How Behavioral Science Encourages Students to Take Action


August 11, 2020

Think about the last time you put off making an important decision. You knew it had to be done, but just couldn’t quite get there. Maybe the options were too overwhelming, or you felt anxious that you’d make the wrong choice. You may have even wished for someone to give you a hint as to which decision to make, or a nudge in the right direction.

At AdmitHub, these are the situations we think about every day as we help higher education institutions guide their students through their college journey. We dive deeply into how students think, what kind of biases they have, how they make decisions, and how they’re feeling as they move through each phase— from enrollment to career.

“We research the best ways to get students to take actions that will help them better navigate the college journey,” said Anne La, Associate Director of Impact Initiatives at AdmitHub. “For example, universities could send a text reminder to alert a busy student that a deadline is approaching, or send specific instructions designed to simplify a complex process.”

This is behavioral science at work. It’s the foundation of everything we do, and it’s how colleges and universities— with the help of our AI chatbots— have been able to successfully get students to complete tasks they otherwise wouldn’t without some nudging. That’s because text messaging is a behavioral intervention, and by using it, institutions can get students to take the right action at the right time. In this article, we’ll explore more about what behavioral science is and the role it plays in higher education.

What Is Behavioral Science?

In its simplest definition, behavioral science is the study of human behavior. It’s a broad field that encompasses social sciences like anthropology, sociology and psychology. Behavioral science explores how applying what we’ve learned about previous behaviors can allow us to predict future behaviors.

The discipline also assumes that the environment plays a major role in making decisions. Because the college journey is so complex, and there are so many environmental factors that could derail students from completing their tasks, it’s hard to predict how any student will behave. That’s why it’s important to experiment by testing out different approaches.

For example, if you wanted to make sure students submit their financial aid forms on time, you could start by using a chatbot to deliver a text message reminding them of due dates. Depending on the response, you might try different messaging, change your tone, or even get students to engage further by sending out a survey to motivate them to take action.

When we step into a student’s shoes, we know they’re juggling a lot. Nudges by text message ensure that they don’t forget, and that they’re paying attention to the things that matter.

Anne La, Associate Director of Impact Initiatives at AdmitHub

How to Change Behaviors

Getting students to take the actions needed to be successful means understanding the environment in which they make their decisions. Think about a student fresh out of high school. They’ve achieved a huge milestone and can taste freedom. No classes. No adults reminding them about the upcoming school year. In order to ensure they’re on track to start the new year, they’ll need to meet certain deadlines for housing, tuition and financial aid. Here’s how you can get them to take the right actions.

1. Chart out the desired actions: Identify the behavior you want students to exhibit, and the steps needed to get there. Use existing data, and conduct research to better understand behavioral trends.

Create a map that includes every action required of incoming students—from housing and parking to choosing classes and meeting with advisors. Once you have your high-level map, dig deeper. Although the enrollment process might seem like 10 or 15 straightforward steps, the reality is very different. 

For example, one step in the process is “meet with your advisor.” But that one step can involve many separate actions. To set up an appointment with an advisor, students need to know: Who is my advisor? Where do I go to meet them? Will this fit into my schedule?

It will likely take some adjusting to get so granular with each process, but if colleges and universities really want to change behaviors, it’s critical that they take the time to thoroughly identify individual actions in depth.

2. Identify what’s holding students back: For each action a student has to take, determine the barriers that could keep them from completing those tasks. In the case of meeting with an advisor, maybe the appointment times are inconvenient, or students have no way of getting to the advisor’s office. It could even be that students don’t know how an advisory relationship works or don’t understand the importance of speaking with their advisor.

When thinking about barriers, consider the five types of barriers most students face when trying to complete a task.

  • Friction: This happens when students don’t understand their options, the process is too complex and they just don’t have the energy to go through it. Because there’s so much to consider, they believe they can’t make the decision now, so they end up putting it off. 
  • Present Bias: Rather than take the time to immediately complete a task they might consider boring, present bias refers to the idea that students would rather enjoy the here and now, choosing a task that provides instant gratification over a task that may be good for the future. 
  • Norms: When students consider what everyone else is doing before they make their decision, they’re following norms. Kansas State Polytechnic Campus used social norms and played on students’ sense of urgency to increase student housing applications. By using their AdmitHub chatbot, Willie, to send a text message noting that only a few spots remained, they engaged and motivated students to act, filling up student housing for the first time in five years. 
  • Attention: If something isn’t top of mind for students, it won’t get done. That’s why it’s important to ensure that students are constantly reminded of what they need to do to enjoy the best college experience. Sending reminders via text message helps facilitate and shape the behavior you want students to take. 
  • Status Quo: Motivating students to do something they’ve never done before, such as filling out financial aid applications, requires that you show them what’s in it for them. Because keeping the status quo is a lot easier, you’ll need to convince them that taking action will benefit them more than keeping everything as is. In addition, you’ll need to make it as easy as possible for students to do the right thing.

3. Test out some alternatives: No two students are the same. That’s why it’s important to come up with some assumptions, test out options and adjust based on the data. Take housing, for example. Ask yourself: Why aren’t students completing their housing applications? Is it because they’ve forgotten about the forms? Are they experiencing a technical barrier, like trouble accessing the housing portal? Or maybe they want to see what other students are doing before they decide.

By defining your desired outcome and the actions needed to get there, and understanding how to break down the key barriers students face, you’ll be well on your way to shaping student behavior and setting them up for success.

How to Get Started

Just as no two students are the same, no two student populations are identical. Processes also differ across universities. At AdmitHub, we have a team of researchers to help you along the way as you message your students. Our Partner Success Team can help you look at your current systems and design communications to help you support your organization’s goals.

Contact us today so you can begin to encourage the behaviors that will take students successfully through their college journey and beyond.

Share on social

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe for free

Sign up to receive Mainstay's latest insights on engagement trends and Behavioral Intelligence — right in your inbox.

Get a guided tour of Mainstay’s Engagement Platform

Mainstay’s Engagement Platform uses Behavioral Intelligence to help schools and businesses build meaningful relationships, optimize insights, and drive action.

Sign up for your personalized demo to find out how Mainstay makes it easy to spark conversations with your students or employees and guide them toward positive results.


Instant support — anytime, anywhere

Mainstay’s behaviorally intelligent chatbots make it easy to engage with students and employees on the channels they prefer to use:

SMS text messaging

Live chat

Web chat

Social media

Let's talk