Why nudges work and how to use them to keep students on track

Daily Briefing

Why nudges work and how to use them to keep students on track

Students want to succeed, but psychological and structural barriers can get in their way. Colleges and universities that invest in nudges can remove these obstacles and help students stay on track. 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, define a nudge as an action that encourages, rather than mandates, a particular behavior. Nudging, which is rooted in behavioral economics, considers the cognitive, emotional, and social factors that prevent people from accomplishing goals.

In higher ed, nudges can take the form of texts, emails, or alerts that encourage students to complete tasks that help them succeed, such as completing enrollment or attending office hours.

Leaders from all corners of campus use nudges, including academic advisors and faculty, to better support students. Provosts who oversee these teams can get a better sense of whether the interventions are working by asking two questions.

Does the nudge encourage students to make a decision that will benefit them?

A well-designed nudge encourages students to make a decision that aligns with their academic, professional, or personal goals.

But an ineffective nudge can push students away or even introduce a new obstacle. For example, sending struggling students a personalized email alert that they’ll be put on academic probation if they fail another course could drive them to drop out. In this case, a nudge that simply reminds students of academic policies may not encourage them to persist.

A better nudge might encourage students to develop healthy academic habits by noting that students who go to the tutoring center often improve their grades and asking if students need additional support.

Does the nudge address the root of the problem?

Effective nudges address the reasons why students don’t complete tasks or adopt habits that may benefit them.

For example, reminding students to file for graduation can be helpful, but it may not target the reasons why students aren’t filing for graduation on their own. Students may not file for graduation because they don’t realize they’re eligible or believe they’re ineligible. Those reasons point to larger issues with how the institution communicates degree progress and likely won’t be solved with a deadline reminder.

A better nudge might include the deadline reminder, straightforward information on the student’s degree progress, and encourage students to visit their advisor with questions.

Here are a few ways colleges deploy nudges to promote student success.

1: Refile the FAFSA

Arizona State University partnered with ideas42, a behavioral economics lab, to address students’ failure to refile FAFSA after their first year. Researchers discovered that many students didn’t know they had to reapply for FAFSA, while others missed the priority deadline. Students were also overwhelmed by the many steps in the process.


increase in ASU's FAFSA submission rate after the university implemented nudges to reduce barriers to reapplication
increase in ASU’s FAFSA submission rate after the university implemented nudges to reduce barriers to reapplication

So ideas42 created a series of straightforward, behavior-centered messages designed to reduce barriers to reapplying for FAFSA. It worked: The FAFSA submission rate increased by 72% among the group in which both students and parents received emails.

2: Reduce summer melt

When Georgia State University (GSU) decided to tackle summer melt, they knew that previous research had found that extra communication with students could help prevent summer melt, but they were concerned about scaling up the strategies for their large student population.

So institution leaders worked with a third party to create a chatbot to help guide students through their pre-matriculation tasks. Called “Pounce” after the university’s mascot, the chatbot takes in data about each student’s progress and creates customized messages to help each student complete the next step in the process, whatever that might be.


decline in summer melt at Georgia State University after the school launched an enrollment chatbot
decline in summer melt at Georgia State University after the school launched an enrollment chatbot

The experiment has paid off. After implementing Pounce, summer melt at GSU dropped by 21%. Anecdotally, leaders also found that the system made students more proactive. The regular nudges and reminders encouraged students to build a habit of identifying and asking questions about small problems before they got too large to resolve.

3: Retain first-year students

The University of Washington Tacoma (UW Tacoma) partnered with a third party to develop nudges to help first-year students persist. UW Tacoma’s text message-based nudges include sending students supportive messages about finding resources, feeling connected, studying, and important deadlines. These simple gestures help foster a “sense of belonging,” says Colleen Carmean, the university’s associate vice chancellor for academic innovation.

So far, their efforts have worked. One 2017 study found that colleges—including UW Tacoma—using these customized text messages saw a six percentage-point increase in degree completion among students most at risk of dropping out.

(Schwartz, Education Dive, 1/15/19; UW Tacoma site, accessed 8/13; Carmean/Frankfort, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/1/18;  Sunstein, The Conversation, 10/13/2017; Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/29/16).

Learn how other campus leaders use nudges

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