Applying Behavioral Science Principles to Student Support Services

Applying Behavioral Science Principles to Student Support Services

We’ve all aspired to achieve goals, worked to change habits, tried to remove limiting beliefs, and/or follow through on plans. And yet, despite our best intentions, we struggle. Even the highest achievers among us are fallible, and the students we serve are no different.

Fortunately, recent practical research in behavioral science has sought techniques to simplify and accelerate changes in behavior. The emerging principles harness the power of our natural human tendencies rather than fight against them. The strategies and tactics below are just a few of the ways we help our partner institutions leverage the latest in behavioral science to improve student outcomes.

Nudge and pull

Challenge — No one likes nagging. In fact, pushing people to do things often intensifies their resistance. When students don’t engage, the temptation is to bombard them with information or reach out urgently only when a problem arises. Students become conditioned to tune out messages and, in some cases, actively avoid support because it feels unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Solution — Stop nagging and start nudging. Pull, don’t push. Establishing rapport and trust before a situation happens transforms the relationship with a student from a negative to a positive. Quick, convenient, and actionable communication draws students in and ensures they always have an avenue to support.

High touch — Cross-train faculty and staff to gently guide students to take appropriate actions and give them easy-to-follow directions. Do you want better data on the student experience? Have students fill out a survey after each advising meeting. Are students having to wait too long to speak to financial aid personnel? Provide information about relevant programs like Pay As You Earn income-based repayment program in the physical or virtual waiting room.

High tech — Schedule automated text or in-app messages to assess a student’s situation and include links to relevant on-demand content or live support.

Less complexity, more choices

Challenge — The natural human response to complexity is to either choose a default decision or make no decision at all. When presented with too much information and not enough context, students defer to the status quo or become paralyzed.

Solution — Conquer the “choice paradox” by implementing guided pathways that curate choices and make bad decisions less likely. Providing options among good choices keeps students engaged and in the driver’s seat of their own education. It also gives them confidence that they will stay on track and avoid surprise pitfalls that could fracture trust or discourage them from persisting.

High touch — The most robust example of this principle is in the guided pathways approach to degree programs and advising. This integrated, comprehensive initiative can be applied to any student interaction by training and empowering support personnel to make informed recommendations and coach students to stay involved.

High tech — Create online workflows that lead students to good outcomes. Let students know they can opt out or make a different choice but require conscious action to override the default and ensure students receive advice if they veer off the path. 

Positive peer pressure

Challenge — Students often feel isolated, ashamed, and embarrassed when things don’t go well. Many worry that seeking or accepting support will be seen as a sign of weakness.

Solution — Normalize the student experience by demonstrating positive responses for certain behaviors and showing empathy for common scenarios. Proactively show students that it’s normal to have ups and downs while pursuing a degree but don’t minimize or trivialize them. Let them know you want the best for them without assuming everything is fine.

High touch — A coach begins a conversation at midterm by saying, “So many students I’ve talked to today are confused about registration! How is it going for you?”

High tech — Students who haven’t registered by a certain date receive a message that reads: “More than 80 percent of your classmates have already registered! Hurry before it’s too late to get the courses you need to graduate on time and accommodate your busy schedule!”

Captivate on their terms

Challenge — People have only so much cognitive bandwidth, and students, especially those with busy lives and responsibilities outside of school, use up a hefty dose of their attention to make academic progress. If certain actions are critical to persistence and completion, don’t make students choose between unnecessary minutiae and completing assignments.

Solution — Text messages can grab our attention even if for just a moment. Other communication channels are emerging and captivating students’ attention every day. The more saturated these channels become, the more quickly we’ll see their adoption evolve. It’s a moving target, but there will always be a platform to meet students’ needs where they are. Use them wisely and respectfully, and students will pay attention.

High touch — Coaches, faculty, and senior administrators who connect with their students over social media such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are more approachable. When relevant information pops up in the feed where a student checks each day, they are more likely to follow through as soon as they can.

High tech — The same approach can be automated through institutional or online handles. Leverage data, analytics, and technology to place relevant content in the right channels at the right time.

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