How to Get College Students to (Maybe) Check Their E-mail

To reach college students we must understand how we can customize our messaging.

Posted May 15, 2019

Source: CollegeDegrees360/flickr

I present at conferences and lead workshops across the country on how to motivate college students using behavioral science strategies, and there's one question I get asked every single time:

How do I get my students to check their e-mail?!?

E-mail has been abused as a form of communication for the past two decades, rendering it barely useful for transmitting basic information, let alone serving as a means of influence. This overuse has led colleges to talk to students through other media—text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, custom-built apps—but problems remain. Although colleges may see an uptick in communication when using more en vogue technology, it can blind them to the behaviors that killed e-mail in the first place. In short, it’s not how you send your message…it’s how you say your message.

There are many reasons why students now ignore their e-mail accounts, but I want to call out mass e-mail campaigns. For years, colleges sent most e-mails to all students. I’m telling you, there’s no bigger turn-off in an email than a statement like: Please disregard this e-mail if it doesn’t apply to you.

This caveat clearly states, “We don’t know who you are, and we don’t care enough to figure it out.” In our data-rich modern age, this approach is no longer acceptable to students. Instead, we need to leverage our data to send messages—regardless of whether they’re delivered by e-mail, text, or even a letter!—that resonate with students and motivate the behaviors that lead to their success. And to do that, we need a better understanding of customization and ways to consider its use in context.


When thinking about customization, I utilize nomenclature from the field of health communications (my bias as a health psychologist shines through). Targeting is when you send two or more groups of people different messages. Different how, you ask? Targeting generally takes one of two forms:

  • Content targeting is when each group needs fundamentally different information. For example, incoming first-time students may have different registration requirements than incoming transfer students. Rather than sending a long e-mail with both sets of requirements, which forces students to filter out what’s irrelevant to them, a targeted e-mail may be more likely to reach each audience.
  • Message targeting is when all groups receive the same fundamental message but uniquely framed to motivate that group. For example, Amanda Diekman’s research on goal congruity theory has shown that men and women respond differently to information about STEM majors and careers. According to this theory, efforts to recruit women into STEM should leverage messages about collaboration and making the world a better place (i.e., communal motives) to a greater degree than messages about independent research and satisfying one’s curiosity about the world (i.e., agentic motives). Messages designed to recruit men, however, could be more balanced between these motives.

How do we target these groups? The most common way to segment students is, as my examples above illustrate, by demographics. New and transfer; men and women; first-generation and continuing-generation—the list is long and can include as many intersectionalities (e.g., first-generation men; women in STEM) as deemed important. Another common approach is to segment students by a behavior: for example, sending FAFSA reminders only to students who have not yet submitted the FAFSA. Some colleges are now targeting messaging and services based on risk scores, which account for a constellation of past behavior to predict future success or struggle.

A third, still-developing way of targeting is based on personality traits. A recent study showed that nudges to improve the strength of people’s online passwords were more effective when targeted based on people’s decision-making styles. As colleges collect more data on students’ personality, mindsets, and other non-cognitive traits, they could consider using these measures as a means of targeting their communications. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that targeted messages (regardless of how segmentation occurred) must be carefully constructed to avoid reinforcing stereotypes about any group of students and alienating the very students that you’re trying to support.


Tailoring is when a message is personalized for one specific person, which is more feasible and affordable than ever given advances in data processing and communication tools. Even e-mail can now be used for this kind of 1-to-1 interaction. But like targeting, tailoring can take many different forms and each should be considered when deciding how best to influence students.

The simplest form of tailoring is identification, in which a message calls out something unique about the student. This could happen by using the student’s name, acknowledging their birthday, or referencing some information that signals to the student that this message was written just for them. While the impact of this kind of tailoring is debatable, it does seem to be attention grabbing, which is an important first step toward influence.

Feedback involves reporting to students about their own involvement in a desirable or undesirable behavior. Feedback interventions have been widely used on college campuses as a means of alcohol use reduction, especially among students in a mandated education program, but we can apply this approach to encourage academic behaviors, as well. For example, messages meant to drive students to the tutoring center might leverage check-in data to inform one of these types of feedback:

Ross E. O'Hara
Three types of feedback.
Source: Ross E. O'Hara

Like the information we get from wearables about our step counts and sleep patterns, descriptive feedback is often compelling. This feedback allows us to compare our current self with our past self to look for changes in performance. The caveat is that each person draws their own conclusions about whether their performance is acceptable, potentially without a useful or accurate benchmark.

Comparative and evaluative feedback provide said benchmark, but involve their own risks. Choosing a comparison target is tricky because it’s often unclear with whom a student identifies. Although many feedback interventions refer to the “average student” as a comparison, the message could be more or less resonant if it refers to more specific targets, such as other first-generation students, engineering majors, or sorority members.

Most importantly, both comparative and evaluative feedback demand a deep appreciation of a student’s personal situation and potential causes of their behavior. Nothing is more disheartening than being told you’re not doing enough to succeed when you feel like you have no capacity to change. Negative feedback should always be accompanied by offers of additional support and/or a feasible call to action.

Finally, content matching brings all of these elements together to send a message specifically written for an individual person. In a sense, this approach is simply targeting when the group size equals 1. True content matching is the dream of every AI-powered support system—to provide unique guidance to each person based on who they are, their current environment, and their past behavior. While the future of AI-based advising has not yet arrived, you can still consider how to use the data and tools at your disposal to create individually tailored messages.

Does customization really matter?

In a word, yes. A meta-analysis of health interventions found that tailoring based on demographics, past behavior, and theoretical concepts all improve the likelihood that people change their behavior for the better. Given that this research focused on print media, the opportunities for customized messaging using mobile communication and modern data systems are incomparable.

Despite these advances, customization still requires a thoughtful approach as to who to target, as well as both why and how they should be targeted. Not all of these techniques are appropriate in every single context, but designing an effective communication plan that students are less likely to tune out begs their consideration. Strategic use of customization will help to prevent text messaging and social media from going the way of e-mail…and maybe even start to redeem e-mail in the eyes of our students.


Diekman, A. B., Brown, E. R., Johnston, A. M., & Clark, E. K. (2010). Seeking congruity between goals and roles: A new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1051-1057.

Hawkins, R. P., Kreuter, M., Resnicow, K., Fishbein, M., & Dijkstra, A. (2013). Understanding tailoring in communicating about health. Health Education Research, 23(3), 454-466.

Noar, S. M., Benac, C. N., & Harris, M. S. (2007). Does tailoring matter? Meta-analytic review of tailored print health behavior change interventions. Psychological Bulletin, 133(4), 673-693.

Peer, E., Egelman, S., Harbach, M., Malkin, N., Mathur, A., & Frik, A. (2019). Nudge me right: Personalizing online nudges to people’s decision-making styles. Available from SSRN.

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