Digital Alerts, Or Nudges, May Help College Students Stay on Track in STEM Courses

Gentle reminders and offers of support via text, email or alerts may be just the motivation college students — especially minority and adult learners — need to continue in courses perceived as being tough.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that nagging college students doesn’t work. But it turns out that digital nudging — texts, emails and alerts — may actually spur them to continue in challenging disciplines like STEM. 

The digital nudge is a concept that draws from behavioral science and social psychology. It’s sent electronically — often using text-based technology — so there’s no in-person hectoring or browbeating. And it’s often personalized, so a student knows they aren’t the recipient of a mass message. 

“Nudging to STEM Success,” a recently released report by the nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future and Persistence Plus, an education technology company, focuses on a study conducted over the course of two years and involving 9,500 students at four community colleges. The report reveals that 72 percent of the students who participated in a nudges trial decided to continue on in science, technology, engineering and math courses after their first semesters, compared with just 56 percent of the students who opted to not receive nudges. Among students of color, 62 percent of those who received nudges persisted, compared to 46 percent of those who decided to opt out of the program. The cohort that responded best to nudges were students over 25, with 64 percent of those who received nudges continuing their STEM studies.

For the study, which began in 2017, nudges were delivered through an intelligent texting software, which then reacted to real-time student responses. Artificial intelligence and analytics were used to synthesize student responses, which enabled more personalized support to students. Colleges were also able to receive strong data on what students actually needed and accessed on campus. Nudging could then prove to be a key differentiator for students when choosing a college, because it’s a program that shows the institution cares about their well-being and not just about tuition and fees. 

The community colleges that participated were Lakeland Community College, Lorain County Community College and Stark State College in Ohio and John Tyler Community College in Virginia. Following the success of the study, three of the four colleges plan to continue using these nudging strategies and expand them to beyond STEM programs.

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Nudges May Help Overcome ‘Psychosocial Barriers’

Students interviewed for the study reported that the just-in-time nature of the messages helped increase their motivation and tenacity to overcome challenges, said the authors of the study. That’s because JFF and Persistence Plus carefully tailored and calibrated the timing and the messages of the nudges.

For example, at Stark State College, particular attention was given to the fourth week of semesters, when the first exam of a course is generally scheduled.

“Nudges were tailored to remind students to seek tutoring prior to the exam, to begin studying and to ask if they needed assistance. Students commented on the nudges making them realize that the college cared about them and was focused on helping them achieve their career goals,” says Lada Gibson-Shreve, provost and chief academic officer at Stark State.

What’s more, nudges also alerted students to nonacademic services they might not have been aware of. This removed some stress, helping them focus more on academics. Such nudges were found particularly helpful for students with fewer personal resources, for those from the minority community and for students over 25. Many of these students face what another short study termed “psychosocial barriers.”

“Often, the barriers that today’s students face are complex and multifaceted — balancing work, family, transportation, health and wellness, and finances. To overcome these challenges, students need encouragement. They need to know they are not alone and that there are resources available to help them keep going under adverse circumstances,” said Dr. Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College, in a press release.

For example, if some students didn’t have money for food —referred to as a “a hidden barrier” — they would miss meals. A nudge would alert them, without fear of social embarrassment, to utilize the food pantry. In the case of students over 25, nudges pointed them to amplified college support services in the areas of financial planning, tutoring and advising. Nudges also helped these students cope with having to support a family or working long hours while going to college.

“Students experience life events that prevent them from persisting, but they also are not always aware of the academic and student support services that we offer at Stark State College. The nudging grant from the study tailored information to Stark State College so we could inform students of academic and support services available to assist them. Our counseling staff also makes referrals to community agencies, which can assist students with life events,” says Stark’s Gibson-Shreve. 

The results of the study are encouraging for the STEM field, where millions of jobs are going unfilled.

“These results offer powerful evidence on the potential, and imperative, of using technology to support students during the most in-demand, and often most challenging, courses and majors. … [C]losing the gap in STEM achievement has profound economic — and equity — implications,” said Maria Flynn, president and CEO of JFF, in a press release.

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Nov 20 2019

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