Persuading Students to Success

Institutions of higher education are structured environments designed to facilitate student learning. However, as any visitor on a college campus can attest, some academic environments seem much more structured and effective than others. Much depends upon the college, the space, and the activity taking place.

Think about college tutoring center. Is it well-lit, easily located and welcoming? Is it the kind of place where you might want to spend an afternoon – whether you were receiving academic help or not? Or does it feel like a place that students are sent to because of a failure, shortcoming or problem? Student usage of a tutoring center is profoundly affected by the answers to those questions. The strength of the tutors matters – greatly – and this is not to minimize that fact. But good tutors on their own will not spell meaningful and long-term practice. More is needed – and when charged with something as important and expensive as student learning, we cannot afford to be haphazard.

Institutions that are intentional have a greater likelihood of making a positive impact on their students’ learning and growth. Doing good work is not enough. That means for our tutoring center, effective tutors have to be successfully placed, supported, and evaluated within the larger college ecosystem. Sustainability and large-scale impact call for academic engineering with the students, culture and institution in mind. It is no easy task – as any dean, provost, or director of a tutoring center will attest. Students are fickle creatures. Woe to any educator who believes that they have students “sorted out.” Understanding our students and making corresponding adjustments is a lifetime’s work, especially if we hope to change their behavior.

Bear this in mind when considering the relevance to higher ed of a popular business book, Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: The Art of Persuasion. First published in 1984, Influence has been revised twice, most recently in 2007. Celebrated by marketers for several decades, it has sold more than 3 million copies and is in 30 languages. Fortune considers it one of the top 75 business books. Cialdini is an emeritus professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. He is more than academic, too; he is an entrepreneur, selling workshops, training, and related materials.

Influence is an accessible, interesting, and practical book outlining ways in which people are persuaded. Cialdini outlines a theory of persuasion resting on six generalized themes. Each theme has a chapter, is supported by research in the social sciences, and explained with easy to understand examples drawn from life and Cialdini’s undercover work selling (and being persuaded).

Reciprocity is based on our tendency to give to those that give to us. Someone gives us a flower and we are more likely to listen to them (and give their cause a donation). Most people carry around within them a sense of fairness, meaning that gifts often entail obligations. These can and are regularly manipulated. Just think about what happened after you accepted the free sample or trial?

Consistency and commitment are two human traits that can be employed to persuade. People tend to prefer things to remain the same and in the same trajectory. Cialdini notes that this tendency is often “mechanical” and not conscious. Commitment explains the likelihood of us to do what we say we are going to do – even if we do not want to do so. There are many experiments that demonstrate our willingness to engage in unpleasant activities primarily because we said or wrote that we would do so. Be careful about those promises!

In the chapter on Social Proof, Cialdini examines the many ways that we anchor our behavior in the perceived behavior of others. Whether it is why we laugh more when there is a laugh track (even though we know it is fake) or join cults (even when common sense tells us otherwise), our preferential behavior is usually aligned with those of our peers. Cialdini uses the limited involvement of bystanders at Kitty Genevose‘s murder as an example – noting, too, that many people did, in fact, telephone the police. No one, though, was willing to get directly involved. If we see others bypass an issue, we are likely to bypass it as well. Social scientists have researched a solution to the problem, too. When people are directly asked to get participate, they do so – with alacrity and at surprisingly high rates of participation.

Liking is based on the well-recognized fact that people are more likely to comply with the requests of someone they like or admire. This holds true for physical attractiveness, friends, and environments in which polarities are clear. Think of the traditional good cop v. bad cop interrogation techniques. The phenomenon also applies to ways that we identify with organizations, teams and others. “Liking” something is more than just like – it carries with it other features, like identity. This explains the behavior of sports fans, which in many ways can defy explanation.

Cialdini’s chapter on Authority covers Milgram’s famous experiment on compliance and pain amid a wider examination of how people often do what they are told. He references experiments that show the power of clothing and titles. That’s one of the reasons that uniforms can be very effective. In the section on Scarcity, Cialdini shows limited options can influence behavior. People are hard-wired to dislike loss – even the loss of something that they do not have. Sales and special offers are easily recognized ways that businesses take advantage or perceived scarcity.

Taken collectively, the lessons of Influence can be profound for higher education – in the classroom and at the college. Successful college traditions already fit within the scheme as anyone who has been to a college football game knows. We wear our school’s colors, identify with our college’s team and mascot, demonize our opponents, and cheer with our fellow fans. Many offices and professionals use the rules daily, relying on authority or social proof to manage behavior. Going back to our tutoring center, the research of Uri Treisman and the Dana Center on improving students’ math scores demonstrates the power of small group studying. Cialdini reports how small groups, given the right project and management, can overcome group members’ differences, build coöperation, and produce better outcomes. The applications of Influence are woven throughout college – if we choose to be intentional and to use them. Students do what their peers do – and each freshman year we have an opportunity to normalize new behavior and set new expectations.

Let’s be a more prescriptive, intentional and clever – and see about other ways of persuading students to work towards better grades, higher levels of engagement, and completion. If it can work for marketing firms, whose interest is to make a profit, it ought to work for higher education. After all, our aim aligns with what the students want: success.

David Potash

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