Reflections on the Behavioural Insights and Student Success Training

Nasima Bashar, King’s College London |

In higher education, interventions supported by behavioural insights (BI) can aid student decision-making and increase student engagement and sense of belonging. Colleagues from across King’s are excited by the opportunity to learn how to apply behavioural insights in their areas. What Works ran a three-day training session for King’s staff on how BI can be applied within the context of higher education. The objective was to enable and empower colleagues to feel confident in using behavioural insights within their own work.

The training started with our Associate Director, Susannah, presenting the basic principles of conducting a behavioural insights project, including the Behavioural Insights Team’s (BIT’s) TEST methodology (Target, Explore, Solution, and Trial) and Vanessa, our Senior Behavioural Insights Advisor, presenting some of the frameworks used when designing interventions. These included ACES (Affirm Belonging, Consider Choice Architecture, Empower and Enable, and Support Social Connections), a framework specifically designed by What Works for applying behavioural insights to higher education, and BIT’s EAST framework (Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely), which highlights  four simple considerations when incorporating behavioural insights to an intervention.

We were tasked in our groups with designing an intervention to address a real challenge faced by colleagues in King’s, using these frameworks. The online module selection process generally runs twice a year where students need to select the modules they would like to take for the following term or year. Once the student has made their selections and these have been approved by the department, this information feeds directly into the student lifecycle process, including the student’s class timetable, their Moodle pages in the virtual learning environment and their examination timetable.  As 10% of students are currently not meeting the deadline, we were tasked with designing an intervention which would encourage students to meet their module selection deadlines. We also conducted exploratory fieldwork with students and presented our interventions to a panel including the Associate Director for Registry Services, Michael Sanders, Chief Scientist at the Behavioural Insights Team); and a current King’s student.

As a current postgraduate student at King’s interning with the What Works Department, here are some of my reflections from the training.

There is a lot to consider when designing an intervention

As a group we came up with several ideas, such as having a mascot to encourage and promote module selection, however measuring the impact of this would be challenging. We realised the need to consider how we would measure and evaluate our intervention from the very beginning. Consideration needed to be given to our sample and how we could secure a control group, to measure the impact of the intervention, whilst ensuring we weren’t disadvantaging any students.

Being mindful about what is going on for students around the time of our intervention was also key. Generally, students have a lengthy to do list and as one assignment is ticked off another is added on. Drawing on the EAST framework very much helped with this part of the task as we had to be mindful of feasibility from a student perspective and an institutional perspective, whilst avoiding assumptions. Deep consideration was also given to limiting factors we may encounter, for example students not checking their King’s emails and what may be going on for these students who may be less engaged.

Our collaborative approach

Colleagues were given the opportunity to work with advisors from BIT, who offered expert advice on how to design and conduct BI projects including RCTs. By examining what was already in place, current modes of communication and the impact of these, we worked to ensure that our approach would employ something innovative to encourage students to make their module choices by the deadline. With the assistance of Eliza from BIT (who has written on this blog about her PhD research with white working class boys), our group designed a three-armed Randomised Controlled Trial including a control group who’d continue to receive the current email reminders, an intervention group who’d receive amended emails drawing on a sense of belonging and social capital, and a second intervention group who would receive postcards a month before module selection opened.

We opted for a theme surrounding structure and direction; explore, select, submit. Colleagues from the Careers department implement a similar approach in offering career guidance and very skilfully applied this to the presenting issue. This was one of the greatest aspects of collaborating with colleagues from across the university ­- everyone brought a different skillset and we were able to harness these in the most effective manner. This, for me, was what made us the winning team; the way in which we drew on everyone’s knowledge, experience and skills.

Reflections as a current student

Having attended the training and learning about the application of behavioural insights to higher education, this demonstrates our movement as an institution towards a culture of empirically testing initiatives for the optimisation of students’ journeys at university.

As a current King’s student, I had given little to no thought to the backend processes involved in ensuring students have a smooth and successful journey throughout their time at King’s. Attending the behavioural insights training and designing an intervention for this project has most definitely been an eye opener into the work that goes on.

Having met so many wonderful people working behind the scenes to ensure the success of students, I felt truly grateful and privileged for all their efforts. The dedicated work that goes into improving the student experience ranging from pre-application to post graduation, and the number of processes in-between, is truly mind blowing and makes me proud to be a King’s student.

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