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Small Gestures, Big Impact on Student Learning

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By Heather Fitzgerald

Posted on October 03, 2023 | Updated October 05, 2023, 2:15pm

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Back in the early days of the pandemic, several colleagues and I read a book called Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby with James Lang. While many details of the book are lost in the fog of early pandemic panic, I do remember one of the simplest ones: the email nudge.

Darby devotes three whole pages (137-9) to discussing the power of a judiciously timed personal email to help students realize that instructors care about their success in the course. A kindly written and supportive email to students who have been coming late to class, not engaging in class activities, or not doing well on early assignments can be all that some students need to realize that their instructor is a real live human being who notices and cares about them as human beings.

The goal of the nudge is to encourage students to make different choices than the ones they have been making by offering suggestions or support. And they can have powerful effects. In a recent email newsletter from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Beckie Supiano summarizes a recent research study into the strategy of sending personalized emails to improve student success:

The emails had a positive, but statistically insignificant, impact on the full student population. But for underrepresented minority students — the group they especially hoped to help — the results were stronger: They were 4.9 percentage points more likely to get an A or B in the course. Not only that, but the researchers found the emails had a “spillover” effect. Students who got them performed better in other courses, too. And that stronger performance lasted for several semesters.

Since we are coming up to the busy mid-point of the semester and the time of year where fatigue, illness and overwork combine to challenge even the most dedicated students’ perseverance, maybe it’s time to pull out “the nudge” to support those who may be showing signs of strain.

These personalized emails don’t need to be long or burdensome to write: one of the instructors Darby interviews uses what is basically a kind and supportive form letter every semester that she personalizes with a student’s name. Others write simple emails that basically communicate a variation on this theme: “I’ve noticed that you are struggling with XXX, and I wonder if there is anything I can do to help.”

Nudges can be simpler still when they are done in person. Taking a struggling student aside during a work period or at a break to ask how they are doing or to let them know you’ve noticed their struggles can be a non-threatening way to communicate care and offer support. Even if they are unable to change their behaviour because of external circumstances, students are usually grateful (and sometimes surprised) to realize that you notice and care about them.

Have you been using nudges in your teaching? If so, what forms do you find most effective? And how do you find students respond?