Small nudges = Large impact on student success

Female college student sitting at large table studying in a library

We get them in our inbox every day – a reminder for the dentist appointment, an alert about a payment from the bank account, or a possible fraudulent charge, and so on. Many of us have become so accustomed to these reminders and alerts that we find ourselves somewhat dependent on them. This led me to wonder if my students would also benefit from occasional reminders about their coursework via email or text messages.

In the Instagram world inhabited by most of our college students, the demands of academic work may not seem so imminent once they leave the classroom. My students head off to work or to help with family and try to juggle many responsibilities. They find social media and texting as a way to keep in touch with all that is going on around them. To get their attention and focus on the academic work at hand, I have been increasingly using email alerts as a way to increase student engagement, as well as to notify them if they are at risk of failing the course. I found that “at-risk” alerts sent after about the third or fourth week of the semester were extremely helpful in motivating students to come in to discuss their progress. I was frankly surprised at how quickly students responded by making an appointment to see me in my office. Even though I have open office hours, they found the actual task of making that appointment an incentive to come and see me.

Recent articles have studied the impact of nudges in detail. In Mobility, Connection, Support: Nudging Learners to Better Results, Colleen Carmean, of the University of Washington – Tacoma, explored the impact of nudging on student success. Citing studies in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, she noted that “a recognition that adult expectations of learner self-motivation and focus may not align with reality.” Pilot studies at UW- Tacoma showed that cohorts in math and economics who were supported by nudges and alerts had a higher completion rate than those who didn’t. Another article, Nudge Nation: A New Way to Prod Students Into and Through College, published by the American Institutes of Research, discussed the effectiveness of nudges in navigating the college process in general. In addition, they showed how data analytics can be used to help provide valuable feedback to at-risk students. Both these articles illustrate how simple technologies can be very effective in increasing student success.

Nudges can be easily implemented by faculty. Most universities have access to a learning management system such as Blackboard or Canvas. These platforms can be used to send bulk email to students who are at risk. For example, I use my online gradebook to sort them based on their total test and quiz scores at certain points during the course. I then select the ones who are below a threshold and email them all at once. This feature can also be used through the gradebook in MyMathLab. I use the online scheduling software for them to make appointments. It motivates students to initiate the process with a concrete result. There is also an app called Remind, which sends text messages to students without the instructor needing access to the phone numbers. A recent article titled Virtual Connection  in TERP, the University of Maryland alumni magazine, discusses how various faculty members at UMD are using technology such as Remind to reach out to students.

I have found that engaging students through these small nudges has shown a greater involvement on their part in navigating through the college coursework. Students are often apprehensive about math courses, and I found that being able to reach out to them electronically has put them a little more at ease. Encouraged by the positive atmosphere produced by using simple email alerts, I expect to continue using them as part of my day-to-day teaching.


About the Author

Revathi (Reva) Narasimhan is an associate professor of mathematics at Kean University in Union, NJ. She received her Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at University of Maryland, College Park. She grew up in Mesa, AZ, and received her undergraduate degree at Arizona State University.

As a professional mathematician and a dedicated teacher, she is keen on helping her students understand the “big picture” concepts and on helping them succeed in their math courses. In addition to a precalculus textbook, she has written scholarly articles for academic journals and technology supplements for other textbooks. She also presents regularly at regional and national mathematics conferences.



American Institutes of Research (AIR). “Nudge Nation: A New Way to Prod Students Into and Through College”. September 2013.

Carmean, Colleen.  “Mobility, Connection, Support: Nudging Learners to Better Results.” Educause Review Online. December 6, 2013.

University of Maryland. “Virtual Connection”. TERP. Spring 2016: 8-9.