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Keeping Students on Track With a Mobile "Nudge"

The University of Washington Tacoma is hoping to improve retention with a daily support message sent to each student's mobile device.

Retention and student success have long been among the biggest issues facing institutions of higher education, but a new generation of students is complicating matters. "There has been a change in who goes to college," according to Colleen Carmean, assistant chancellor for academic technologies at the University of Washington Tacoma. "We think of the traditional student as the person right out of high school; but now the demographic is across the board. What in the past was a small percentage of students returning to college is now the majority. We are a nation going to college, as people realize they need a college degree in order to have a more successful life."

As an urban-serving university in the downtown hub of Tacoma, WA, UWT has first-hand experience with today's "post-traditional" or "new traditional" learners. Many of its 4,300 students are first-generation, part-time, low-income or underprepared for college. What's more, research indicates that young people going to college are not as mature as in previous generations, noted Carmean. "This is a change for American higher education," she said. "This is a more protected generation, coming into adulthood much later. They arrive at college not prepared for their new responsibilities. So how does the infrastructure of a university, with certain expectations, change to accommodate this fact?"

Persistence Plus Mobile Nudge
Persistence Plus' mobile "nudge"

The Mobile Nudge
Looking for a way to help these "new traditionals" persist from freshman year into succeeding years, UWT turned to a technology that is already ubiquitous to most students: mobile. The institution was the first school to use Persistence Plus, a personalized mobile support system that uses behavioral interventions to reach out to, engage and support students throughout their college years. The service helps keep students on track by delivering a mobile "nudge", a daily text message that reminds them about quizzes and tests, helps with time, stress, and performance management, and encourages appropriate behavioral responses.

"We deliver support through the channel that students use most," explained Jill Frankfort, CEO and cofounder of Persistence Plus, a two-year-old company that uses behavioral science, mobile technology and data analytics to foster the behaviors and mindsets associated with college success. Students receive Persistence Plus mobile nudges via SMS or through an Android or iOS smartphone app. The cost of the service is structured around a setup fee and a license based on per-student cost and the customization level required.

Regular behavioral nudges are designed to enhance resiliency, planning skills and progress tracking. The service aims to help students learn how to prepare for and deal with academic setbacks and external obstacles; organize their time and responsibilities; and make progress toward short‐ and long-term goals. "There is growing research showing that students drop out of college not just because of lack of finances or weak academic skills," Frankfort said. "Increasingly, students do not 'persist' because of non-cognitive factors: lack of confidence, lack of connection, feeling overwhelmed."

UWT course instructors work with Persistence Plus to code assignments and test deadlines into the daily nudges, as well as reminder dates for the university's academic calendar. Deadlines are turned into timely, supportive nudges. A learning algorithm monitors students' response to the messages and determines appropriate support replies.

As Frankfort explained, "We work with behavioral experts, both on staff and externally. Studies show that if you help people identify time and place to complete a certain task, they are far more likely to complete the behavior that is prompted. One way we help students is to help them plan their time, or to create a mental map, if you will." The complexity, according to Frankfort, lies in identifying the right nudge for the right student at the right time: what the message looks like; when it should be delivered; and the type of response that is solicited.

Student Support
"Our mission is to do what we can to get our students to the finish line," said Carmean. "If this support helps, if we can help them to stay on track, our students will be better prepared, more successful." Carmean compared the daily nudge to the Microsoft Calendar "ding." "We're hoping to create mobile 'dings' that help with time, stress and information management, that give [learners] the research information they need about what makes a successful student, that help them with their mental and emotional needs as students."

As an example, she cited the full-time working mother with children at home. "She is stressed; her commitments are high across many different obligations. Anything we can do to help her could make the difference between whether or not she makes it to graduation." She added that the same goes for first-generation students who don't know what to expect from the college experience. "There's no one at home to mentor or support them in this experience, and there is high anxiety among them."

"This is the new majority," Carmean emphasized. "We need to start thinking about how to serve the needs of these students, rather than thinking of the typical college student as ourselves years later."

At UWT, the greatest retention struggle is often the first year. Students are discovering the commitment is long and difficult, with much sacrifice ahead. Carmean explained that their greatest challenge is coming back after the summer off: "It's hard," she said, adding that, hopefully, daily support nudges over the summer keep students feeling connected and curtail "summer melt." The evidence, for Carmean and her associates, will be in September, when they see how many students return for sophomore year.

"There has been a huge change in the way we think about supporting our students," concluded Carmean. "We have to get around that at the institutional level. Behavioral reminders need to be the default, not the option. To increase access to disadvantaged populations without recognizing the need for new forms of engagement is a venture sure to fail."

About the Author

Toni Fuhrman is a writer and creative consultant based in Los Angeles.

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