Study finds digital alerts boost STEM student success

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By signing up to receive digital alerts, STEM students at two-year colleges were able to overcome barriers to academic success and ultimately achieved higher rates of persistence, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study, conducted over that last two years by Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit working to drive transformation in workforce and education systems, and Persistence Plus, a student-centered mobile platform, examined the effects of digital alerts, also known as personalized nudging, on students at four community colleges in an attempt to address obstacles that can lead to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics students dropping out of college.

After a randomized control trial in 2017, which involved more than 2,700 first-year students, researchers found that STEM students who opted to receive nudges had a first-year persistence rate that was 10 percentage points higher than those who didn’t.

Building off of these results, the program was then rolled out to four institutions — Lakeland Community College, Stark State College and Lorain County Community College, all in Ohio; and John Tyler Community College, in Virginia — which all saw increases in students’ persistence rates.

“This [initiative] has really attempted to use behavioral nudging in a longer arc across the student’s journey in their academic and STEM pathway, across their courses,” Barbara Endel, senior director at JFF and a co-author of the report, told EdScoop.

The targeted, customized messages relate both to students’ academic and non-academic work, Endel said. Students are reminded of upcoming tests, orientation events or professors’ office hours through the messaging system. They also receive nudges to inform them of opportunities on campus, including career advising, transportation resources and food assistance.

“It modernizes how colleges are able to talk to their students,” Endel said. It’s not just reminding students of their academic obligations, but rather it connects them with the strategies and resources they need to succeed across their academic program, she said.

By specifically focusing on STEM students at community colleges, the study was able to explore solutions aimed at broadening participation in STEM fields, especially for older students or those in minority groups.

Among students of color, 62 percent of those who received nudges persisted in their program, compared to 46 percent of those who’d opted out of the program. Improvements among older adult learners was slightly greater with 64 percent of students who received nudges persisting, compared to 44 percent of those who opted out.

Careers in STEM are core drivers of economic opportunity, Endel said, and for students at community colleges, especially those who may be the first in their family to go to college, it is critical to show them that they can be a part of the STEM workforce and reap its benefits.

Similar studies examining the effects of nudging, however, have not shown such positive results.

A working paper published in August found that emails, mailers and text messages reminding more than 800,000 students to complete their FAFSA forms, applications for federal student financial aid, didn’t affect whether they used financial aid or enrolled in college.  A separate study, released earlier this year, found that providing high school students with more information about the college application process, in the form of text message nudges and fee waivers, didn’t change their enrollment patterns.

“Obviously there are mixed results right now in the field, but for us and for this, we were really happy with the results,” Endel said.

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