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It’s fun to receive good news.

Most colleges have some sort of “early alert” system for students in danger of failing. The idea is that professors who notice a student whose performance is lacking can send an alert to the student and trigger guidance to various support systems, such as tutoring. They typically serve two major purposes: attendance tracking and academic rescue. The attendance part matters for financial aid purposes, and the latter is self-evident.

But most colleges, as far as I know, stop there. They only use alert systems to send bad news. Students figure that out quickly, and often tune out what gets sent to them. 

A colleague in Massachusetts several years ago mentioned that her school also uses alerts for positive reinforcement. They allow faculty to send virtual smiley faces (or whatever) to students who are doing really well. The idea is that nobody minds an occasional “keep up the good work!,” and throwing some good news in with the bad makes it likelier that students will read it.

It’s trickier than it sounds, though.  

For example, a student might get simultaneous notices from Professor Jones that she’s doing great in Basketweaving 101 and from Financial Aid saying that dropping two other classes endangered her Satisfactory Academic Progress. (SAP is a federal requirement for continued financial aid eligibility. It’s typically defined as the successful completion of two-thirds of credits attempted. Withdrawals count against it. That means it’s possible to have a 4.0 and still fall short of SAP.) Mixed messages not only cause confusion -- understandably enough -- but sometimes a loss of credibility.

They can also take on too much weight. I once had a student who got an 87 on a midterm ask me what his grade was, then vanish for weeks. When he returned, he was upset that the strong B had evaporated. I had to explain the difference between “as of now” and “final.” 

That said, I can’t help but think there’s value in systematized “attagirl”s, especially for students who aren’t entirely sure that college is the right decision for them. It’s a confidence-builder built on actual achievement.

If a mechanism like that were combined with some sort of “mindset”-informed phrasing, it might be that much more effective. If you only praise outcomes, you might encourage a certain risk aversion among the students. But if you praise sustained focus and effort, along with some basic minimum of success, then you encourage more work in a positive direction. The goal is to let students know that their efforts are being noticed and are paying off, thereby to encourage them to continue. 

Yes, it would be nice if students were sufficiently self-motivated and self-aware that they wouldn’t need external encouragement. Some are. But to expect that of everyone isn’t realistic.  And when college is competing with part-time jobs for attention, and the part-time jobs provide encouragement every two weeks in the form of a paycheck, going months without positive feedback is asking a lot.

I’m guessing that others have thought of this, and have even fine-tuned it. So in my ongoing and shameless quest to steal good ideas from wherever I can, I’ll throw it open to my wise and worldly readers. Have you seen an effective, scaled-up way to deliver positive notifications?

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