Preliminary research by the University of California, Davis suggests that “light touch” interventions—such as a few short emails per term—can positively influence student outcomes, writes Colleen Flaherty for Inside Higher Ed.
“Everything we know from K-12 education is that teaching matters,” says Michal Kurlaender, one of the study’s authors. “Yet somehow we’ve left the college classroom alone. We have wraparound services for students, but the classroom space is considered sacrosanct and faculty can do whatever they want.”
Professors in the study sent a couple of personalized email “nudges” to students across the term. The first message encouraged students to spend time on homework, and the second message followed up about their performance on the first exam.
Kurlaender and her co-author on the project, Scott Carrell, found that students who received the email nudges increased the time they spend working on homework and scored “significantly higher” on the second exam, compared with students who did not receive the email nudges.
And while Kurlaender and Carrell saw no significant positive overall effect on course performance or withdrawal rates, they did report that students appreciated the intervention. “[I’d] like to thank you for offering your help in such a kind manner, I’ve rarely seen teachers at this school respond to missed assignments the way you have,” wrote one student in response. “I’ll be sure to complete future assignments in a timely manner, the first practice homework was indeed pretty helpful.”
The positive feedback from the UC Davis study prompted Kurlaender and Carrell to replicate the study at a less selective California university to learn whether light touch interventions would improve student outcomes at a more access-oriented institution.
In the second study, the email interventions included a welcome email at the beginning of the term, an email offering performance feedback halfway through the semester, and an email at the end of the term before the final exam. Each email was designed to offer feedback and information about the course, as well as strategies and steps students could take to improve performance.
Unlike the study at UC Davis, the study at the access-oriented institution found no evidence that the email nudges influenced students’ course performance. But again, students reported that they appreciated the emails. “Maybe this was too light-touch, but we wanted something scalable but that wouldn’t take too much time,” explains Kurlaender.
Other institutions have found positive results from similar light-touch interventions. For example, Chris Hutt, the Assistant Vice President for Academic Advising at Kennesaw State University (KSU), sent a 34-word email to 4,000 of his students, encouraging them to register for courses for the following semester. The email took just a minute to draft and send, write Hutt and Sarah Matta, KSU’s Associate Director for Advising Practice, in an EAB blog post.
But within a few days, more than 1,100 students responded, describing the registration barriers they faced.
The success of the registration nudge prompted Hutt and Matta to experiment with other low-effort faculty interventions. For example, Matta sent an email to students who had registered for 12-14 credits to encourage them to register for one more course.
Several students responded to explain that they didn’t know the benefits of taking 15+ credits. Others faced barriers that made it difficult to register for another class. And 187 (11%) of the 1,610 students enrolled in at least one additional course after Matta’s email nudge.
“This was a huge win for us: We’re always trying to find ways to connect students to our resources,” write Hutt and Matta. “By changing our perspective on email and thinking of it as a tool to engage, rather than just to inform, we created space for new conversations” (Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 1/14).