All Hope is Not Lost on Nudges: 4 Keys to Success

A growing body of research points to what makes nudges work
Blog Post
Nov. 21, 2019

As institutions try to improve outcomes on a tight budget, many look to nudging as an efficient strategy to do so. Nudging is the behavioral science concept of providing suggestions to influence behavior and decision making, and often makes an appearance as messages to students in higher education. But while nudging has been hailed as a cure-all solution for institutional ailments, a series of recent studies--and the media coverage they generated--made it seem like nudges do not effectively change behavior.

But all hope is not lost!

The answer to whether nudging works is: it depends. A distinct growing body of research on nudges has evolved to show us what does--and doesn't--work when it comes to messaging to students and creating behavior change. With these studies in mind, here are four keys to an effective nudge.

  1. Have the right messenger. Who a nudge comes from matters, and the messenger can make or break a nudge. In one study, the Common App sent nudges to students to remind them to submit their FAFSA application, and only a small positive effect was found. But in a different study where nudges came from counselors, nudges had a much stronger effect on student FAFSA completion, likely because the students receiving these messages had a relationship with the messenger. These two studies highlight that having a messenger with rapport is key to an effective nudge. If students do not know or trust the messenger, nudges can easily be ignored, changing little.
  2. Study your population. The messenger also needs to thoroughly understand their target audience to create a change in behavior. The College Board’s Reach Your College Potential study, for example, aimed to increase low-income student enrollment in “more competitive” colleges through nudges. But in spite of the use of various modalities and tailored messages, students did not change their enrollment patterns. Not only was the messenger likely unknown or untrustworthy to students, but researchers’ deficit-minded assumptions about why low-income students don’t apply to “more competitive” colleges may have been off. Many low-income students intentionally choose to attend “less competitive” institutions because they are a better fit or are closer to home, allowing them to save money and contribute socially and financially to their family. When students have a good reason for their decisions, all the nudging in the world will not get them to change their mind. A holistic understanding of the low-income student population could have led to efforts that better served the population.
  3. Have the right content. The message within the nudge can do harm or be ineffective if not created with care. In addition to a host of ethical failings that can come with careless messaging, diverse individuals can interpret messages differently than how we expect them to. A study found that students were discouraged and even more likely to drop out when compared to the excellent performance of their peers. These messages did not appeal to students in the way researchers thought they would, causing the reverse effect from the one desired. It is important that nudges are behavioral science informed and relevant to their audience so that they can minimize harm while creating behavior change.
  4. Aim for change in the right place. A nudge alone is unlikely to generate substantial behavior change, so carefully identifying who and what needs to change--both with the individual and with the college--is essential for a successful nudge. Another study attempted to increase student GPA by encouraging students to study more. Results backfired- students only slightly increased their study time and simultaneously lowered their grade expectations. But the question remains whether targeting changes in study time is the appropriate goal for increasing student success. Perhaps the students need help improving study habits or more academic support resources from the college in order to graduate. Even a well-targeted nudge will not create substantial change if it is focused on the wrong behavior and does not come along with matching changes and support from the institution.

While there are many more elements that go into an effective nudge, these four points serve as a foundation for effectively communicating and encouraging behavior change in students. As institutions work to improve their outcomes through technology, nudges can be an effective way to help students achieve their goals and have a positive experience, provided they are done correctly and accompanied with institutional change.

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