How can student affairs professionals leverage their resources and knowledge of human behavior to advance student success at scale while maintaining personalized connections with students? With access to more data and technology than ever before, campuses are implementing digital nudging interventions that are designed to fit intuitively with a student’s lifestyle. Through the combination of behavioral science and data analytics, these “smart” nudges go beyond reminders about assignments and deadlines. Similar to how companies like Netflix predict TV shows or movies that “you might also like” based on consumer data and algorithms, institutions can improve the quality of the student experience through personalized nudges delivered electronically and informed by student data or real-time responses. Smart nudges can provide students with guidance and messages of encouragement relevant to their specific concerns and circumstances.
The previous installment of this series outlines a few key characteristics of behavioral interventions applied in the higher education context. This second installment describes three things that student affairs professionals should know about the use of student data and technology in nudging interventions.
Texting is an effective way to deliver a nudge. With 95 percent of Americans owning a cell phone and 77 percent owning a smart phone, texting serves as a way to leverage a platform with which the majority of today’s students are already familiar. As a result, the most robust studies on nudging in higher education focus on interventions that connect with students via text or text-like apps. For example, a now well-cited study by researchers Ben Castleman and Lindsey Page explored the impact of an automated and personalized text-message campaign, connecting college-bound high school graduates to counselor support. Castleman and Page found texting to positively impact enrollment rates, especially among students from low-income families who had limited access to college planning supports. Rather than add to the barrage of messages in a student’s university email account that they may check irregularly (if at all), texting and text-like apps serve as a way to communicate to students in an authentic, relevant, and convenient way.
Smart nudges should reach students with the right message at the right time. Student and campus technologies may enable student affairs professionals to reach students at scale, but an intervention’s messaging, timing, and frequency largely determines the extent of its impact. Smart nudges should offer differentiated responses to students based on their concerns and circumstances.
Through a partnership with Persistence Plus, Jobs for the Future has implemented a Nudging to STEM Success Initiative that uses intelligent software to send messages tailored to the real-time responses of students. The initiative’s demo video illustrates how student responses to the question, “what’s your biggest concern right now?” determines the flow and framing of automated text-messages. While one student responds to the question with, “struggling to keep up,” the second student says “feel like I don’t belong.” As a result, the first student receives messages about study tips and is asked if they will try writing out their feelings five minutes before their next exam to relax and improve performance; the second student is asked to think about what they have in common with other freshmen at the institution, followed by an option to read about how another student adjusted to life at a big university.
As discussed in NASPA’s report on Predictive Analysis of Student Data, data on student use of support services and participation in campus activities can inform early alert systems that identify students who could benefit from targeted nudging. Student affairs professionals can conduct focus groups and interviews with students as a way to better understand nuances in students’ use of services and their habits and behaviors. Additional data can help professionals understand how the framing and messaging of one text may have greater salience to one group of students over another. A text-message intervention to reduce drinking at the University of Otago in New Zealand, for example, sent new students the same texts about the social consequences and long-term health risks of drinking. Results of the study indicate that the texts changed the alcohol use of women but had no effect on the men.
Nudging is not a panacea. Behavioral interventions should be adopted as a way to supplement, not supplant, other student success initiatives on campus. For example, rather than replace a highly resource intensive but critical student service like advising, nudging can help enhance the service and reduce the burden for both staff and students. Text-message interventions can identify students who would benefit from an advising appointment; use principles of behavioral science to nudge students into scheduling and showing up to advising appointments; and reinforce positive mindsets and habits through ongoing check-ups and messaging. Student affairs professionals should keep in mind that text-based nudges – like all interventions – take time and continuous tweaking in order to achieve intended and sustainable change.
Data-informed, personalized, and timely nudges can serve as a valuable asset to student affairs professionals. Future installments of this blog series will take another look at how student affairs professionals can utilize behavioral interventions as part of a comprehensive student success strategy.