The New At-Risk Student

The New At-risk Student: 4-steps to Nudge Attitudes towards COVID-19 Compliance

By Keith P. O’Brien

7 minutes estimated time to read

64% of colleges are planning for an in-person fall semester [as of June 22, 2020]

The Chronicle of Higher Ed

Higher ed institutions are moving towards on-campus instruction this fall through a hybrid of face-to-face and on-line offerings. Institutional leadership must navigate their duty of care towards students and staff while crafting a reopening plan that is deliberative, comprehensive and “normal.”

 Student Compliance is the Achilles Heel of Reopening

“[y]oung people – aged between 18 to 31-years-old – had the lowest compliance rate at 52.4 percent… young people, the group least at risk for COVID-19, displayed more anxiety in their survey answers than other age groups, using words like “anxious,” “disturb” and “nervous,” more frequently than other age demographics.” 

 Group of college students sitting in the park

Melissa DeWitte, Stanford News,  April 14, 2020, discussing a Stanford University-led study on social distancing


A quick review of university websites turns up similar messages about social distancing, testing, face coverings, protective equipment, etc. All sensible and necessary steps which should lead to “herd compliance.” Student compliance with these restrictions and procedures is critical to the viability of on-campus education. The issue remains, however, what will the impact be if some percentage: 20%, 30% or 4% do not comply. How will institutions spur new and returning students to adhere to what will be dramatic changes to traditional campus behaviors and attitudes? 

Here are four steps colleges and universities can take to boost compliance: 

  1. Embrace Attitudes as the Why of Student Behaviors
    Kelly McGonigal in The Upside of Stress writes:  “Your mindset creates your reality….Mindsets are your beliefs about how the world works that shape the reality you experience. Think of them as the operating system for you mind — operating below the surface but controlling everything that happens.”
    Students will assess choices and make decisions based on their mindsets towards COVID-19 compliance. Two students with the exact same socio-economic and demographic characteristics can be very different in how they make decisions: one may be individually focused and the other community focused. Almost every university would communicate to them the same way and the results are likely to be mixed. What if the messages were tailored for activating that student’s mindset? 
  2. Pinpoint Attitudes towards COVID-19 Compliance
    Discourse Analytics’ (DA) Artificial Intelligence model uses existing student behavioral data to identify the attitudes driving a student’s behavior. The algorithms deliver a student attitudinal profile that identifies those whose attitudes make them a “compliance risk” with new health and safety rules.
  3. Message Students based on Shared At-risk Attitudes
    DA applies a patented “Think-alike” engine to form clusters of students based on shared attitudinal attributes. The “Think-alike” clusters predict how likeminded students will behave towards health measures and deliver prescribed messages engaging the attitudes that motivate each individual to minimize risky behaviors.
  4. Nudge Students to Comply
    Gartner, the research and advisory firm, recently wrote, “Nudge tech is used to impact key institutional priorities… and it enables key business trends such as personalization at a cost-effective scale.”
    Nudging solves for the reality that student decisions are not always optimal and how the choices are framed strongly influences the outcomes. Nudge tech serves to leverage existing digital channels to improve adherence through personalized and scaled calls to action. 

As fall approaches, ensuring campuses provide a meaningful college experience for staff, faculty and students, while minimizing health and safety risks is fraught with challenges. Depending upon traditional approaches to student engagement for unfamiliar and rigorous public health requirements seems unlikely to shift behaviors and reduce the risks.

To learn more about Discourse Analytics and activating student mindsets, contact: [email protected]

Click here to read about Gartner’s research on Nudge Tech in their Top 10 Strategic Technologies Impacting Higher Education in 2020.


Personalized Nudges. Improved Outcomes.

4929 Bethesda Ave #200, Bethesda, MD 20814


© 2022 All Rights Reserved.

Personalization and Collaboration: To Find Student Success, Get Student Ready

To Find Student Success, Get Student Ready Personalization & Collaboration in Higher Ed Digital Transformation in Higher Ed The student is higher education's raison d'être. That means we have to ensure that the institution is student -ready, rather than expecting students to be college -ready. As described in Top 10 IT Issues for 2019 - ... Read more

Gartner Shows Discourse Analytics’ Place in the Data-Driven Academy

Gartner Highlights Strategic Nudge Tech in Higher Education New Gartner Report Shows Discourse Analytics’ Place in the Data-Driven Academy Discourse Analytics’ technology Gartner’s recent report “Top 10 Strategic Technologies Impacting Higher Education in 2019” calls out a series of business challenges and metatrends that prove Discourse Analytics is uniquely positioned to provide value across the ... Read more