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Revising the Scarlet Letter of Probation: Reframing Institutional Communications Reduces Stigma and Improves Student Outcomes

Fri, April 28, 8:15 to 9:45am, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Floor: Meeting Room Level, Room 208


College students not meeting minimum academic requirements are placed on academic probation. Though probation is intended to help students, many continue to struggle—often becoming suspended or dropping out. Standard explanations for these difficulties implicate insufficient motivation, skills, or resources. We suggest an additional explanation: the way in which colleges typically communicate with students about probation makes students feel ashamed and stigmatized, which interferes their return to good standing.

This research began with a question from administrators at a selective private university about why so many students placed on academic probation had difficulty returning to good academic standing. Four studies detail the investigations initiated by this question, which have culminated in the adoption of “psychologically-attuned” probation notification letter at the initiating university and a multi-site trial of similar notification letters at several other universities.

Methods & Results
Study 1 surveyed students previously on probation at the university about their experiences with probation. Consistent with a stigma-based account, students described feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and isolated when they were notified of their probationary status.

These findings led us to revise the institution’s probation notification letter, with the intent of reducing the shame and stigma it would elicit. Informed by psychological theory, we had several goals for the revision: to frame probation as a process not a label, to acknowledge factors that may have impeded the student’s ability to make satisfactory academic progress, to communicate that the student is not alone in having been placed on probation, and to foster hope of returning to good standing.

In Study 2, students newly placed on probation received either the institution’s standard letter or the revised, psychologically-attuned letter to inform them of their probationary status. Students receiving the revised letter were more likely than students receiving the standard letter to access institutional supports (i.e., academic advising) shortly after notification. A year after notification, students who received the revised letter were more likely to have returned to good academic standing and still be enrolled at the institution—not to have dropped out or been suspended.

Why did the revised letter improve student outcomes? Studies 3 and 4 were scenario-based laboratory studies designed to test whether the revised letter worked as theorized: by reducing feelings of shame and stigma, thereby reducing likelihood of disengagement. Indeed, students reported that, compared to the standard letter, the revised letter made them feel less ashamed and less stigmatized. They also reported that the revised letter would make them less likely to consider dropping out of school—an effect mediated the reductions in shame and stigma.