Hello and welcome to Teaching, a free weekly newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education. This week, Beckie describes how one professor’s light-touch way of supporting students fits into what we know about “nudges” in higher ed. Dan shares a reader’s perspective on the benefits of collaborating with an instructional designer. Keep reading for a call for proposals and some articles you may want to catch up on — including one we recommend from The Chronicle’s archives.

One Quick Way to Boost Student Success

A few years ago, Zoë Cohen noticed a troubling sign in her “Physiology of the Immune System” course: A larger number of students than usual had failed the first exam. Cohen had changed up the way she taught the course that year, part of a broader push toward active learning at the University of Arizona, where she is an assistant professor. The different style was probably a big adjustment for her upper-level students after years of taking lecture-based courses, she thought.

Cohen wanted to help those students. But the course is a large one, with between 160 and 200 students, and she didn’t want to increase her workload. So she came up with a low-touch way to intervene: sending a personalized, supportive email. For a small investment of time, Cohen was able to signal to students that she cared. And she thinks the move even boosted recipients’ performance in the course.

Cohen’s email is an example of a classroom-based “nudge,” or intervention that encourages, but does not mandate, a certain behavior. Nudges have caught on as a way to help students through the many complex processes of higher education. Cohen’s effort fits into the broad spirit of this work, which is: “Let’s all stop waiting for students to come and ask for help,” said Lindsay C. Page, a scholar who has designed and tested a number of successful nudges. After all, said Page, an assistant professor of education and a research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, colleges often have a good sense of which students could use a bit of support, sometimes before the students themselves know.

Cohen had the option, she told me, to give an adviser in her department a list of struggling students to email. But she wondered if a message that came directly from her and took a more encouraging tone might be more effective.

So Cohen crafted an email explaining that “the student didn’t do as well as expected on the exam, however, it was still early in the semester, and that changing habits now could turn their grade around,” as she wrote in an article for The Evolllution, an online news site run by Destiny Solutions, a software vendor. She sent the message from her own email address, and personalized it using each student’s name.

The message didn’t offer any additional support to its recipients. Rather, it asked whether they knew why they hadn’t performed well, and whether they’d taken advantage of existing resources, like office hours and study groups.

The professor braced herself for backlash. Perhaps students would blame their performance on Cohen’s teaching style. “The fact is,” she said, “I got zero of that.” Instead, more than half of the 20 students Cohen emailed wrote back expressing their appreciation for her message and taking responsibility for their grades.

Cohen has continued sending the email to students who fail the first exam. And while she doesn’t have a clear sense of whether or how the message has changed recipients’ behavior, she has noticed that the growth in scores between the first test and the final grade is larger for this group than for the overall class, which she sees as an encouraging indicator.

That tracks with the nudging literature, said Page, the researcher who tests behavioral interventions. She pointed me toward one study in which a group of researchers conducted a randomized control trial where the treatment group got similar messages from an instructor — and earned higher grades in the course than the control group.

Cohen is also probably right to think that the nonjudgmental tone of her email made a difference, Page added. Other research has pointed to the importance of the language used in these efforts.

In one study being prepared for submission to a journal, researchers tested a revised version of a university’s letter informing students they were being put on academic probation. Students who got the new version, which made an effort to destigmatize probation and clarify its impermanence, reported feeling less shame and more determination than those who got the old version. They also went to see their advisers at higher rates, and a higher proportion of them were no longer on probation the following year.

Have you ever used a nudge in one of your classes? How do you help your students before they ask? Tell me about it at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and your example may appear in a future newsletter.

Asking for Help

We recently asked readers whether they’d approached people outside their discipline for help with their teaching, and Janice M. Kinsinger, who retired last year as an associate dean from Illinois Central College, described how she had been “blessed” during her 38 years there to be able to consult with an instructional designer.

“Asking for help or support is the biggest step a faculty member can take; the actual question is insignificant if you have talented and insightful professional staff,” she wrote to us in an email. When a faculty member asks a question, even if it seems narrowly technical, it’s an invitation, she said, for an instructional designer to listen carefully, ask follow-up questions, and broaden the conversation to teaching practices and processes.

A common example is when a faculty member wants help setting up his or her grade book in the college’s course-management system. What starts out as a technical question soon turns into a larger philosophical conversation – about grades, how they’re weighted, how points are awarded, and what rubrics are used.

“If the instructional designer follows up to see how things are going in a week or two,” she wrote, “the faculty member may just ask another question and the experiments in pedagogy continue.” And change, she said, “makes us better teachers.”

ICYMI

  • How do textbook prices affect student behavior? Inside Higher Ed examines some new surveys that tackle the question in this article.
  • Working in a lab as an undergraduate is often the first step in a research career. That raises the stakes for whether professors ensure these opportunities are distributed equitably, writes Terry McGlynn in a blog post for Small Pond Science that suggests ways to do just that.
  • How can colleges foster conversations about teaching across disciplines? Neil Haave describes one model, known as teaching squares, in Faculty Focus.
  • This Twitter thread is about research careers, but along the way, Douglas Webber argues that “your teaching is probably the most impactful thing you will ever do.”

Call for Proposals

The Teaching Professor conference, which will be held June 7-9, 2019, in New Orleans, is accepting proposals for sessions and poster presentations. It is also accepting applications for a new kind of session, in which presenters tackle “a single teaching or learning question with actionable advice in just 20 minutes.”

Is there an upcoming conference or call for proposals that you think your fellow readers should consider? Tell us about it here.

Back-to-School Nightmares

It’s the first day of class. You’re running massively late, and there’s no way for you to communicate that to your students. Or else you’re standing in front of a packed lecture hall, with no idea what you’re supposed to be teaching. Or maybe you aren’t a professor at all, but a student all over again, and must take a final for a class you haven’t attended. If you’ve ever had a version of the “exam dream” — or even if you haven’t — the start of a new academic year is a great time to revisit this 2011 story on the phenomenon by our colleague Eric Hoover.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

— Beckie and Dan