Nudging toward success?

Yes, still talking about student success issues.

And most likely going to keep talking about student success for quite some time. We are seeing some positive news, and even some positive trends (4-year graduation rate), but there is still room to grow.

More importantly, growth that we will have in terms of student success will only take place if we are consistent in our efforts and employ these efforts across the broad spectrum of student life. We help our students in the classroom, in tutoring centers, with registration and advising, with financial issues, with health and wellness issues–and more and more and more. There are so many possible hindrances to student success, so there is no such thing as a magic bullet.

Which brings me to today’s topic: The Nudge.

In the disciplines of social psychology and (getting more of the press–perhaps economists have better PR people than do the social psychologists) behavioral economics, there has been a great deal of academic research and popular press coverage of the concept of the nudge.

What does that mean? Very simply put, the idea is that little steps (alone but also in combination) may do more to influence and change human behavior than large scale campaigns and traditional persuasion.

This concept has been explored in relation to student success. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article (probably behind a paywall), there was a nice summary of this approach, and, even better, references to additional research (including a book–not that I am recommending a purchase, but I might) and an article (which I have read and do recommend–especially because it is free).

The article is basically a lit review–and a pretty good one I think–of research that explores a myriad of ways that student success (and in this case, the focus is on access to higher education as much as success while in higher education). I do recommend reading the article so you can have your own views–my takeaways:

  • Most universities have perfectly rational processes in place for admission and retention–and most individuals, especially 18-year-old first time college students, do not routinely engage in highly rational long-term benefit thinking.
  • The completion gap between low-income students and the rest of the population starts way before these students get to college and makes it even less likely they will consider college at all.
  • Complexity is a killer (from the article: “In sum, the complexity of the college-going process itself may hinder students from achieving greater rates of success.”).
  • Choice seems like a good thing, but choice may be hurting more students than it helps. Structure and support and guidance have greater impacts on a student’s likelihood to succeed than does student choice.
  • The transition to college is far more difficult than “we” think–because, after all, most of us have already succeeded in the college setting
  • More information doesn’t necessarily help; active intervention makes the difference
  • Timing matters–just in time information seems to be better than all at once information

So we keep thinking about student success, and we need to keep in mind that big and bold may look good–but little things may make more of a difference. A $1,000 scholarship looks great; not sending a student from office to office may keep more students in school than that $1,000 scholarship.

Some thoughts on nudges.


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