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Nudging Best Practices

Civitas Learning equips your institution with optimized student data to help you uncover insights about your unique students. Nudges are simple actions you can take now to help current students improve their outcomes as your institution evaluates and implements longer-term strategies in response to these insights. 

Think of a nudge as a type of outreach that is intended to alter behavior.  

Nudges are small pushes in the right direction that do not require specific actions, but encourage certain behaviors. When students are presented with a nudge sent from a trusted person at your institution, they have the freedom to make their own choices with information about behaviors we know are more strongly associated with positive persistence and graduation outcomes.  

Illume Students and Inspire for Advisors can be used to identify students at risk of not persisting who could benefit from a nudge now. Begin nudge campaigns in Inspire for Advisors using the bulk email and log outreach functionality or download student lists from Illume Students to execute campaigns in other systems. 

Review this guide to understand how to create effective nudges that foster a positive mindset and direct students to available academic resources at your institution.


The best nudges are:

  1. Data-Inspired: Nudging students based on an opportunity identified in institution-specific data has the best chance of positively impacting student success. For example, sending a nudge to a specific group of students because they have a significantly lower than average likelihood to persist at your institution. Or, targeting students based on their individual persistence prediction.
  2. Grounded in Mindset Principles: Students’ mindsets— how they perceive their abilities and their relationship with school— can play a key role in their motivation and achievement. In the research on mindset, students who believe their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperform those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). Researchers found that having students focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits. Emails that provide specific guidance along with statements of encouragement such as, “I know you can do this,” work well. Furthermore, Students who feel like they belong in college, and are an important part of the community, are more likely to be motivated and behave in ways that lead to successful outcomes.
  3. Short: Keep it short... really short. Most students scan and read email selectively - if they read at all. However, the tendency is to send students multi-paragraph tomes that include numerous resources and tips on how to be a successful student. The intention is good, but the results are not. Don’t try to tell them everything they need to know in a single email. A few short sentences with one main idea is best.
  4. Personal and Authentic: If an email looks, feels, and sounds like a template, it is unlikely to be read. The first part of an email that a students sees is the subject line. The subject line can determine whether or not the student even reads the email. Use nudging best practices in the subject line itself. Make it positive and encouraging and personal and authentic. Keep the language conversational and avoid phrases that seem like they came from a handbook. When appropriate, use the first person and include your “voice” or personality in the email. Emails that have the authentic voice of the sender tend to have the biggest impact on student engagement. Emails sent from a person that the student knows are most likely to be read. An email from a student’s professor or advisor is more likely to be read and and taken seriously than from a department or email list.
  5. Positive and Encouraging: Positive nudges use a combination of urgency, empathy or concern, hope, and encouragement to promote behaviors in students that are likely to lead to success. Avoid language that sounds punitive or might make students feel ashamed. Acknowledging students’ effort with a few words of encouragement can make a big difference in how they feel about school and themselves, and in-turn, have a positive impact on their performance.
  6. Timely and Relevant: Great nudges have the right information at the right time for the right students. Too early and a nudge will be forgotten, and too late there may not be time for the necessary action. Think about the result you want from your nudge and how to align timing with action. Also consider the timing of the nudge in regards to when students are most likely to receive it. For example, students are unlikely to check their email during spring break or just after finals, so these are not ideal times to send a nudge.
  7. Action Oriented: Include one call to action in each email. Asking a student to do something specific makes it significantly more likely that they will do it and that it will have an impact. If possible, provide an opportunity or make a request for the student to respond.

The best nudges look like:

Incoming freshman, first week 

Subject line: You are at <College> Because We Believe in You 

Hi <name>,

I am so excited that you are here at <College>. My name is <name>, and I am your Advisor. I want you to know that you are here because we believe in you. I know you can do this! I’m going to help you map out a plan to achieve your academic goals. Make an appointment with me by clicking this link: (link to appointment scheduling tool)


Incoming freshman, week three, low LMS activity, low persistence prediction

Subject line: I’d Love to Hear About Your Goals

Dear <name>,

How have your first two weeks been? I know that this can be a challenging time as you and our other new students learn to navigate the campus and your classes. You’re at <institution>for a reason. Take a moment to remind yourself of the goals you had prior to the start of school. If you are willing to share, I’d love to hear them - just respond to this email.


Download the guide to see more examples

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