Visit Modern Campus

Just-In-Time Technology: Improving Retention and Success of “New Traditionals”


Just-In-Time Technology: Improving Retention and Success of “New Traditionals”
Tools designed to automate personalized retention-developing tactics are critical to student persistence and success, helping institutions boost their performance metrics.

Just In Time. Famous words of the time-stressed, over-committed adult learner that now makes up more than 38 percent of the college-going population (according to a recent Student Clearinghouse report). Whether in assignments, courses, financial aid or getting to class, adult learners behave like most time and task-stressed adults; we queue things up as they need to get done. And sometimes, some of the demands just slip through the cracks.

Research suggests the very thing we have the least of in our lives, the thing that is scarce (time, love, money), is the thing we will most poorly manage. “Scarcity thinking” reduces our mental bandwidth and for the time-stressed adult learner with competing responsibilities, makes it impossible to plan ahead, manage tasks or solve problems.[1] According to Mullainathan & Shafir, scarcity traps our minds. We become so focused on the urgent that the important gets waylaid. But because the important gets waylaid, we experience even more scarcity tomorrow.

These are our adult students, and only when we acknowledge their challenges can we adopt tools, policies and practices that support them in their journeys to graduation. One interesting practice that seems to be effective in supporting the whole student is what the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) calls “nudging” students to success. Just as some of us need that “ding” from our computer or mobile devices to remind us of the passing time and the meeting 15 minutes away, our students need small reminders to stay on task, and UWT is increasing the variety of delivery methods and nudges that make that happen.

Online Course Nudging

We start with our most vulnerable populations of adult learners: online students. As much as flexible scheduling helps busy adults attend “anytime/anywhere,” the lack of scheduled check-in moments inherent in traditional courses can cause academic drift online. Learners look up from a busy, stressful week and realize they haven’t “gone to class” in days and are falling behind. To help, we ask faculty of online quantitative subject matter courses (math, statistics, economics) where students already too often struggle — even in traditional classrooms — to share their syllabus with our approved vendor, Persistence Plus, to send daily mobile nudges to the learner’s cell phone.

The nudges remind them of upcoming assignments and exams, as well as sharing tips on time and stress management. The nudges also remind students of helpful campus resources and answer questions regarding impediments to learner success. We’re happy to report that, overall, students receiving the nudges did significantly better in completion rates and in grades than students who didn’t receive nudges.[2]

Instructor Nudging via the Smart LMS

As the learning management system (LMS) becomes more analytic, instructors have the chance to rethink their roles and effectively leverage tools now available to personalize the learning experience. In UWT’s LMS, Canvas, the option now exists to dynamically “message students who …” in a number of categories from the Gradebook. Students receive a message, directly to them, that communicates instructor reminders, support or concern regarding an assignment or project. What in the past would have taken much time to compile and organize for the instructor to communicate can now be done almost instantly by the LMS.

The challenge is in the message itself. What would be the most effective message to send two days before a project is due for those who have not yet submitted? For those who had submitted but whose grade was less than 70 percent? For those who did very well and whom the instructor wanted to encourage and commend? To address the challenge inherent in these questions, UWT has been asking instructors to share wording and ideas on leveraging this LMS option. The work is in an open Google document that instructors can bookmark and use when nudging from the Canvas Gradebook. Other LMS are also building similar features, changing the support role of the instructor outside the classroom. We’re more often seeing learning design features, like course analytics, that can assist instructors in evaluating students who are at risk and may need help. While instructors cannot yet message students directly from the analytics page in Canvas, it’s still a useful tool in recognizing and providing support for students showing little participation in course activities, who are slipping behind in coursework or who aren’t performing at expected levels.

Institutional Collaboration Nudging

For the first time in Fall 2014, a number of campus teams came together to take on the challenge of “summer melt.” Just as a body at rest tends to stay at rest, UWT loses a number of good students every summer. They’re out of the study habit and it’s daunting to start back up and face the rigor of coursework. In athletics, they say the hardest part of a workout routine is putting on your shoes. It’s also true of school, and UWT decided to face the challenge head-on with a team to get students back to class. In the fall, our most difficult retention rate is in students who aren’t yet more than halfway there and have lower than junior standing.

The team’s effort starts with Institutional Research (IR) pulling a report in August of all students who were enrollment-eligible but not registered. Academic Support then sends them an email reminding them of the $300,000 dollar value of a college degree.[3] Persistence Plus follows up with text messages, asking how UWT could help with any problems preventing the student from registering and answering numerous questions related to fines, financial aid, majors and advisors. IR continues to monitor and in the days before classes start, shares the last report of students still not registered. Peer advisors then call these students on the phone, answer questions and ask them what’s preventing them from registering. This personalized outreach across email, text and phone is followed by studying the results and removing discovered impediments. Nudging students, and providing distant support, brought 60 percent of the non-registered students back from summer holiday to put their “study shoes” back on and stay the course.

New tools, teaching software and collaborative ways of knowing and supporting the whole student is how higher education will see a new generation of post-traditional, adult, time-and-commitment-challenged learners reach their goals.

– – – –


[1] Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, (Macmillan, 2013).

[2] Colleen Carmean and Jill Frankfort, “Mobility, Connection, Support: Nudging Learners to Better Results,” EDUCAUSE Review, December 6, 2013. Accessed at

[3] Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz, “The Value of a College Degree,” Liberty Street Economics, September 2, 2014. Accessed at


Author Perspective: