The Value of a Nudge: Persistence Plus at UWT

Main page content

Nudge Update from the Trenches

NUDGE: (n) a light touch or push. poke, prod, jog, jab.
Go to Current Nudges
The history of using mobile phones for text support nudges for students at UW Tacoma seems long to our tech innovators, but in terms of the culture of a college campus, it's been the blink of an eye. We recently read that millennials check their phones 40-75 times a day, and they attempt to respond to texts immediately. They're also infamous for not checking email (~50% never opened), if not from their instructors. Our campus recognized this early on, and based on the the Case for Nudge Analytics (Carmean and Mizzi, 2010)i, began searching for ways to reach out via the millennial's omnipresent cellphone. 
In 2012, we found a solution for mobile support nudges via a partnership with a higher education mobile texting platform that keeps students on track by sending them unique, personalized nudges related to their academics, time and stress management, engagement, and information on campus resources for success. 

Online Math (2012-2014). Historically, our first project with P+ was nudging students to successful completion in newly ONLINE math courses in pre-calculus and statistics. These new courses were a concern, much desired in the online format by working adults, but - as is always the case with the online format - worrisome for the administration if students would be more at risk not to complete. The students were sent nudges regarding due dates, study habits, stresses and staying focused. The program was also expanded to include a new economics course for two quarters. The results were that online students stayed on task, completing with equivalent grades as the face-to-face sections and with higher grades and completion rates than their online peers who opted out of text message support.

First Year Students (2014-2018). Given our success with online math, we wondered if text message nudging would work on a more general, equally vulnerable population? As with most campuses, our greatest retention challenge is our first-year students. We began nudging first year students during the 2014-2015 school term, with supportive messages regarding finding p+resources, feeling connected, studying, and feeling a part of the campus.

In the 4 years of this First-Year nudging initiative, we typically found that 60-70% of these students will return texts that ask them questions. We do allow stopouts, but less than 20% of students choose to stopout. Even the majority of participating non-responders (those who choose to receive but don't return texts) respond in year-end surveys that they found the service helpful and that they would recommend it for all new students.

Our retention of first-year students rose 5.7% for that initial 2014 entering class (77.4% retained to Fall 2015) and we saw similar results with our 2015 cohort (76.3% retained). After 4 years of nudging, we achieved a 9% climb in FY retention. We acknowledge that correlation is not causation, and continue to experiment with a variety of new services for our FY students. In the 2018 academic year, we are testing new tools (analytics, nudging in the course, new mobile software) as we work work on improving content, engagment and messaging in support of students through the first year experience. 

Research shows that setting intentions increases the likelihood that people will take action for which they've made a commitment, so our messages often ask students to make commitments to choose a time to study, to seek tutoring, to visit a resource in which they have expressed interest.  Although our work with first-year students has not moved the dial on retention overall, the qualitative evidence is that students see the campus as a more welcoming, supportive place due to the nudges that pop up on their phone. From a student: "IT’S LIKE YOU CAN’T REALLY FAIL, OR IF YOU’RE THINKING OF FAILING, IT HELPS YOU TO CHANGE YOUR THOUGHTS."

Summer Melt (2014-2017). Another retention challenge we've taken on with messaging concerns the infamous "summer melt," when students in good academic standing disappear, never returning after the summer break. UWT traditionally loses 6-9% of our first-year students and 5% of our sophomores at that moment. A body at rest wants to stay at rest, and it sometimes needs a nudge to get back in motion.

2014 20% (14 students)
2015 36% (22 students)
2016 40% (41 students)

Since 2014, immediately before the beginning of Fall quarter, in continuation of our First-Year initiative, we nudge eligible-not-registered rising sophomores with information, support and reasons to come in and register. Each summer, we've increased the prompts to these students. In 2014, we began 10 days before school, and 20% (14 students) came back to register. In 2015, we began four weeks out, with a prompt each week, and brought 36% (22 students) back to campus. For five weeks prior to Fall 2016, we sent all eligible-not-registered rising sophomores a weekly nudge regarding the upcoming quarter, value of college, the need to register early to get the courses they want, and asking if they needed any information or help in registering. Of these rising sophomores, 40%  (41 students) returned for the Fall term.  UW Tacoma continues to explore new tools to nudge students back for Fall quarter. 

Current Mobile Efforts with UWT and Persistence Plus

Steve Fund (2017-present)
Generous funding from an organization dedicated to college success for students, the Steve Fund works with UW Tacoma and Persistence Plus to keep our minority-caucasian student body engaged and on track in their vulnerable sophomore year.  UW Tacoma loses ~10-15% of this group and with nudges via funding from the Steve Fund, we are working to guide students during what can be a stressful, pre-major time in their college years. If we can get our students into their majors, more than 95% will make it to the finish line. The Steve Fund helps us get them into their majors.

Near Completers (2016-present). As in most campuses, once we can get our students into their major (Junior year), they persist. UW Tacoma's attrition rate at this level is 2-3% of a cohort, but this means we lose 40+ near-completers each year. These students have worked so hard, and research tells us that once they leave, they are unlikely to return. Working, 30+ years of age, parents, time and money stressed students are "the new traditionals" at UW Tacoma. They need and value any support we can offer to keep them on track. In Autumn 2016, the campus began a grant-funded initiative (Institute of Education Sciences, University of Virginia PI) offering similar mobile support for near-completers,  helping them stay on track and take the steps needed to step over the finish line. We'll keep you posted.

Future of Nudging at UW Tacoma
The University of Washington Tacoma continues to expand our nudge efforts, including personalized messaging in the LMS and new work in analytics to identify target populations needing support. If you're interested in knowing more about UW Tacoma's nudge initiative, we've done our best to record our work in the scholarly and trade literature. Here's all the most popular that Google can find. You'll find even more at Google Scholar if you want to dive deep into the data.  

For more information or to offer content for student success messages, contact Colleen Carmean, PhD (
PS: Drink plenty of water and eat a healthy breakfast to be of optimum energy during the day (nudge).