Under any definition of student success—from retention metrics to life-long fulfillment—research has demonstrated a strong link between faculty interaction and student outcomes. Despite this, few college graduates report having those relationships, according to a 2019 study from Gallup.
These powerful relationships can begin with an action as simple as a short email to struggling students, Zoë Cohen writes for Evolllution. Faculty members tend to gravitate towards highly engaged students, but those withdrawn, quieter students might be the ones who need the most help, writes Cohen, an Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona.
A few years ago, Cohen made it a priority to engage the struggling students in her class after noticing that a larger number of students than usual had failed the first exam in her course. She searched for a fast, low-cost way to help these students without adding to her workload. Eventually, she decided to send a personalized, encouraging email to every student who failed the first exam—about 10% of a 200-student class.
Cohen kept the body of each email the same, but she personally addressed the message to each student and sent the emails from her account. Cohen began each message by pointing out that the student hadn’t done as well on the exam, but that there was still time to turn their grade around. Then, she asked whether the student knew why they hadn’t performed well and whether they’d taken advantage of available resources, like office hours, class discussions, and study groups.
Cohen’s email is an example of nudge designed to guide students towards certain behaviors, Becky Supiano writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nudges are meant to identify and support students who need help, sometimes before the students realize they need help, says Lindsay Page, a nudge researcher and Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
When Cohen first sent the emails, she expected students to blame their poor performance on her teaching style. “The fact is, I got zero of that,” she told Supiano. Instead, more than half of the 20 students she emailed wrote back to thank her for reaching out and to take responsibility for their performance.
Cohen shared one student’s response: “I am extremely grateful for your concern and support. To be honest, I was disappointed in my score as well. I think I have to adapt and/or change my ways of studying. After this grade, I will reflect on my ways of studying and will try to reach out sooner when I don’t understand and will come to office hours. Again thank you for your concern.”
She believes that her supportive tone and the personalized nature of the email helped boost her message’s response rates. According to Page, Cohen is probably right to think that her email’s nonjudgmental tone played a role in students’ reception to the message.
Since the initial email’s success, Cohen has continued to email students who fail the first exam. And while it’s difficult in a large class to track whether these students changed their behavior, she reports that the average grade for struggling students has increased. Students who failed the first exam earned an average score of 52%, but their final grade averaged 65%, marking a 25% increase (Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/9/2018; Cohen, Evolllution, 7/17/2018).