Improving Graduation Rates by Nudging Faculty, Not Students

Jeff Gold, Roy Stripling and Michal Kurlaender describe a program that encourages professors to use tools offering specifics about the academic trajectories of their students to help facilitate those students' paths to a college degree.

January 23, 2020
 
 
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Experiments in behavioral economics and education suggest that individuals can benefit from a “nudge” to complete tasks. In higher education, more often than not, these nudges are about student behavior. From scheduling meetings with advisers to attending faculty office hours, students are nudged to complete tasks that could improve their educational success.

In today’s increasingly global knowledge economy, however, preparing students for success requires adapting college to students as much as it requires students adapting to college. To that end, we at California State University wanted to test whether faculty members could be nudged to use tools that offer specifics about the academic trajectories of the students in their classroom and follow suggestions for facilitating their path to a college degree. Based on our early results, we would argue that nudging faculty is a strategy that should be in the toolbox for all higher education institutions attempting to better support students.

The impetus for nudging faculty arose as part of our Graduation Initiative 2025, an ambitious commitment by the nation’s largest and most diverse university system to help an increasing number of students earn a high-quality college degree and eliminate equity gaps. Achieving this vision requires transformative change at every level within the university’s 23 campuses -- and most important, among the 27,000 members of the university’s faculty.

For many students, the most influential person in their college experience is a faculty member. Given this outsize influence, faculty members must have the most effective tools to support their students. Empowered with contextualized data about their students, they can identify opportunities to adjust their pedagogy, implement curricular changes and remove institutional barriers to student success.

Supporting faculty in this endeavor, CSU created a set of student success dashboards with interactive visualizations disaggregated to the department, major and course level. Highlights of the dashboards include salient information about students who leave the institution without a degree, analyses of course GPA gaps between underserved students and their peers, and predictive models that assess the relationship between meeting early academic milestones and completing a college degree.

Those dashboards received rave reviews from faculty members, but utilization rates indicated that less than 10 percent of the professoriate was using the resources. To scale the reach of the dashboards and nudge faculty to use the tools, we borrowed from an oft-used student engagement strategy: the email campaign.

The goal was to deliver a personalized email to all campus faculty members that they would open and read and that would compel them to click on the embedded links and visit the dashboards. We partnered with administrators at two CSU campuses to produce and send a contextualized message from the provost, alerting faculty of the availability of the dashboards and extolling their value and connection to the campus mission. The subject, salutation and interactive graphics embedded in the email were customized for each recipient.

Below the provost’s message, we included an infographic designed to engage faculty with five highly relevant data-informed questions related to the students in their classrooms. Each question was accompanied by a “Find the Answer” button that, when clicked, opened a browser window and presented a specific page in the corresponding dashboard.

For example, if the question read, “Which electrical engineering courses have the largest GPA gaps between first-generation students and their peers?” the button would take users to a course-level equity-gaps page in the dashboard. A visual depiction of the 10 courses in the faculty member’s department with the largest GPA gaps between first-generation and non-first-generation students would be presented.

Were faculty nudged to learn about their students? According to MailChimp, typical education and training industry email campaigns average an open rate of 17 percent and a click-through rate (meaning the email reader clicked on at least one link inside the email message) of 2 percent. Our expectations were marginally higher, given that we were sending the message from campus leaders to their faculty members. But even with this caveat, the results far exceeded our expectations.

Our first campaign, which was conducted during a spring term, received an open rate of 46 percent and a click-through rate of 12 percent. Our second campaign, launched the following fall term, had an open rate of 80 percent and a click-through rate of 29 percent. A deeper analysis of those statistics indicates that, on average, faculty members who clicked through to the dashboard did so on three separate occasions within a two-week period. These repeat visits suggest that faculty members who accessed the dashboard were highly engaged with the data.

Amy S. Fleischer, dean of the College of Engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, attested to the positive impact that using the dashboards had in promoting student success discussions in her college. She noted that her faculty implemented a variety of pedagogical improvements in a mechanical engineering dynamics course as a result of their dashboard discoveries prompted through the email campaign. “By better understanding the particular points at which our students struggle,” she said, “we can better target our efforts to improve graduation rates.”

Nudging students via text and email messages is an increasingly popular practice that has been proven to have an impact on their success. At California State University, we have seen early success in employing a similar practice with the faculty. Salient attributes of our nudge campaign, which should be considered by other institutions, include the timing of delivery, the author of the message (the provost), the personalized communication and the ability to access the dashboards with a single click.

Today, there is a dire need to identify what colleges and universities can do to better support students in achieving their degree goals. While we focus most of our efforts on understanding and changing student behaviors, we should also support the behaviors of leaders across the institution. We certainly recognize that helping faculty members identify where changes might be needed to better meet their students’ needs will require more than an email nudge. But raising awareness around where and how to obtain such information is an important first step.

Bio

Jeff Gold is assistant vice chancellor of student success at the California State University Office of the Chancellor. Roy Stripling is director of the Student Success Dashboard there. Michal Kurlaender is department chair and professor of education at University of California, Davis.

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