Low-cost, scalable strategies to support student success

Frustration and inertia can hamper even the brightest people. Otherwise academically capable students may struggle when faced with complex, unfamiliar processes such as applying to school, applying for financial aid, and choosing courses.

“Behavioral economics show that when faced with complicated, onerous tasks, one common response is to put off making any decision at all,” said Ben Castleman, Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. “It’s why a lot of us—me included—wait until right before the tax filing deadline to do our taxes.”

Unfortunately, that tendency means that some capable students faced with the prospect of filling out a confusing form (such as the FAFSA) decide to put it off for just one more day, even when they recognize the benefit and necessity of the application. And that procrastination can mean missing priority deadlines, or even never completing the form at all.

Applying behavioral insights for positive change

Castleman, senior advisor to First Lady Michelle Obama's Reach Higher Initiative, conducts research that leverages behavioral insights, data science, and interactive technologies to develop scalable solutions in education and public policy. He has conducted numerous large-scale randomized trials into innovative strategies to help students and their families navigate complex educational decisions, and has presented his findings at The White House Summit on Expanding College Opportunity and in testimony before Congress.

Based on his research and others, Castleman describes two strategies that have helped students overcome some of these obstacles.

1.Targeted reminders that spur action. Sending prompts through reliable channels—such as text messages—helps students remember and prioritize necessary tasks.

“We use text messaging, for example, as a way to remind students to renew financial aid and connect with campus resources,” Castleman said. “It helps keep these tasks at the top of their minds rather than continue to put them off.”

In one study, Castleman and colleagues found that with community college freshmen, these texts increased persistence through sophomore year by almost 25 percent.

  1. Promoting a sense of belonging in college. Many students struggle with the transition to a college environment. Underrepresented students may feel that peers and faculty are from dissimilar backgrounds, or that residence life is very different from what they are accustomed to. These transitional challenges can lead students to wonder whether they belong in college at all.

“Stanford researcher Greg Walton’s research shows that the question of belonging can lead students to view challenges they confront as confirmation that college isn’t for them,” Castleman said. Ultimately, that can undermine academic performance and persistence.

But research by Walton and colleagues shows that providing college freshmen with narratives about older students’ transition experience can make a difference.

“Showing that older students also experienced these challenges at first, but over time built connections—that can reframe that experience for new students, and show them that it’s to  experience challenges in the transition to college,” Castleman said. “Reframing that experience to show that student can ultimately develop a sense of belonging can have an impact not only on persistence and academic performance, but even on physical health and wellbeing years down the road.”

Actionable strategies—and how universities can help

Castleman will discuss these and other proven strategies in his plenary “Behavioral insights for scalable solutions in education,” at the 2016 AACRAO SEM Conference.

“The goal of the session is to highlight a variety of concrete, low-cost behavioral strategies that institutions can apply to improve college success,” Castleman said. “The field is developing in exciting ways, and institutions can be at the forefront of helping develop effective, scalable solutions.”

To learn more about these and other affordable, implementable, and evidence-based strategies for student success, register now for the AACRAO SEM Conference, November 6-9, 2016, in San Antonio Hill Country. Register by the end of the month for the early bird discount!