It’s long been thought that one of the most practical tools that colleges have to support students is the academic notice or “nudge”: when a student is falling behind in their coursework, a notice from their teachers or the dean of students can let them know they’re falling behind, and motivate them to stay on track.
But new research, reported at Inside Higher Ed, is calling the effectiveness of the practice into question. Giving students notice that they’re falling behind is helpful at first, the studies show, but becomes increasingly less so over time. It’s still a good thing to do—students who are nudged on their academic performance do better overall than comparable students who aren’t—but the more you do it, the less helpful it gets.
Does it have to be that way? Maybe not: Calbright uses academic notifications extensively, and does not see the same reduction in effectiveness, according to Amandeep Kandola, the College’s dean of student success.
“I completely agree with the findings, I’ve seen the reduction of the impact of student nudging and support in traditional settings,” she said. “But our model for student support is very different, and we’re seeing that in ongoing student impact.”
What is it that Calbright’s doing that sustains the impact of academic nudges? Kandola identified five key practices that she said are making a difference.
Timeliness – Every Second Counts
“In traditional settings, there is often a lag time between the trigger of the alert and the student receiving an alert,” Kandola said. “But because our academic counselors and support teams have access to student performance in real time in a way that most colleges don’t, this eliminates the lag, and means we can reach out to the student just in time.”
The sooner support staff can engage, the more effective it’s likely to be, and the less the student has to do to get back on track.
Personalization – We Know Our Students
“Calbright’s outreach is personalized to the student, instead of generic messaging,” Kandola said. This means that students receive support notices from people they already have a connection with.
More than that, however: Calbright has already established the way students want to receive communications, and we tailor them to fit with the way students want to be contacted. Some students are more responsive to emails, others to text. Some prefer a phone call or to schedule a Zoom meeting. Some are most active on Calbright’s Slack channels. However the student communicates, that’s the way Calbright staff, who they’ve already connected with, will reach out to them.
It makes a difference.
Better Data Means Better Outcomes
Successful academic interventions don’t begin when the student starts to fail, Kandola said – they begin when you work with the student to plan for success.
“Every student who enrolls at Calbright goes through a planning process where they work with our counselors to identify their specific basic needs and academic support needs. Where do they seem themselves needing help? Where do they want extra support? We have those conversations with students, and then we factor that data in as we follow their performance to ensure they get connected to the resources and support that they need right at the beginning of their studies.”
That means students get off to a strong start, and if they start to fall behind, the support systems they need are already identified and in place. Important conversations on how a student can be supported have already happened.
Students Set Their Own Flexible Goals
Calbright is a free online community college that uses a Competency-Based Education model, which means that students have a flexible learning environment. They can spend as much or as little time in the classroom as they want: we’re measuring what they know, not how long it takes.
As a result, Calbright is able to work with students to set their own expectations for how much time they want to spend studying, and where they want to be in their classes in three months, six months, or a year into the future.
Increasingly, Kandola says, Calbright is finding that when students set their own goals, they are more responsive to notices saying that they’re falling behind.
“Students set a timeline for completion for their goals, and we follow-up on where they are compared to where they say they want to be,” Kandola said. “We check in, and it helps students stay on track.”
Because of Calbright’s Competency-Based Education model, students who are falling behind because a major life event has occurred can work with their academic support counselor to make the program fit their needs. If a child gets sick, or a parent is in the hospital, or work changes their hours, Calbright can accommodate to keep a student on track.
“If something has happened that means a student needs to go on a slower path to complete their goals, that is totally doable,” Kandola said. “The timelines can be adjusted to fit their lives. We don’t have to hold them to an arbitrary timeline. The important thing is that they keep going.”
Best Practices Support Diverse Students
These factors mean Calbright’s academic nudges retain their effectiveness, and students experience significantly higher persistence rate than at other community colleges. Further, we do so with a population that is more diverse than traditional colleges.
This means that new best practices, like the kind Calbright is developing, can bring the benefits of a college education to populations for whom it’s traditionally been out of reach. By reimagining college, we can make it better.