their frustrations.

Above all else, what we are seeing is a change in students’ perceptions. By sending encouraging messages that reinforce positive academic habits and affirm belonging, we are finding that students perceive greater support from the university. As student support practitioners, is that not what we are here for?

How to Implement an Effective Nudge Campaign

This moment is calling on us to change our behaviors, become more agile and find creative solutions to best support our students to adapt holistically — rather than continually asking them to change, despite the precarity they are facing. Here are some tips for designing and implementing a nudge campaign to engage and support your students during COVID-19 at your own university.

Reframe what you define as nudges and how to use them. Researchers at Duke University’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Lab have argued that the concept of nudging has become a sort of a catch-all term to “refer to virtually any intervention designed to create incremental behavior change.” Under this framing, email or text message reminders are often conceptualized as nudges, when in reality they are nothing more than traditional reminders. Nudges should be more ubiquitous and passive in nature — they are nudges, not shoves or nags — and they should not always require immediate action or response. This is why with text-based nudges, response rate is not a valid measure of the nudges’ effectiveness.

We recommend that you design your nudges based on behavioral psychology theory to gently encourage subtle changes in student behavior. The U.K. Cabinet Office’s Institute of Government in conducting in their MINDSPACE Approach provides a great framework.

Send nudges from a human, not a bot. Allow for two-way communication between your team and students. One of the key things that we learned as we developed our program was that students are far more likely to engage with nudges if they clearly come from a person. Students, like the rest of us, are receiving automated emails, texts and other forms of digital communication all the time. It is easy to ignore this communication when you believe it is autogenerated. While you will be sending these nudges to large groups of people at once, use a staff member’s name in the message and send a photo or other indication that a human being is directly communicating with students.

Also, research in behavioral science has shown that by the feelings we have toward a messenger and their perceived authority influences the weight we give to the information they share with us. If you build a positive rapport with students through consistent, friendly and useful messaging, they will be more likely to pay attention to nudges. We have also found that while sending a message from an authority figure like a university employee gives it a certain gravitas, students also value hearing from peers. Thus, peer-to-peer messaging may also be a useful strategy for a nudge campaign.

Be intentional and specific. Many of the earlier nudge campaigns worked because they were fairly intentional about whom they were nudging and when, as well as what behaviors they hoped to change. Thus, it’s best to fragment the population you want to reach into subsets according to school, academic program and enrollment year so that the content is as relevant as possible. At NYU, we chose to nudge first-year students because we felt we could have the greatest impact on this group of students; their awareness of university resources was fairly limited and their academic behaviors were less engrained compared to upper-class students.

Regarding content and scheduling, your academic calendar should guide all messages. But leave room for the unexpected by building in some flexibility to adjust to changes.

Pay attention to language and tone. The language should be persuasive and confident, not aggressive or pushy. Nudges should also be quite short — fewer than 300 characters — so be as direct and concise as possible without coming off as curt. Use a voice that feels authentic to the sender and that encourages students to view positive behavior, such as adding assignment due dates to a digital calendar, as a social norm and salient behavior. Also, use language that frames behavior as part of a larger public commitment, like nudging around COVID-19 social distance practices, and makes students feel better about themselves for taking action.

Collaborate with campus partners. When nudging students, remember that they are interacting with a host of other campus partners. Buy-in from faculty is a useful way to connect your academic skill-building nudges with the learning that is happening in the classroom. Doing that will make nudges feel like a synergistic part of the students’ educational experience rather than one-off, out-of-context reminders.

Also, when you use nudges as a way to drive students toward underutilized but important campus resources, always make sure you are not operating in isolation. You do not want to send a nudge to a large group of students reminding them of tutoring and academic support without first connecting with the team that provides that service.

In conclusion, for those who work directly with students, COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused great disruption to the normal practice of student learning, engagement and support. It has forced all of us to quickly pivot and rethink our normal approaches. Rebecca Solnit reminds us that humans have a distinct ability to do great altruistic, communitarian, resourceful and imaginative things in the face of a disaster. Now more than ever, we must look for creative ways to best support students as they face immeasurable levels of uncertainty, stress and fatigue.

Is text message-based nudging a magic bullet that can solve all of the issues facing higher education during this challenging period? No. But it can be an effective, scalable and efficient way to engage, support and encourage college students in this unprecedented time.

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