Focusing on Outcomes

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The idea of nudging is everywhere these days, but don’t be fooled: not all nudges are created equal.  If the goal is improved outcomes, precision matters.  In part 1 and part 2 of this series, we looked at the power of our predictions to detect persistence risk and the learnings from institutions that are implementing nudge campaigns to improve student success. In this post, part 3 of the series, I want to focus on precision in nudging.  

Let’s start with the idea that every communication is not a nudge.  Most institutions are already sending lots of communications to students; this isn’t about more communication.  Student communications that are sent are mostly transactional in nature with a focus on short-term goals, like registration.  I’ve read hundreds of emails sent from institutions to students and they most often are informational, almost contractual, in nature: this email is to inform you that you need to do x before x date or x will happen.  Does this sound familiar?  These may be important communications with clear objectives; but are we communicating with students about the big picture–e.g., learning well and finishing strong–enough?  Precision requires designing with clear and consistent  ends in mind.  

Nudges, on the other hand, focus on longer term goals by influencing mindset to affect a change in behavior that leads to success – persistence and completion. If your goal is persistence or completion, what communications are being sent specifically to target those goals?  For most institutions, very few or none.  This is where precision nudging can be very impactful.  Using George Kuh’s description of nudges, we find that what we say will change significantly if we are designing with the end in mind.

“Nudges are small pushes in the right direction that do not require prescribed actions, but encourage certain behaviors. When students are presented with a nudge sent from a trusted person at your institution, they have the freedom to make their own choices with information about behaviors we know are more strongly associated with positive persistence and graduation outcomes.”- Kuh, George D., et al. Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

In our work with partner institutions on nudge campaigning, precision is increased when we design for the outcome we are trying to impact.  We have found that using mindset principles is an effective approach to influence the outcomes of persistence and completion.  Mindset principles are grounded in positive psychology and development theories, including principles such as growth mindset, belonging, mattering, normalization, and goal setting.

“Research has increasingly shown that there is more to student success than cognitive ability, curriculum and instruction. Students’ mindsets—their beliefs about themselves and the school setting—can powerfully affect whether students learn and grow in school.” – Yeager DS, Paunesku D, Walton GM, Dweck CS (2013) How Can We Instill Productive Mindsets at Scale? A Review of the Evidence and an Initial R&D Agenda. A White Paper prepared for the White House meeting on Excellence in Education: The Importance of Academic Mindsets

As you deploy a nudging campaign strategy at your campus, consider the following questions to optimize results:

  • What is the desired outcome? (For example, improving persistence within the target population.)
  • What is the goal of your nudge campaign? What student behavior are you aiming to affect? (For example, change in mindset or beliefs, develop better time management / study skills)
  • What mindset principles might help your students with reaching the goal? (belonging, mattering, growth mindset, normalization, etc)
  • What one action should the student take as a next step? What is the call-to-action?
  • When is the optimal time to send certain messages?
  • To better align support with need and prioritize those most at-risk, what does the spectrum of risk look like within your target population?
  • How will you measure the success of your nudge campaign?
  • How will you understand the impact of your nudge campaign on sub-groups within the target population?

When you’re equipped with a strong signal for student-level predictions you can trust, taking informed action begins with knowing you’re reaching the right student, at the right time with the right message. That precision has resulted in positive partner outcomes from California to Florida, including additional persisting students, retained tuition revenue, unlocked performance-based funding, and recently, a 31% increase in graduates for Del Mar College.

“We forget the simplicity of a nudge and how effective that kind of outreach can be, especially when it’s timely and personalized,” said Dr. Rito Silva, Del Mar College VP of Student Affairs. “Instead of automatically sending the same message to all students, we can dramatically move the needle on student outcomes when our actions are informed by a stronger signal on what’s impacting our students.”

Advisors, graduation coaches and student success teams are able to understand the predicted level of success or risk for each student, and as a result, scale student support. For Lone Star College, it meant identifying an opportunity to support via Illume Students and then leveraging the student-level persistence prediction scores to send two timely, personalized and encouraging emails to a precisely targeted group of at-risk students. More than 200 students who would have otherwise left the institution re-enrolled at Lone Star. This represented $173,000 in additional retained tuition revenue for the term after just one strategic nudge campaign.

How to Design and Implement Data-Inspired Student Outreach
To aid our partners in the development of messages that work, we created the Nudge Hub: a repository of personalized student messages grounded in positive psychology and development theories, including mindset principles such growth mindset, belonging, mattering, normalization, goal setting, etc. Each message is designed with the goal of influencing student decision-making and driving actions that impact positive student outcomes. We’ve identified optimal times for student outreach, which are aligned with realities of when students need encouragement the most.

As a sneak peek and reference, we’ve distilled some of the key learnings and recommendations into this eBook.


Download the nudging eBook, which includes strategies and tactics to help you design and implement data-inspired student outreach campaigns that improve outcomes.


Laura Malcolm

Laura Malcolm is Co-Founder and Senior VP, Outcomes & Strategy, for Civitas Learning. She has 18 years of education and product design experience building technology products to serve partner institutions, faculty and students in the attainment of their educational goals. At Civitas Learning, Laura leads the design and delivery of solutions and applications that leverage insight analytics to improve student outcomes. Laura is a two-time CODiE Award recipient for product design.

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