Applying nudge strategies to higher education

Behavioural interventions have been successful in improving graduation rates among first-generation and underrepresented students in the US and should be embraced by more educators, say Ben Castleman and Ethan Fletcher 

July 6, 2018
Elephants nudging
Source: iStock
Steering in the right direction: 'nudging' encourages students to apply to leading universities, a study suggests

Over the past few decades, more low-income and first-generation students are going to college, reducing the attendance gap between rich and poor students in the US. During this same time, though, the college graduation gap has grown. As higher education administrators face increased pressure to improve graduation rates – which hover around 59 per cent at four-year schools – some are taking a page out of a Nobel laureate’s book.

Richard Thaler was awarded the Prize in Economics for his pioneering work in applied behavioural economics last year, bringing nudge strategies to the mainstream. Thaler and colleagues’ insights about how people make decisions when faced with complex choices and complicated processes have spawned a range of efforts to bring behavioural science to higher education – from initiatives to reduce “summer melt” and apply for financial aid to strategies that help students reframe challenges and respond in productive ways.

Evidence from experiments like these consistently show that behavioural interventions can improve students’ postsecondary outcomes. But after research projects end, when proof-of-concept is established, innovative solutions often are underutilised. This is not necessarily surprising from a behavioural economics perspective: educators across the country may have low visibility about these innovations; put off investing the time into learning about them; or assume they’re not the kind of person who can adopt a nudge strategy.

To implement successful innovations in their own schools and colleges, educators need clear, digestible information about which innovations have worked, in what contexts these innovations were effective and what resources are required to put in place a similar innovation for their students.

That’s why we took the most effective, cutting-edge behavioural innovations from leading researchers and put them into a free toolkit specifically for educators: Nudges, Norms, and New Solutions. The innovations we feature in the toolkit cover the spectrum from when students are in high school all the way through college. Along with the toolkit we launched the Nudge Hotline, which educators can contact for free support from a behavioural designer tailoring evidence-based nudge strategies for their student population.

For example, many people know that an “I’m just not college material” mindset is common among first-generation and underrepresented students and can be detrimental to success. But how can educators promote a sense among students that they do belong in college? A belonging exercise created by Greg Walton and colleagues detailed in the toolkit substantially decreased the academic achievement gap between African American and white students in college.

The evidence also suggests that setting goals and making plans supports students to persevere in college. But it isn’t always easy for educators to prompt students to set effective and realistic goals. An intervention to facilitate goal-setting at McGill University engaged students in a two-and-a-half hour workshop, in which the researchers prompted students to reflect on, prioritise and affirm their commitment to achieving their goals. Students on academic probation who were assigned to the workshop experienced an increase in GPA of 0.5 relative to the control group.

Of course, not all the challenges students face can be addressed at the university level. We also call on policymakers to leverage behavioural design to make it easier for students to access beneficial programmes and opportunities. Policies that automatically registered high school students for college entrance exams, waived the exam fees and moved the test to a weekday increased the likelihood of students enrolling in four-year colleges by three percentage points. Incorporating behavioural diagnosis and design insights at policy level can positively affect outcomes for thousands of students.

These examples are only a sampling of the innovations compiled in Nudges, Norms, and New Solutionsa collaboration between the Nudge4 Solutions Lab at the University of Virginia and ideas42, a nonprofit that applies behavioural science to today’s toughest social problems. The stakes are too high not to leverage all the strategies available to help students succeed. Tapping the evidence-based strategies that already exist can create a better higher education journey and help students reach graduation day – and more secure futures. 

Ben Castleman is assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and the founder and director of the Nudge4 Solutions Lab. Ethan Fletcher is managing director at the nonprofit behavioural design lab ideas42.

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