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Three Ingredients That Influence Students to Take Action

Any parent, teacher, or coach has experienced the frustration of attempting to motivate an unmotivated student to act.

  • Don’t forget to apply for that scholarship.
  • Please pick up your clothes in your room.
  • Have you interviewed for any jobs this summer?
  • When are you going to write that paper?

Millions of teens are notorious for apathy—and they have been for centuries, as far as we can tell. I had my own periods of low motivation, taking care of my type 1 diabetes when I was a college student. At times, I needed a nudge.

The Pros and Cons of Nudging

One strategy adult leaders have used over the years is nudging. Mothers have tried nudging their children to do what they knew they were supposed to do for years, and now colleges have attempted their own form of nudging with new or potential students.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “One increasingly popular strategy for helping these (unmotivated) students is to ‘nudge’ them. Nudging, which is grounded in behavioral economics, uses low-cost, low-touch interventions to encourage, but not require, people to take a particular action. Putting healthful food at eye level in the cafeteria is a nudge. So is having employees opt out of, rather than into, a retirement savings plan.”

The strategy was created and made popular by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, and it helped them become famous in education. During his term, President Obama signed an executive order that included nudging in the world of higher education. And the early experiments worked. High performing students from low-income families were nudged to apply to elite colleges via electronic messaging (usually texts), and a growing percentage did. Because it was a low-cost form of reminder, some called nudging a no-brainer. It cost a university about $6 per student.

But as nudging expanded, its limitations were revealed.

The University of Toronto’s professor of economics, Philip Oreopoulos, researched the idea as it expanded into other parts of student life:

  • Completing loan counseling.
  • Filing for FAFSA.
  • Submitting health records.
  • Applying for financial aid.

Oreopoulos discovered nudging wasn’t a silver bullet after all. He and a co-author summed up the findings in a paper called The Remarkable Unresponsiveness of College Students to Nudging and What We Can Learn from It.” The paper reports that none of the interventions they had tested made a significant difference in academic outcomes. Further, a 2014 study by Castleman and Page on text-messaging nudges to file the FAFSA suggested that those efforts failed to generate any encouraging results.

What Are the Secrets to Successfully Influencing Students?

So, when does nudging actually work? Are there any patterns that predict success? After surveying the findings, three ingredients came to light:

1. Timing

If students don’t connect the dots between your nudge and their need to act, it will likely fall on deaf ears. They must sense some urgency, recognizing their action should take priority over other plans that day. Our nudging must be genuinely timed with their need to take a step. It must be just-in-time not just-in-case.

2. Relationship

Recent studies suggest that college’s nudges are more effective when students feel more connected to the sender. In one successful intervention, high-achieving, low-income students in Michigan were nudged to apply at U.M., and it worked. Our nudges must feel personal, sent from someone who knows and cares about them.

3. Belief

Imagine the difference between a text that says, “Don’t forget to file your FAFSA” and one that says, “We know that FAFSA can be a challenge. But just like you’ve handled your academic challenges, you can handle this. Have you started FAFSA yet? Reply YES or NO.” Students respond best to personal messages of belief.

I am embarrassed to admit my wife had to nudge me twice to change a light bulb in our family room today. I will acknowledge, however, when she leveraged the three elements above, her nudged worked on me.

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Three Ingredients That Influence Students to Take Action