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How behavioural insights can help college and university students learning remotely due to COVID-19

  • Blog
  • 26th Mar 2020

In the coming months, millions of college and university students around the world will be exclusively learning from home for the first time ever. Without the structure and routine of face-to-face sessions, it will be a massive challenge for these students to continue to engage productively with learning. It may be especially difficult for those who no longer have exams as a motivator. 

Behavioural science provides insights on how to motivate students during this difficult period. In particular, we recommend the following 6 approaches to help students stay engaged and resist distractions:

  1. Routines: Building new routines will be critical for students: typically, there is a gap between our intentions and our actions, but routines make it easier by making positive behaviours habitual. Students should be offered support as soon as possible, as the behavioural science literature shows that moments of major change are the most timely points for the formation of new habits.
  2. Goal setting and public commitments: Setting achievable goals is proven to increase motivation (with emphasis on achievable – failing to achieve goals is highly demotivating). Colleges and universities should consider helping students to set achievable or SMART study goals (i.e., ones that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based). Students should also be encouraged to commit to key actions in front of others (i.e., on a joint phone call or online workspace), as this is proven to increase follow-through. Tutors could then hold weekly or fortnightly group sessions to check in on progress, as a mechanism for encouraging adherence to plans.
  3. ‘If…, then…’ plans: Prompting students to think about when, where and how they will undertake key study tasks can also help them achieve goals. In particular, thinking about situations in which they might struggle to achieve study goals and then making ‘if…, then’ plans about what to do can increase follow through. This technique, called ‘implementation intentions’, has been proven to be one of the most effective behavioural science tools. Tutors could encourage students to make specific ‘if…, then…’ plans with regards to their studies – ideally by designing study planning templates for students to fill out.  
  4. Regular prompts and reminders:  To sustain motivation over time, institutions should consider sending more frequent prompts and reminders to students (by email or SMS). In a previous trial, BIT found that weekly text messages of encouragement (alongside reminders about term dates and upcoming tests) increased college students’ pass rates by 16%. 
  5. Virtual social support: Receiving ongoing encouragement from friends, family members or others (by phone, text message, email etc) is another strong motivator. Our research has found that many students do not receive ongoing encouragement, even though they have friends/family who would be happy to provide this – often because their friends/family members do not know how best to help. BIT has previously overcome this challenge by asking students to nominate a ‘study supporter’ (a family member, mentor or friend) and then sending these individuals regular SMS prompts on how to help the student. This increased pass rates by 25% in one trial.
  6. Environment changes: Continually exerting will power (e.g., trying to resist looking at Instagram after a notification) tends to be far harder than we anticipate. Individuals who appear to have the most will power tend to have designed an environment for themselves in which they rarely face temptations. Students should be encouraged to set blockers on social media while they study and to set up a study area in a relatively quiet part of their home. 

BIT has extensive experience of how best to apply these techniques and others to boost motivation. We also have a large bank of existing study support messages (for both students and ‘study supporters’) that could be quickly adapted to the current context. Similarly, we have developed a host of wellbeing prompts (to be delivered by email or SMS) – that have been proven to boost wellbeing for professionals in challenging situations (911 call handlers specifically), but could also be adapted for students. 

If you work at a college or university and would like us to help you support your students through these difficult times, please get in touch with us.

Please see our previous post for more information on remote learning and support for parents.