Using Text Messaging to Support Learners' Program Completion

Nudging to STEM Success, a joint initiative by Jobs for the Future and Persistence Plus, leverages behavioral science and mobile technology to increase community college completion, particularly for STEM students. Starting this fall, tens of thousands of students will receive evidence-based behavioral nudges over text message to help them navigate the complexities of college, succeed in STEM studies and move toward college graduation.

Check out the video on Nudging to STEM Success for examples of what this looks like for learners.  Many adult educators already use texts to keep in contact with their classes.  Is this behavioral approach only for post-secondary learners?  If not, how are you using text to support behavioral approaches to learning outside of the classroom?  Does this video give you ideas for what may be possible more informally with your students?

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator 


Thanks, Mike, for posting this. I wasn't aware of the Persistence Plus App. I watched the short video that explains the overall strategy for helping adult college students to persist. I wonder if a version of this app is available for learners in adult basic skills (adult basic literacy, ABE, ASE and transition to college) programs. I would be very interested to hear reactions to this app from teachers who struggle with how to help adult learners persist in adult basic skills programs as well as in community college developmental studies or other classes. Do you think this app has merit for the students you teach? If so, what is appealing? If not, why not?


David J. Rosen, Moderator

Integrating Technology CoP

After reading David's post was, "Oh great! A nagging app to help students feel more guilty about stuff they probably already know they should be doing but are not." I watched the little video on the site to hear what they do and what their focus is and I feel a little better about their function. I still have concerns that the type of texts must be so carefully reviewed and filtered to prevent any nagging effects in students. I wonder who in adult ed fields has the required psychology background to create and filter those texts in order to have the desired positive effects? 

What role does willpower have in persistence and motivation? Often students know the right things that should motivate them, but success is still out of reach for them. This whole concept brought to mind a wonderful book/course written by Kelly McGonigal from Stanford I believe. She runs a course on willpower at the school and it has become so successful and positive that she encapsulated the course into a book. The book is intended to be a 10 week experience in which you read a chapter then try the activities suggested. I first listened to the book on my long commutes and just reading the chapters felt so much better about my control over situations I felt I lacked willpower. I now have the book in hand and need to fully engage in trying the weekly practices for 10 weeks to see if I can enact real change. If you are interested, I have links to her TED talk video on will power and a link to her book. I am learning so much about why people fail to do what they know they should and how to support those people to find more success!!!

Link to video

Link to book

Do others see learners struggling with willpower in a way that might decrease their persistence or motivation?

I remember a teacher dedicating a significant chunk of a "developmental reading" course to discussions about ... well, it gets called so many things!   Time management, will power, grit, growth mindset, ... one of his recurring themes was "don't let what you want now keep you from getting what you want most."   

What do you mean by "nagging effect?"   Do you think students would be less likely to do what they're being "nudged" to do because of the nudging?  I find that students -- and I -- have grown rather accustomed to getting at least 3 notices (and maybe even several "final notices" )  before actual consequences happen, and this is one of the expensive and sometimes college-career-ending lessons some of them learn when no,  they can't get into courses even though they've signed a lease somewhere and no, they can't get out of the lease.   
     I don't think we should perpetuate the dependence but I think we should seek ways of having the necessary lessons be less terminal. 

I wonder if the continued persistence is due to a feeling of support rather than willpower alone. I agree it's a balance, but even when students feel "nagged" - they also feel like they matter and that someone cares about their progress. 



Kathy, you got me thinking about the term "Nagging" and I agree that we view those that nag as annoying, but they care about us. For some students, even that sort of negative attention is desired by the individual. 

Remember the game show Family Feud? The host would share a question like, "Out of 100 people surveyed, name a person you associate with the term 'Nagging'..." the answers were given different number of points based on how popular the response was in the survey. 

I could see "Mom" being high up on the list, maybe "Parents", but I suspect for many adult ed students "Teachers" would be up there on that list as well.  In fact, thinking about all the other naggers I could come up with, they were people that were pushing me to be a better me. Although I did not appreciate those people as much as I should in those nagging moments, I do look back with much thanks that they were there nagging me along. Do others reflect on their personal naggers the same way?

In the moment we are being nagged at, our perspective is not very holistic and we often do not feel positive about the efforts of our nagger. In fact we may feel stressed by the nagging we are receiving or perceiving at the time. It is this stress or anxiety that I worry may be a negative to some of our adult learners. We all know how many stresses some of our students face. Simply showing up to class is a minor miracle for some with the many things they face. The potential stress or anxiety that nagging might produce may be the straw that breaks the student's back. 

I suspect an opt in  / opt out policy would help. In that way people choose if they wish to receive the texts. I used Google Calendar once with a class to help remind about important dates. Google calendar allows the individual to set text/email notifications at different time intervals before the event happens. Likewise, the person that started the event on the calendar can push reminders out as well. Some students found this helpful, others decided to remove themselves from the notifications, and others just never even looked at any of the messages. I see benefits of students being able to choose to be notified but I can also see how mandatory notifications could be a positive as well. How are others feeling about this? Should text support simply be part of a class/program you sign up for or should students have choices to opt in or opt out as they see fit?

I agree with Kathy that if we express it with this intention, students will hear this message -" you belong here, we noticed you were absent, we missed you and care about you...".

What I take away in my reading of the Persistence Plus strategy isn't just that it's nudging, but that it presents students with information and data about success, that is "this isn't just our opinion, or our attendance policies, etc., these are characteristics of successful students that you can learn and embody as well" . As someone else posted here, it promotes a growth mindset. The other take-away for me and something I'm always trying to remember in online facilitation was that the nudges ended with a question, and not the typical open-ended facilitator question "what do you think about this?" but one that asks the student to commit to an action "will you attend the orientation session?". I find this request for a commitment from the student very powerful (though I typically advise against yes/no questions in advising). 

Hello Ed,

Of course one meaning of "nudge" is nag, but just as often, it means a gentle push, usually in the direction one wants to go, perhaps as reminder of something you want to do for yourself, or that you have agreed to do. I think that's the idea in this app, to help people stay on course with what they want, or say they need, to do. I agree, Ed, that it needs to be voluntary or it will soon be a nag.

Many years ago I interviewed a well-known Boston musician, a director of a prominent international professional music school for classical musicians. He was going to be a program advisor (a mentor) for a talented music student in the college for which I was Program Advisor Coordinator. I asked him, as I always did in such interviews, what strategies he might suggest to his students to help them accomplish what they knew they needed to do. One that he suggested, that he said had worked for him personally as well as for many of his students, especially for practicing long and difficult piano pieces, was to place several chocolates on the piano, within eyesight, and to reward oneself with one piece for completing each difficult part. For those like me who love chocolate it has worked well. I suppose if you practice eight-ten hours a day, however you have to be careful not to over-reward yourself!

A few years later I ran into an interesting quote about freedom, in the context of behavior management psychology, which I will paraphrase: those who are truly free are their own self-reinforcers. Perhaps the most important idea of the music educator I interviewed is that we can get to know ourselves well enough to become our own "reinforcers", to control or discipline ourselves to do what we (not necessarily others who "nag" us) want to do.

If there were an effective app to train us to do that for ourselves, I would like to know about it. I also think it would have a big market!

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Integrating Techology CoP


So, maybe the way to make students self-reinforcers would be to teach students how to set their own alarms/automatic reminders on their phones, email, etc.? It might be interesting to talk about that during orientation or on the first day of class. On the other hand, this removes the feeling of getting contact from the program...

We experimented with an attendance-based texting system for a while (a monthly report to students on their own attendance) before the staff member in charge of it had to stop because of extra duties added to his plate, and we found that when we sent out a message along the lines of "Is something wrong?" to students with poor attendance, we frequently heard from some of them right afterward. I'm not sure how many actually came to class more often as a result, but it did let us know what the problem was (work schedule, death in the family, etc.), which allowed us to reach out with options like a schedule change, leave of absence, or referral to a social service agency. Students were able to opt-in or opt-out during orientation and they were given the option to opt-out at any time by replying to the text, but I don't think very many chose to leave the program. A handful of students really liked having a number that they could send text messages to, and would use it to "call in" absent. They definitely saw this as a connection to the program and not just an automated thing like a meeting reminder. I think that's part of what makes the "nag" acceptable--seeing it as a connection to the program and the people there.

Hi David, et al,

This is similar to another initiative with First Gen college students by the company , which has also shown to be impactful in higher ed admissions, enrollment, retention, graduation, etc. They partner with psychologists. Here's an article on texting increasing enrollment. 

Re: use with our adult ed students, we found at Cell-Ed that texting students friendly reminders did help some students in getting them to continue with their distance learning. Some would call soon after we texted. Spaced learning questions (asking a comprehension question about what they studied) was a great way to send a 'reminder' text instead of a nagging one. And it should help with retention of content studied as well! We'd also send out reminders in the form of announcing lotteries (e.g. anyone who studies tonight could win a gift card...).

I agree there should be more research into how similar nudging through texting and messaging can help adult ed. students successfully transfer to higher ed or even new jobs/careers. My experience with the Mobile Up! project in California and in the past with Cell-Ed suggests it should!




Just came upon an article from The Telegraph. The article shares the prediction that teachers will soon be replaced by robots that offer more individualized support and inspiration. 

Link to article

What are your thoughts? 

Hi all,

Yes, robots (in the form of chatbots) will be able to automatically provide support to learners and recommend (or push out) appropriate activities, lessons, referrals etc. But I do not think it will take away the need for live teachers and coaches to connect personally  - more as coaches - to help learners reach their goals or to set up in person practice or application of things learned. It will dramatically change the role of the teacher- which is not necessarily a bad thing. Teachers' time can be spent connecting more 1-1 providing more individualized coaching and counseling.

If you're having a hard time understanding how this can be done automatically with a chat bot, don't miss this fascinating article of a son who created a "chat box" of his dying father to keep him eternally alive for his children:



It is and it isn't removed. I'd love to hear your thoughts more on this. I agree that the conversation is limited in the bots, but it gives a glimpse to the future as to how bots can be programmed to recognize certain issues, mistakes, questions or what not and automatically respond. As an ESL coach, I could easily see certain mistakes that various students had (e.g. not pronouncing the past tense of ed correctly, false cognates) that could be recognized by a bot and automatically addressed by a bot (not necessarily right away but at a pre-determined appropriate time). In an example like this, bots can give ESL students' direct feedback on their language production- which they are desperate for! We got that feedback a lot! Then teachers' time could be freed up to really have natural, real conversation with students and coaching, etc. As a field we need to discuss this now and be able to make strong statements as to how we feel they should and shouldn't be these technologies are quickly gaining capacity and acceptance. Would love to hear other voices chime in! 

That every last one of the products I've seen heading this direction don't actually work for an awful lot of people. 

I saw an article from a parent and teacher who noted that actually, teachers are being replaced by robots.   Students were sitting down and using software and there was a "facilitator" walking around but it wasn't a teacher.   

These products are pushed out and marketed with blithe disregard for the pedagogical needs of students. As tools, a good teacher can apply said pedagogy and do amazing things. They aren't "better than teachers," though. I think we *could* get there -- but not with the current kinds of forces pushing products int he direction of "we need more data! we need more bells and whistles!" at the expense of "we need students actually learning this stuff!" and, no, I don't mean their little pre-test post-test on whatever skills they deem the fragment of the week...