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Half the Cure: How a Behavioral Diagnosis Can Enhance Your Student Success Initiatives

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Mar 26, 2024

In education, "the pursuit of happiness" can be equated with "the pursuit of student success." If you look at any university's mission statement, you’ll often find it revolves around empowering students to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. In a rapidly evolving higher education landscape with decreasing enrollment and retention rates—paired with increasing mental health difficulties—enhancing student success has become more critical than ever. 

If you are an education administrator (or a teacher or… involved in education at all, really!), you might be seeking innovative approaches to engage students and foster motivation. However, your efforts and resources might not always render the expected results, which leaves you struggling to find out what the best course of action is. 

Does this sound like your case? Don’t worry. Just as with most of the world’s problems, a good diagnosis (in this case, a good behavioral diagnosis) is already half the cure!

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What is a behavioral diagnosis?

“So, what is a behavioral diagnosis?” you might wonder.

A behavioral diagnosis involves systematically analyzing the external and internal factors that contribute to a particular behavior (or, in this case, challenge) in an individual or group.1 While there is some variability as to what behavioral diagnoses seek to achieve, they often encompass the assessment of cognitive, emotional, and environmental factors to uncover the root causes of certain outcomes (including thought processes, decisions, behaviors, or actions). 

A behavioral diagnosis may employ a variety of tools such as surveys, diary studies, interviews, and behavioral observations. This approach can be applied across several contexts, including healthcare, technology, and of course in our case, education, and is most often used to inform targeted behavioral change interventions and support strategies.

In the context of student success, a behavioral diagnosis can help systematically understand the factors that influence students' academic performance and overall well-being. Are your students not engaging deeply with course material? Perhaps this is because of their time management skills and study habits. Are they unmotivated to attend class? Maybe the teaching strategies used in your university’s classrooms have something to do with it. Do they tend to freeze when encountering challenges? They may have a fear of failure. The underlying question here is what keeps them coming back to school every day? What drives them away?

When looking at a university’s entire student body, a behavioral diagnosis allows us to answer these questions and many more. It leads to a more profound understanding of key aspects of student behavior impacting their ability to thrive in school. This information may, in turn, prove valuable when planning and implementing tailored interventions and support strategies that effectively address students' specific needs and promote their academic achievement and personal development.

Informing Personalized Learning Experiences

“But why is running a behavioral diagnosis important?”

Education is all about “personalization.” We hear the term all the time, yet most of us are unsure of what exactly it means, let alone how to provide it.

Traditionally, when we talk about personalization, we are referring to providing students with a learning experience that is tailored to their needs. One of the key principles of behavioral science is recognizing that each individual student is exactly that: an individual. Each student is a world of their own, with unique strengths, challenges, and learning preferences, which influence their engagement and performance in educational settings.

If personalization is all about tailoring things to students’ needs, then how exactly can we leverage insights from behavioral diagnoses to do just this?

Often, teachers report having a growing number of students in their classes, despite decreased enrollment in higher education (or maybe because of it). This makes getting to know students an increasingly complex endeavor. While ideally, a teacher could have in-depth conversations with all of their students to get to know them and personalize their learning experience, this is not always possible (especially when there are dozens of faces in the crowd!).

This is where a behavioral diagnosis plays a crucial role in uncovering the particular profiles that students fit into and tailoring initiatives accordingly. Perhaps one academic support initiative needs to provide tailored support via individualized coaching to students who struggle with time management and organization skills. Meanwhile, other students may excel in social settings but struggle in self-directed learning so they may benefit from group learning experiences. In each scenario, a behavioral diagnosis can help you understand what it is your students need.

In a perfect world, reducing class sizes would help teachers foster one-on-one relationships with their students. But until that becomes a possibility, leveraging behavioral diagnoses allows educators to tackle behavioral barriers that may inhibit learning. It helps them create better, more inclusive, and most importantly, more personal experiences for students. Best of all, by leveraging a behavioral diagnosis, educators can actually achieve all this — and not die trying!

First Things First: Harnessing the Data You Already Have

“Okay, I get why a behavioral diagnosis is relevant for my organization… but where do I even begin?”

There are two main ways to run a behavioral diagnosis in your institution. One way, which we’ll focus on for the rest of this piece, seeks to leverage the data that you already have, while the other, which we’ll explore in the next edition, involves executing a behavioral diagnosis from scratch.

We live in an age of data (over)abundance — and education is no exception. Every day educational institutions collect an immense amount of student data. With the digitalization of education, we have statistics on the time a student spends in an online classroom, their interactions with peers in virtual discussions, and the number of assignments they have submitted on time or late throughout the term. You name it, and you can find statistics on it! 

In higher education, the challenge usually does not lie in obtaining data from students. In fact, it very often does not even lie in transforming it into actions (after all, you likely already use student data to make decisions about what student support services to offer, or how to approach high attrition rates, right?). The challenge, then, lies in transforming data into actionable behavioral insights that can be leveraged to increase student success.

Why behavioral insights? Everything students do, from the way they engage with parking spaces on campus to how often they use ChatGPT to complete their assignments, goes back to behavior (which encompasses cognition, emotions, and decision-making, among others).

If you already have a large amount of data (or, perhaps, too much to even sift through), a behavioral diagnosis provides you with a powerful lens through which to interpret it. It helps you identify patterns, trends, and correlations with behavioral implications that may be invisible to the traditional analysis eye. 

One hypothetical challenge you might be facing is a large number of students who tend to submit assignments at the last minute. You know this because, through your organization’s LMS (learning management system) you have data that shows you the number of times and time of day when a student accessed and submitted an assignment. (Do you also wonder why John Doe loves to submit assignments at 3 a.m.? If you do figure it out, please let me know!). You worry that your students show a pattern of procrastination and want to help them improve. If you look at the existing data via a traditional lens you may decide to implement strategies to help students access and submit assignments sooner. For example, you may choose to integrate a messaging system that reminds them to submit assignments in time so they are “nudged” to submit.

While nudging is a very effective behavioral intervention, it is only an adequate “cure” in particular situations. Viewing your data through a behavioral lens may provide additional insights to help you find a better, more effective intervention. Perhaps, for example, by looking at the rest of the data available to you, you may unearth additional patterns. As it turns out, you find that those students who tend to submit assignments late also seem to not access library resources as often. They also do not seem to engage in self-directed activities like peer tutoring. “Well, yeah, they are not applying themselves to school!” you may think. 

Think again! By taking a more thorough look at the research on behavior and learning, you may identify that these students are, perhaps, struggling with self-efficacy or self-regulation. If that is the case, sending your students reminders to submit an assignment may not be helpful. It may, perhaps, even be counterproductive. Instead of helping them increase their self-efficacy and regulation, you run the risk of making them dependent upon external prompts and reminders. When considering the challenge through this perspective you may find, for example, that your students could benefit more from interventions that help them learn to be in charge of nudging themselves to do things.

By peering through a behavioral diagnosis lens, the wealth of information you have in your databases can be put to use in crafting targeted, effective, and evidence-based interventions. This strategy enables you to help students overcome harmful behaviors while also guiding them to utilize motivators that can lead to their success.

Starting with a Behavioral Diagnosis is Half the Cure

In the world of medicine, if you are looking to improve your health, you might first decide to look at the information you already have at hand to determine what improvements you can make. In the world of education, you can start by looking at the data that you already have through a behavioral lens. This has the potential to give you a new viewpoint from which you can begin to improve and tailor your student success initiatives. If, however, you want to take this one step further and have a more profound and lasting impact, you may want to run a behavioral diagnosis from scratch (want to know more? Stay tuned for Part Two).

Whichever route you choose, keep in mind that in the pursuit of (happiness) student success, a behavioral diagnosis is not just a key step — it is half the cure!

Works Cited

  1. Datta, S., & Mullainathan, S. (2014). Behavioral design: a new approach to development policy. Review of Income and Wealth, 60(1), 7-35.

About the Author

Dr. Cynthia Borja

Cynthia is an Associate Project Leader at The Decision Lab. She holds a doctorate in Psychology from Capella University, a Master’s in Psychology from Boston University, and a Bachelor’s in Neuroscience and Behavior from Vassar College. Her mission is to promote the application of the principles of brain, behavioral, and learning sciences to the real world.

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Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?