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Nudging in Student Affairs: Key Concepts and Applications

February 8, 2018 Alexa Wesley NASPA

Children are more likely to eat apples when sliced – a simple idea guided by a key principle of behavioral science: make it easy. According to a 2013 Cornell University study, schools that switched from whole to sliced apples saw increased apple consumption among elementary school students by just over 70 percent. Despite students having a variety of individual preferences and motivations driving their decision to not eat fruit (e.g., missing teeth, braces, inconvenience, or it being “unattractive-looking” to eat a whole fruit in public), a small, low-cost process adjustment can highly impact behavior in the aggregate. Mentioned in a TED Radio Hour interview by last year’s Nobel Prize winner, Richard Thaler, this intervention is but one illustration of “nudging”. Thaler and co-author Cass Sustein popularized the term in their book, “Nudge,” which discusses how a subtle change in choice architecture can alter human behavior in a predictable, positive, and non-coercive way. Nudging – along with other interventions grounded in behavioral science – has been increasingly used across many sectors and fields, including higher education.

College students can face a combination of logistical, financial, and psychological stressors that can potentially drive them off-track and lead them to make decisions that may not be in their best long-term interests. While dropping out of college is often far more consequential than forgoing a serving of fruit, both suboptimal decisions can be avoided through interventions informed by behavioral insights. Students struggling to adjust to college and feeling like they “just don’t fit in” may stand to benefit most from being nudged into co-curricular engagement activities across campus or student support services, such as career counseling or advising.

Through intentional delivery and framing of information, student affairs professionals can promote the uptake and effectiveness of programs that will help students manage their competing priorities, build meaningful social connections, and improve overall health and wellbeing. This blog is the first in a series of posts that will discuss various applications of behavioral science in the context of higher education and student affairs.

The most common, well-designed behavioral interventions to promote student success are able to simplify, personalize, reframe, and remind.

Simplify instructions and messaging to increase ease of understanding and reduce the burden of performing a prescribed action. When individuals are overwhelmed with confusing information, they are often more likely to turn to potentially inaccurate sources of information for guidance, make less meaningful choices out of convenience, or opt-out of the process altogether. Valencia College, for example, redesigned the course registration process to include emails with numbered action steps that had embedded links and highlighted the most important information. 

Personalize messaging to students and have prompts as tailored to the individual as possible. Individuals are more likely to spur into action when they engage with someone who relates or is familiar to them than they are with an impersonal automated system. Further, communication strategies should meet students where they are; in that students should be reached with certain information via their preferred platform (e.g. texts, emails, phone application pop-ups, etc.). At Brigham Young University, first-year students participated in a two-year texting program with peer mentors as a strategy for improving retention rates. BYU found that students were more responsive to texts than emails but that students were more likely to respond to a text from a 10-digit local phone number than from a short code with robotic-sounding messages.

Reframe negative thinking about not belonging or experiencing challenges to something common that many others have also experienced and overcame. For example, research on social norming (i.e. that individuals conform to the perceived behavior of their peers) among freshman African American students suggests that framing social adversity as a common short-lived aspect of adjusting to college can lead to students having higher GPAs and improved overall well-being. Through a partnership with ideas42, San Francisco State University helped improve student retention by having students watch a short video featuring current and former students who discussed their own challenges and worries in college and how they overcame them, followed by a series of text and email messages that included motivating prompts.

Remind students about important deadlines, goals, and available resources in a timely fashion. While juggling multiple responsibilities, individuals can experience limited cognitive bandwidth and quickly forget or delay completion of certain tasks. Behavioral science tells us that individuals are more likely to complete a task after explicitly making commitments to do so – the more detailed and specific, the better. For example, interactive text-message reminders from student affairs staff can provide students with brief, relevant nuggets of information about important deadlines or follow-up steps so that the decision point is more at top of mind than before. Some campuses use student data to customize reminder messages based on what the institution knows about upcoming assignments and check-ins.

Infusing new or existing practices with what we know about human behavior and decision-making has the potential to improve whole-student success in a cost-effective, scalable way. The next post in this blog series will discuss the role of data and technology in developing and deploying behavioral interventions, followed by a post on the research behind automatic opt-in strategies and their applicability in student affairs.