Digital nudges can improve student success in STEM. Here’s the proof

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Institutions should consider behavioural nudging in their persistence strategy.

By U2B Staff 

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It’s been said multiple times over that STEM is the discipline of the future, where roles in digital-born companies will remain the most sought-after in an evolving labour market. 

According to a National Association of Manufacturing and Deloitte report, the United States will need to fill 3.5 million STEM jobs by 2025 but more than 2 million are expected to go unfilled because of the lack of skilled candidates.

The skills gap is already affecting STEM industries in the country – in Bullhorn’s North American Staffing and Recruiting Trends report last year, 73 percent of companies serving manufacturing industries and 65 percent of those in information technology and accounting, finance and insurance listed skills shortages as their top challenges.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to solve the crisis. 

Education reform as a band-aid solution may help lift the number of graduates in the field, but it’s not going to matter if attrition rates remain as high as they are. 


Many studying STEM don’t finish

A statistical analysis by the National Centre for Education Statistics found that most students who enroll in STEM leave before even completing their degrees. 

According to the study:

  • 40 percent of those who opt for a career in engineering switch to non-science and non-technical majors
  • 50 percent leave physical and biological science courses
  • 60 percent drop out of mathematics-based programmes

On average, 48 percent of bachelor’s degree students and 69 percent of associate’s degree students in STEM fields don’t finish their courses, half of them switching majors while the other quitting school altogether.

What the study shows is that interest does not equate success. Even the prospect of a higher-paying job isn’t enough to encourage students to complete their studies. 

Is it a problem of capacity? And what, if possible, could higher learning institutions do to help their students stay the course to success?

A recent study has found evidence that behavioural nudges, or digital alerts, can help.


Nudging improves student success in STEM

Funded by the Helmley Charitable Trust and conducted by nonprofit organisation Jobs for the Future (JFF) and Persistence Plus, an education technology company, the multiyear study titled “Nudging to STEM success” ran for two years and involved four community colleges in the US.

The four colleges selected for the nudging initiative were: Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, OhioLorain County Community College in Elyria, OhioStark State College in North Canton, Ohio; and John Tyler Community College in Chester, Virginia.

In a randomised control trial that kicked off in the summer of 2017, the study examined the effects of personalised nudging on nearly 10,000 students at the colleges.

“Nudging” here is a concept drawn from behavioural science and social psychology to address challenges students often encounter in STEM courses and more generally, in their early college careers.

It is delivered digitally through an intelligent texting software so the student isn’t being pressured in-person to hit the books, and reacts to real-time student responses. The messages are also tailored to the individual, which tells the student they are not the recipient of a bulk-delivered broadcast.

student success
Messages are personalised so the student doesn’t feel like they are recipients of a mass message. Source: Shutterstock

For the initiative, the nudges were designed to help the students:

  • develop a strong college completion and STEM identity; 
  • connect STEM to personal values and goals; 
  • utilise college supports like tutoring and financial aid programmes; and 
  • reveal and address barriers and misconceptions that hinder their success.

And the results could be the very answer every campus leader is looking for: behavioural nudging significantly impacts student persistence rates.

Seventy-two percent of those who asked to be “nudged” stayed on in their STEM courses after the first semester, compared with just 56 percent of those who opted out.

“These results offer powerful evidence on the potential, and imperative, of using technology to support students during the most in-demand, and often most challenging, courses and majors,” said JFF President and CEO Maria Flynn in a media release on the study.

“With millions of STEM jobs going unfilled, closing the gap in STEM achievement has profound economic—and equity—implications.” 

Most significantly, the study found that nudges led to strong improvements among students of colour and adult learners, who are notably underrepresented among graduates of STEM programmes. 

Among students of colour, 56 percent of nudge recipients persisted while only 46 percent of those who opted out did the same. Older students aged over 25 were particularly receptive to the nudges, with 64 percent or those who were “nudged” persisting, compared with only 44 percent of those who weren’t.

“These results send an encouraging signal to institutions working to identify scalable strategies to improve persistence, and completion, for students of color within STEM fields,” said Persistence Plus President Jill Frankfort.

“We believe these additional findings and insights will help to advance the field’s understanding of nudging—and its potential to improve student success.”


More than a reminder to study

As the study showed, behavioural nudges are capable of helping students overcome psychosocial barriers that may stand in the way of their success.

“When students can get reinforcing messages that they belong in college, that they are smart and can be successful, and that overcoming challenges is possible, then persisting to be anything they want to be—such as a scientist in STEM—is possible,” said authors of the study.

What made all the difference, the study showed, were personalisation and the timing of the messages.

At Stark State College, for example, particular attention was given to the fourth week of semesters, which is when the first exam is generally scheduled, a report by EdTech magazine said. Students were nudged with reminders to seek tutoring before the exam, to begin studying and to ask if they were in need of assistance.

The personalised nature of the messages, meanwhile, made students feel like the college cared about their needs.

“[The nudges keep] me engaged and connected. Knowing that I’m not alone in a lot of my struggles and the words of encouragement and excitement as I succeed,” said a student of the college.

It also helped that it wasn’t always about academics. The programme recognises that the pathway to student success is also riddled with non-academic factors.

The nudges were cognisant of these and helped alert the students to support services they were not previously aware of such as financial planning programmes, tutoring, and advising programmes, as well as the college’s on-campus food pantry.


For colleges, the nudging offered them new insights into their students such as the challenges they encounter, which then helped them be more supportive to encourage their success.

In one instance, a student reported how the death of her pet affected her morale and how motivational nudging text messages helped her see through the sadness to succeed.

“We focus so much on what goes on in the classroom that we can lose sight of the fact that retention is influenced by factors outside the classroom,” said Stark State College Provost and Chief Academic Officer Lada Gibson-Shreve.

student success
The road to student success is riddled with many non-academic factors. Source: Shutterstock

A student success strategy that works

Satisfied with the results, three of the four colleges that participated in the initiative plan to continue using nudging in their student success strategies.

They have also expanded its implementation to non-STEM programmes, confident they can replicate its success in other fields of study. 

JFF and Persistence Plus, meanwhile, are actively looking to expand behavioural nudges to support learners in other areas like workforce training and adult education. Considering the outcomes above, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the method could turn the tide on the current skills gap crisis plaguing businesses everywhere.

In the higher education sphere, other campus leaders looking for ways to augment their efforts to improve student success rates could consider implementing nudging at their institutions.

As far as cost-benefits are concerned, it’s almost a no-brainer: nudging offers support to students without having to beef up support staff numbers and rack up a higher wage bill.

And of course, in addition to guiding students to success, improved persistence rates also mean increased revenue for the institution and a reputational boost in the market.

For those already struggling under the weight of budgetary pressures and market saturation, the strategy could be the lifeline to survival they need.