Nudging Students to Succeed: A New Approach to Retention and Graduation

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Antonio Henley, Cathy Jones & Cecilia Le

When JCSU was selected by the White House Initiative for HBCUs to apply the Blue Ocean Strategy, a theory that suggests creating new markets is better than competing in existing ones, we identified four dimensions that drive retention and graduation: 1) possessing a vision that graduating with a JCSU degree outweighs the cost of earning it, 2) receiving timely and effective academic support for each level of coursework, 3) building up the emotional strength to put in the hard work to persist and graduate, and 4) securing the financial means to complete a degree.

But we know that despite the high support that may be offered, students are often afraid to ask for help regardless—especially if they already lack confidence in their academic skills. These students struggle to manage their time and responsibilities and setbacks can lead them to question whether their sacrifices are worth it, or if they belong in college at all. To increase retention and graduation, we needed more than exceptional student services—we needed to unlock student demand to make use of them.

Our goal of increasing students’ use of our support services led us to partner in fall 2015 with Persistence Plus, an organization that uses behavioral science, data analytics, and mobile technology to help students develop academic mindsets and habits help them persist toward college completion. Persistence Plus sends personalized behavioral nudges to our first-year students over text message or mobile app. The messages, based on behavioral research, help students follow through on goals, seek help when they need it, reframe setbacks, and draw on their motivations to sustain a long-term vision.

Below are a few specific examples of how this new strategy has proven effective:

Helping students create specific plans to meet their goals. Behavioral research shows that committing to a specific time and place will increase the likelihood that someone will complete an intended task such as getting a flu shot or voting in an election. Before key exams and deadlines, students receive nudges that ask them to form specific plans for when they will study, register for courses, or complete their financial aid applications. A typical student response might be “on Thursday after class in the student union.”

Encouraging students to expect to seek help. The nudges don’t just tell students that help is available—they frame seeking help as a common and expected part of the college experience. Research has demonstrated that people will often behave based on information about how others behave. For example, hotel guests who were told that the majority of guests reuse their towels were significantly more likely to reuse their own towels. The Persistence Plus nudges tell students that many other students have visited our tutoring center or filed for financial aid. 

Reframing adversity as a shared experience. Other nudges are focused on helping students see that other students like them have faced and overcome similar struggles. Persistence Plus shares “LifeBits,” real vignettes from students of similar backgrounds who overcame specific college challenges, based on research evidence that reframing adversity as common and transient leads to improved academic and health outcomes, especially for African-American students.

Leveraging students’ own motivations. Another behavioral strategy asks students to articulate their own motivations for earning a college degree from JCSU, which are played back to them during tough or stressful times. Among the student responses are:

  • “It’s important for me to earn my degree at JCSU because my dream is to become an accountant and I’m ready to do everything that it takes to fulfill that dream.”
  • “Because it would help to get into my field of work, to follow my dreams, and also take care of my nieces”
  • “I’ve always wanted to attend an HBCU plus I’m a first-generation college student. I feel JCSU is the right place for me to be.”

As we make transformative changes to increase student success, personalized behavioral support is just one piece. But we are optimistic that it can help more students persist. At other institutions using Persistence Plus, students receiving the nudges have had greater course success and term-to-term persistence than students who do not. After just one semester, JCSU students are reporting that they find the nudges helpful without being intrusive. One student commended the nudges for “reaching out to the students and providing useful tips,” adding that it’s a “great way to show the students that JCSU cares.”

Dr. Antonio Henley is University College Dean and Dr. Cathy Jones is Associate Dean, First-Year Experience at Johnson C. Smith University. Cecilia Le is Director of Partnerships at Persistence Plus.

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