Psychologically Attuned Communication: What We Say, and How We Say It, Matters.

student using laptop and talking on the headphone

Postsecondary drop-out rates are high. An innovative CSSIC research initiative could help to reverse the trend.

Collaboration and partnership are hallmarks of the College Student Success Innovation Centre's approach, and its research into psychologically attuned communication is a good example. A few years ago, Tim Fricker and his team at CSSIC were rolling out their project on proactive advising when a colleague mentioned a doctoral student at Stanford University who was doing some really interesting work concerning academic probation letters. Usually dry and sternly worded, probation letters are the way academic institutions officially tell students falling behind in their studies that they need to do better, and the letters historically haven't done much to prevent many students from simply giving up and dropping out. But the Stanford researcher had been finding that simply by rewriting those missives in a way that took into account how they make people feel, more probationary students returned to good academic standing - and stayed in school.

When Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College and head of CSSIC, heard about that, he had two responses: "I thought, 'That is far too simple to be effective' and 'I have to meet this person.' "

So he did. The "person" in question was Shannon Brady, a former South Dakota schoolteacher who was pursuing her PhD in developmental psychology at Stanford, in California. A few months and several Skype meetings later, a unique CSSIC research project was born. As the first of its kind in Canada and in the context of a community college setting, the project, which began in 2017, started by applying and testing Brady's principles of psychologically attuned communication in Mohawk College's letters; it has since expanded to include more postsecondary institutions in Canada and the United States, including universities. And as simple as it might sound, the approach - validated by CSSIC research - could hold a key to fundamentally changing and improving the relationship between postsecondary institutions and students.

What is psychologically attuned communication, and how does it work? The approach is based on a simple insight: receiving "bad news" can make students feel bad about themselves, and that sense of shame or embarrassment or of un-belonging can discourage them from taking productive action. When they get a letter telling them they are on probation, "it's easy for a student to think that the school thinks they're stupid or lazy, or that the school just doesn't want them there," says Brady, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.  Attuned communication, however, "tries to anticipate the ways students could take unproductive psychological meaning from a letter and address those potential misconceptions in the letter itself - before students have a chance to let them fester in their minds."

Brady based her doctoral study at Stanford in large part on interviews with probationary students at a private U.S. university, looking for common themes in their experiences and the ways they reacted to receiving probation letters. Those discussions produced some surprising insights. For instance, the standard letter in her study focus would typically say something like, "We want to help you through whatever difficulties you may be experiencing." That, says Brady, "sounds lovely to us, but almost every student on probation told us it sounded disingenuous" - the "whatever" in particular was a signal to them that the institution just didn't care. If, on the other hand, the letter specified what kind of difficulties the students might be experiencing, it was much better received.

Based on those interviews and a review of the academic literature, Brady developed a few basic paths towards more effective, psychologically attuned probation letters. The first: discuss probation not as a label, but as a process of learning and growth. Second, acknowledge specific, non-pejorative factors that might be contributing to academic difficulties. ("Some of the students we talked to had really heartbreaking stories," Brady says. "Few of the probation letters acknowledged that they might have been experiencing health or family or financial issues, for instance.") Then, clearly communicate that experiencing academic difficulties is not uncommon, and offer hope of - and support for - returning to good academic standing.

Applying those principles to probation letters required some small changes (for instance, de-capitalizing the word "Probation" to make it sound less like a label) and some big ones, like developing a document that shared other students' perspectives on probation as a way of normalizing the experience. The results were remarkable. Randomly assigned students who received the attuned letter were much more likely to still be enrolled a year later than those who received the standard letter - by a difference of more than 30 percentage points.

Small wonder, then, that Fricker and the team at CSSIC - the only research centre in Canada focused solely and exclusively on student success - were so eager to apply Brady's insights to the Canadian college setting and further research with a larger sample group. In 2017, CSSIC and Brady structured a research project that created attuned versions of letters for Mohawk students facing some degree of academic challenge, including probation and mandatory withdrawal, and then conducted student surveys and control trials. Later, the study expanded to include two other Ontario postsecondary institutions (Lambton College in Sarnia and the University of Waterloo) and Wake Forest University in the U.S., recruiting a total of 1,250 students to take part.

The results of this large-sample-size study, published in 2019, mirrored and expanded on those of Brady's Stanford work. Across all four schools, psychologically attuned communication increased the likelihood students would get help (for instance, from an advisor, professor or tutor). It reduced the likelihood that they would skip class. It made students feel less ashamed and more hopeful, and it improved their perception of the school. Perhaps most importantly, the attuned letters made students feel less likely to consider dropping out. In short, "all of the outcomes that you would want happened," Fricker says, "just because of this kind of communication."

What has also become clear to the study participants is that the potential for the attuned approach transcends academic probation. "We're using it to rethink how we reach out to students who are receiving any potentially 'bad news,'" Fricker says. "This is one project that has piqued the interest of many people, including faculty and administration, who can see its application in many different settings." Mohawk, for instance, has recently applied attuned communication principles to reach out to students who never completed their credentials; the messages ask if they want to return to college and then offer a direct connection to an advisor who can help them plan their return and complete their credentials. The college has also used attuned letters for students who do not pay their fees on time.

At Lambton College, meanwhile, learning about psychologically attuned communication and participating in the CSSIC study has led to a wider re-evaluation and renovation of the way the college interacts with students. The approach has "helped us update and improve our communications as a college," says Kurtis Gray, Director, Student Success at Lambton. "The psychologically attuned approach can benefit any communication that we send. In fact, we've tried to incorporate it into all of our communications."