Occam's Razor and Student Persistence Challenges

by Keith P. O'Brien | May 6, 2019
Occam's Razor and Student Persistence Challenges

Part three of a three-part series on how higher education uses personalization to retain Gen Z students. To wrap up the discussion, our guest author talks about student persistence.

I have spent a great part of my professional life trying to figure out the root causes of the problems facing organizations so I could suggest solutions. In doing so, I have met some truly fascinating characters. One of my most interesting colleagues (poet, serial technology entrepreneur, foodie, MBA) was fond of telling me to use “Occam’s razor” when tackling a complicated issue. Of course, he had to explain it to me. Here’s the CliffsNotes version:

In simpler language, Occam’s razor states that the simplest solution is correct…we should avoid looking for excessively complex solutions to a problem and focus on what works, given the circumstances.

Occam's razor and student persistence

We can all agree that student persistence and retention are complex issues with no end of potential solutions. What if we apply Occam’s razor? In this instance, we’ll focus on the newly matriculated Gen Z student. What do we know about them that is straightforward and usually true? A few things spring to mind:

  • They all own mobile phones and are rarely unplugged from a digital device
  • They often struggle to navigate the complexities of higher education
  • Students need different types of support at different times and for different reasons
  • Humans still like to interact with humans when facing more complicated issues

By wielding my “razor,” I suggest that one student success solution is that higher ed institutions use text messaging. This makes it easier for students to do things that keep them in school. That, in a nutshell, is what Signal Vine calls pragmatic personalization: send texts nudging a student about an upcoming deadline, check for responses (if none, follow up), and connect students to the right support services when appropriate.

Let’s visit Utah and see how one university embraced this idea to make it easier for first-year students to persist.

Bringham Young University’s (BYU’s) first-year mentoring program

This first-year program deploys upperclassmen trained to provide one-on-one advice and support (via text message and in-person) to freshmen. The program had issues because mentors were using their personal phones to connect with mentees. What seemed like a reasonable way for mentors and mentees to communicate was making things complicated for everyone involved:

  • Peer mentors were basically on-call 24/7 because their personal phones were the point of contact for mentees.
  • Mentees struggled to connect with mentors and get timely responses because peer mentors were juggling messages from many sources.
  • The Office of First-Year Experience had no way of knowing if and when peer mentors connected with students. Also, staff worried that peer-to-mentee communications lived on hundreds of personal devices instead of a centralized campus system.

As a result, the Office of First-Year Experience partnered with Signal Vine to deploy its platform infused with Blended Messaging®. This enabled staff to do the following:

  • Automate a set of peer mentor text messages to provide deadline alerts and reminders to complete required academic or admin tasks. Messages were sent automatically per a calendar managed on the Signal Vine platform.
  • Help peer mentors triage support in real-time by enabling every mentor to access a Signal Vine account via their personal digital device to manage interactions with their mentees. The account shows when texts are sent, tracks responses, and flags queries sent by mentees that need attention.
  • Streamline peer mentor program management as BYU staff use Signal Vine’s platform to coordinate messaging, automate delivery, track responses, and maintain data privacy and security protocols.

Results on student persistence

As a result, pragmatic personalization boosted the program’s value for the mentors, mentees, and the university as a whole. BYU staff reported that mentees who received texts through the Signal Vine platform were more engaged with their mentors. These students also felt a stronger relationship with their peer mentor. They valued this relationship more as communications were more relevant, timely, and accessible – the building blocks of personalization. Automating messaging and response monitoring freed up mentors' time; this enabled them to better address mentees' questions. As a result, BYU has scaled the Signal Vine platform to text all incoming freshmen.

Learn more

*Special thanks to our guest author, Keith P. O'Brien, an expert edtech marketing consultant.

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