Aaron J. Petuch, Texas A&M University
Communication is an important aspect of the advisor-advisee relationship, and this interplay helps both parties establish mutual trust, understand one another’s perspectives, and provide clarity on goal achievement, to name a few. With the sheer number of duties that academic advisors face, it is a challenge to consistently preserve fundamental elements of communication. This is exacerbated by academic advisors becoming increasingly overburdened by their workload, emotional exhaustion, and a lack of institutional support (Gregerson et al., 2022). Mass outreaches have the benefit of reaching many students at once, and academic advisors conduct these types of outreaches for a myriad of reasons, including but not limited to prompting them to register, informing them of an opportunity, reminding them to submit an important document, and encouraging perseverance during midterms. However, they also have the disadvantage of eliminating personalized communication components, which diminishes the likelihood of students following through. Research on the art and science of large-scale outreach is blooming, and advisors can hone their communications to maximize effectiveness.
When advisors send outreaches, they are attempting to influence students toward a particular choice, way of thinking, or other behavior. In the literature, the term nudge has taken precedence and refers to altering the environment so that senses favor a certain outcome (Saghai, 2013). Nudges come in many forms, including but not limited to emails, text messages, verbal cues, slogans, and gestures, and usually serve the purpose of either informing, encouraging, or preventing. Regardless, there is an identified purpose with little effort for the recipient. Most advisors are well-versed in sending outreaches to students, but they do not always achieve the desired results. Suhaimi and Hussin (2017) analyzed the findings of several significant research papers and found that students are drowning in information, particularly when technology, academic requirements, and personal commitments are considered. Coupled with the incessant communication they receive daily, it is no wonder that students do not follow through, respond, etc.
Behavioral and physiological elements are at play, especially when considering what is most fundamental. Famous behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner (1974) asserted that human beings interact with the environment to generate consequences that in turn affect their behaviors. Through learning via past experiences, individuals could be less likely to respond to stimuli. Thus, outreaches can lose their effectiveness due to students being conditioned to respond based on past consequences. Regarding the latter, Lewis (2015) concurred that people are bombarded with information in today’s world, and our brains struggle with filtering out information. Specifically, two structures in our brains (i.e., the thalamus and cerebral cortex) work together to select environmental information that is a priority, but the system is susceptible to inundation, resulting in over saturation. This can be especially true for students when responding to an email or carrying out a task that does not take priority over competing demands in the environment. While advisors cannot directly manipulate the physiology of their students or make drastic changes to their interactions with the environment, nudges can be structured in such a way as to yield more favorable results.
With well over 50,000 bachelor’s degree-seeking students, Texas A&M University has one of the largest undergraduate student populations in the country. The Office for Student Success (OSS) tracked enrollees throughout the registration season and sent nudges to students who missed their registration to remind them of upcoming opportunities to select classes. During the fall 2021 registration cycle, five colleges/departments allowed OSS to send outreaches on their behalf, and this was compared to four areas that wanted to send their own. Registrants were tracked throughout the spring and into the summer, resulting in a 4.94% difference in favor of those areas that permitted OSS to assist. The efforts were replicated during the spring 2022 registration campaign, and the results were as impressive (i.e., a 5.41% increase) for those assisted. It should be noted that the two groups naturally shuffled between the first round and the replication, which further supports the results. While the results are not indicative of causation, OSS believes that effective nudges played a role in encouraging students to register.
This begs the question, what constitutes an effective nudge? Burdick and Peeler (2021) suggest that nudges are supposed to gently encourage recipients, contain a human element, be thoughtful and particular, have suitable language, and incorporate elements of teamwork. These suggestions are even more important considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, effective nudging can increase the perception of feeling supported and facilitate connectedness. There is a definite subconscious component aimed at getting students’ attention at pivotal moments throughout the semester and giving them an open, yet optional channel of communication that can facilitate effectiveness (Burdick & Peeler, 2021). OSS concurred with these assumptions and proposed the following elements for effective nudges: awareness of purpose, striving for compactness, limiting action items, avoiding new obstacles, and timeliness.
Awareness of Purpose. Before creating a nudge, advisors should define and build outreach around their central purpose. Typically, nudges are meant to either inform, encourage, or prevent something. If a well-defined purpose is not carried out accurately, the anticipated results run the risk of not yielding the actual outcomes. For example, if an advisor designed a nudge to encourage an action such as registering for courses but did not include a website link to do so, the outreach might only inform students instead of motivating them to complete an action.
Compactness. When designing the nudge, it is important to retain salient points but also not come across as long-winded. If compactness is not enforced, students could get lost in the communication and feel unsure about what they are supposed to do (e.g., become informed, complete an action, etc.). As a result, the desired outcome risks not being attained. It is recommended that advisors think about how to get their points across in the smallest number of words possible.
Limit Action Items. For nudges that strive to encourage an action item, it is recommended to stick to one item at a time. For instance, if the purpose of an outreach is to encourage students to sign-up for a new tutoring program, additional action items (e.g., filling out an academic survey, reminding them to see someone about advising-related holds, etc.) should be avoided. Advisors can master this step by practicing reading nudges and eliminating anything that can be construed as an additional action item.
Avoid New Obstacles. The fourth element involves not adding obstacles to the mix. For example, if the purpose of a nudge is to inform students about the scholastic deficiency process but also includes potential penalties (e.g., probation, suspension, etc.) as consequences, the designer of this nudge intentionally included an obstacle that could hinder students’ ability to understand its purpose and cause undue anxiety. It is imperative to pinpoint potential obstacles and remove them.
Timeliness. Lastly, the timing of nudges should be considered, especially when time is of the essence. For example, if an advisor plans to send a nudge to remind students to complete and submit their anticipated registration schedules, it will make little sense to send it immediately prior to the deadline. In this instance, sending the nudge weeks in advance would be appropriate to allow students time to complete and submit it. On the other hand, nudges that are sent too early run the risk of being ineffective due to too much time passing between the nudge itself and the anticipated action. An example would be nudging students to inform them of academic standards pertaining to midterms in let’s say week eight of the semester. If instead the nudge was sent during week five, when they are taking other exams, the nudge would most likely not be effective, and this could also induce confusion and possible pandemonium.
In conclusion, communication is a vital piece of the advisor-advisee relationship, and there are occasions when it is appropriate to influence students toward a particular choice, way of thinking, or other behavior. Even though behavioral and psychological elements are at play, nudges are powerful tools that, if designed correctly, can motivate students via encouraging, informing, or preventing. Adhering to a specified purpose, aiming for compactness, reducing action items, steering clear of new obstacles, and seizing the best opportunities for implementation can maximize the effectiveness of nudges.
Aaron J. Petuch
Office for Student Success
Texas A&M University
Burdick, J. M., & Peeler, E. (2021). The value of effective nudging during COVID. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2021/02/23/how-strong-nudge-campaign-can-improve-student-outcomes-during-covid-opinion
Gregerson, K., Sutton, L., & Miller, O. (2022, March). From self-care to systemic change: The evolution of advisor well-being in NACADA. Academic Advising Today, 45(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/From-Self-Care-to-Systemic-Change-The-Evolution-of-Advisor-Well-Being-in-NACADA.aspx
Lewis, J. G. (2015). This is how the brain filters out unimportant details. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-babble/201502/is-how-the-brain-filters-out-unimportant-details
Saghai, Y. (2013). Salvaging the concept of nudge. Journal of Medical Ethics, 39(2), 487–493. https://doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2012-100727
Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. Alfred A. Knopf.
Suhaimi, F. A. B., & Hussin, N. B. (2017). The influence of information overload on students’ academic performance. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 7(8), 760–766. https://doi.org/10.6007/IJARBSS/v7-i8/3292
Cite this article using APA style as: Petuch, A.J. (2022, September). The poser of nudges: Five elements to facilitate outreach. Academic Advising Today, 45(3). [insert url here]