Mobility, Connection, Support: Nudging Learners to Better Results

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Key Takeaways

  • This case study expands on early work that outlines how one college is nudging students to greater performance, engagement, and retention.
  • Students received daily nudges that relied on a variety of behavioral levers, such as social norming and goal commitment, to support them on the path to success and graduation.
  • Looking more closely at the stresses, organizational skills, and study habits of the post-traditional learner creates new opportunities for developing nudges that matter.

Colleen Carmean is assistant chancellor for instructional technologies at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Jill Frankfort is CEO and co-founder of Persistence Plus.

As learners enter and return to school in greater numbers, higher education struggles with defining and providing support and services that fit the "new traditional" and often-struggling digital age learner. Evidence from new work in cognitive and neuroscience suggests that the brain is still forming well into our 20s1 and has called for a recognition that adult expectations of learner self-motivation and focus may not align with reality. Add to this a changing social culture of delayed adulthood and responsibility,2 which is shaping new understandings and needs for fostering persistence in traditional-age, delayed adulthood college students. At the same time, insert a changing population of time-stressed adult students, first-generation students, part-time students, and a growing population of underprepared students. All this together produces a perfect storm of unrecognized support and service needs to ensure that struggling students reach graduation.

With only 55 percent of the students who start at a 4-year institution graduating in six years and only 31 percent of those who start two-year degrees finishing them within three years,3 questions abound on the nature of self-motivation, resilience, persistence and why one student "stays the course" to graduation while another falls away. This case study expands on early work that outlines how one college is nudging students to greater performance, engagement, and retention by focusing on the very behaviors and mindsets necessary for success.

Implementing Persistence

The University of Washington Tacoma (UWT), an urban-serving campus of 4,300 students, has wrestled with retention since it opened in 1990. The campus provides opportunities for bachelor's and master's degrees to students located in the South Puget Sound region of Washington State. All of the characteristics profiled in the problem addressed above appear in the population of UWT learners. With more than 60 percent of the students being first-generation learners, the unique challenges of culture and connection for the learners is a high priority. In the beginning pilot for "nudging students to success," UWT looked at new online math courses. This subject area, along with the well-documented "drift" problem in online courses, concerned the leadership as the campus began implementing online options. Courses intended to increase flexibility of schedules and access were of questionable value if students felt a lack of connection to the instructor, material, or campus space.

In early 2013, UWT collaborated with Persistence Plus, a start-up company that works with colleges to motivate and support their students to greater success and completion. The company delivers mobile nudges grounded in behavioral psychology via SMS or a specially designed app to help students stay focused, engaged, and persistent in their academic studies.

figure 1
Figure 1. Sample nudge on a mobile device

With mobile and smartphone ownership at an all-time high — 95 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 own a mobile phone, 66 percent own a smartphone, and black and Hispanic adults have a disproportionately higher rate ownership of smart phones4 — and student responsiveness to e-mail falling, UWT recognized the value of engaging its online students through mobile devices. By marrying the technology that students use most, cutting-edge behavioral interventions, and sophisticated data analytics, Persistence Plus provided automated and interactive outreach to students in targeted courses. Students received daily nudges that relied on a variety of behavioral levers, such as social norming and goal commitment, to support them on the path to success and graduation (see figure 1).

In the initial pilot reported on here in 2012, the UWT/Persistence Plus collaboration found the following study takeaways to be true for online precalculus and statistics:

  • Students can benefit from behavioral interventions and support delivered via their chosen devices and mobile platforms.
  • In two different introductory math courses, students participating in the pilot performed better academically than students who did not.

The next step was to see how well the support would scale, and whether, with the further development of a sophisticated learning algorithm, the platform could ultimately provide automated and personalized nudges to an unlimited number of students. In spring 2013, UWT asked Persistence Plus to support students in additional online introductory math courses as well as an introductory economics course.


The results at the end of the quarter were again positive. The Persistence Plus cohort in mathematics and economics had higher final grades and higher passing and course completion rates (see table 1). This finding was particularly striking in mathematics given that the non-Persistence Plus math cohort had entered the course with a greater degree of math competency, as evidenced by scores on the mathematics pre-test given to all students.

Table 1. Results for Persistence Plus Cohort in Math and Economics


Average GPA

Pass Rate

Completion Rate

P+ Math Cohort




Non P+ Math Cohort




P+ Econ Cohort




Non P+ Econ Cohort




Also exciting was a finding that nudges focused on early term completion of homework and quizzes resulted in Persistence Plus students having a missed assignment rate a third that of students not receiving Persistence Plus nudges.

Tracey Haynie, a mathematics faculty member at UWT, taught a course where students received support from Persistence Plus (3:03 minutes).

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Running Time: 3:03 minutes

Challenges Faced

In moving any innovative, small-scale, or "skunk works" project into the culture stream of an institution, key questions must be asked. The most important question for the small-scale pilot undertaken is, "Will it be accepted by early adopters and then by the mainstream users?" Our pilot showed enthusiastic reception by students, including an appreciation expressed toward UWT for its encouragement helping students stay on track. One student spoke up in a non-math class asking WHY she was getting "...NO reminders on my cell phone regarding the assignments for this class?" and suggesting she wasn't doing as well as she could without the support. Given the quiet implementation of the pilot, her classmates were confused by her question, and when she explained her math class nudges, a number of students expressed dismay that they weren't getting that support, as well.

Another key question is, Can Innovation Scale? As the pilot attempted expansion, it hit the wall experienced in other public institutions where technology is (or is perceived) to change the nature of the relationship between instructor and student. As the Chronicle of Higher Education discovered when interviewing Matt Pastilli, Purdue’s research scientist for teaching and learning technologies, regarding their Signals project:

...faculty members have been a little harder to work with. "Like Blackboard or a video conference or other pieces out there, this is just one more thing they have to deal with," he says. Some faculty members also believe that students "who come to college should be self-motivated self-learners."

Collaborators in the UWT project were intrigued to read that Purdue's one-click option for instructors to make a Blackboard course available to students gets about 100 courses per semester of the thousands of courses available. Perhaps for instructors it is just another task of too many in the digital age — or perhaps it smacks of coddling youthful irresponsibility? However viewed, similar technology projects find that faculty do not see it as their role to offer scaffolded support, and many have concerns regarding the university taking on the role.

To sidestep this challenge and explore how well this model can scale, UWT and Persistence Plus decided to launch a new pilot and to focus on first-year students. To address issues of scale, the project will shift away from the course level (with the exception of continuing support for introductory online math courses). All students who are enrolled in UWT’s Core, the cohort program for first-year students, have the opportunity to sign up for Persistence Plus support. By expanding beyond the course and going directly to the student experience, UWT is opening the door to a model of support that meets students directly where they are and when they need help. With nudges focused on students' overall success versus within one course, the breadth of support is wider and includes behavioral interventions designed to increase usage, for instance, of library and advising resources.

Future Study

Looking more closely at the stresses, organizational skills, and study habits of the post-traditional learner creates new opportunities for developing nudges that matter. Collaborations with UWT Library and Advising offer promising opportunities to nudge students into using support services that many commuter students fail to discover. How behavioral and information-driven supports, delivered to the learner via mobile devices, will make a difference in the challenging first-year experience is the research question ahead.

  1. NIMH – National Institute of Mental Health, "The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction," NIH Publication No. 11-4929, 2011.
  2. Richard A. Settersten Jr. and Barbara Ray, "What's Going on with Young People Today? The Long and Twisting Path to Adulthood," The Future of Children, vol. 20, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 19–41.
  3. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2013 (NCES 2013-037), "Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students."
  4. Aaron Smith, "Smart Phone Adoption and Usage," The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project (July 11, 2011); and Joanna Brenner,  "Pew Internet: Mobile," The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project (September 18, 2013).
  5. Hannah Winston, "Purdue U. Software Prompts Students to Study—and Graduate," Wired Campus blog, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2013.