Faculty Development

Early Alerts

**This page is from an old version of CSUN's Teaching Toolkit. Find an updated version on the current Teaching Toolkit on Canvas.**

What are Early Alerts?

As an instructor, early on you may notice that something is not on track with your students’ performance. Have you ever noticed any of these at the beginning of the semester for some students?

  • Students not coming to class
  • Students not completing the homework
  • Students missing the first assignment
  • Students scoring poorly on first high stakes assignment
  • Students showing low engagement in class

One important question that arises from observing these scenarios is "how can you help students who might be struggling in the first weeks of your class?" Early Alerts is a teaching approach where instructors grade assignments early in the semester (week 1-2) and send messages to students about their performance. The messages can be for students no matter how they performed on the first assignment (students who have high grades or students appearing to struggle).

Why Early Alerts is important… now more than ever!

Studies show that early intervention with students can make a difference, especially in the first six weeks of college, which is a period when they are likely to show the first signs of distress  (Smith Jessica Groomer, (2018) Smith, J. S. (2018). Thus, the timing for early intervention is critical for the student.

This technique is also timely given that the California State University (CSU) launched Graduation Initiative 2025 (GI 2025), a plan to increase graduation rates, eliminate equity gaps in degree completion and meet California’s workforce needs. We have been called to mobilize and increase graduation rates for all students at CSUN. Engaging in the pedagogical practice of early alerts could be a way to retain more students.

While it makes sense from a theoretical and practical point to focus on first-year students, institutions are beginning to acknowledge that retention is a multi-year issue (Yu, DiGangi, Jannasch-Pennell & Kaprolet, 2010).

In another survey conducted in Puerto Rico, freshmen "indicated they would like to receive alerts as soon as possible if they were not doing well in the course." This type of intervention can have lasting effects for students that do poorly in the first semester of college as it affects students' academic and social experiences and their commitment to attaining a degree, which can influence their decision to stay or withdraw from college.

Early Alert, Sense of Belonging & Growth Mindset

When designed properly, Early Alerts may provide a sense of connection to the larger group, a place where students could seek membership and belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). This could help students feel that the institution cares about them and their success.

Understanding that the importance of belonging, growth, and positive affirmation is only the first step to start crafting meaningful early alerts. Eimers (2000) writes early alert practices should be revised “to become less formal, more frequent, less intimidating, more closely linked to the faculty member who is teaching the course” (p.13). Feedback from a professor might easily tackle into students feeling of inadequacy and not belonging even if the professor didn’t intend so.

Research by Cohen, Steele, and Ross (1999) reveals that the feedback an instructor gives a student has the power to reduce perceived evaluator bias, increase motivation, and preserve a student’s identification with a domain—if the feedback includes two components.

First, the feedback must communicate high standards for performance ("I'm providing this feedback because I have high standards..."). Second, the feedback must provide assurances that the student is capable of meeting the high standards ("And I know that you can meet these standards"). This kind of feedback, known as wise criticism, appears to convey that students will not be judged based on stereotypes and that their abilities and belonging are assumed rather than questioned (Cohen, Steele, Ross, 1999).

Growth Mindset Feedback

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, identified two core mindsets, or beliefs, about one’s own traits that shape how people approach challenges: fixed mindset, the belief that one’s abilities were carved in stone and predetermined at birth, and growth mindset, the belief that one’s skills and qualities could be cultivated through effort and perseverance.

Early Alert messages convey to the students a growth mindset framework. Your early alert message can communicate to them that they should accept challenges and believe that errors are not failures but necessary steps and opportunities. Opposite to the fixed mindset notion that sees errors as personal failures, a growth mindset feedback helps students interpret criticism in relation to the task. In rigorous randomized experiments, even relatively brief messages and exercises designed to reinforce this growth mindset improved student achievement over several months, including the achievement of low-income and minority students (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Blackwell, Trzeniewski & Dweck, 2007).

What should I say in my Early Alert message?

Now that you have decided you want to send a message to your student(s), what exactly do you plan to say? Walton and Brady (2019) offer recommendations and guiding principles to consider when crafting a message in a motivational way.

1. Avoid negative labels. When people experience negative events, they risk labeling themselves in fixed, negative ways or perceiving that others could label them as such. Effective reframings forestall negative labels, and instead encourage a fundamentally positive view of the self, of the factors that led to the bad news (e.g., normal, malleable), and of the person’s future prospects.

2. Communicate “you’re not the only one.” People can think that they are the only one facing a particular challenge. Effective reframings recognize others who have faced the same challenge and describe how they addressed that challenge productively.

3. Recognize specific, normal causes. People can fear that bad things reflect, or could be seen as reflecting their own deficiency (e.g., laziness, stupidity, immorality). Effective reframings acknowledge specific causes of the challenge or setback and legitimize these as normal obstacles that arise for many people.

4. Forecast improvement. People can fear that negative events forecast a fixed, negative future. Effective reframings emphasize the possibility of improvement, focus on process, and often represent this process collectively (we’re on the same team/I’m not judging you).

5. Highlight positive opportunities. In some cases, it is possible to represent the “bad” event itself as positive, not just as something that can be overcome but as a harbinger of or opportunity for growth and improvement.

Common Pitfalls When Writing Feedback

Sometimes our best intentions to help, can accidentally backfire. Here are some tips to avoid when using an Early Alert approach in your class.

  • Using standardized messages
  • Over messaging students
  • Constantly directing messages to students from stigmatized groups & only helping them
  • Raising worries that you, as an instructor, cannot help resolve effectively

For more information on how to write feedback, visit Wise Critiques Help Students Succeed: Stanford's SPARQ (Social Psychological Answers to Real-world Questions)

How can I send Early Alert messages?

  • Communicate face to face with your students before or after class
  • Send individual emails
  • Send messages from the Canvas Gradebook
  • Use CSUN's new custom-built tool, Canvas Insights



Atif, A., Bilgin, A., and Richards, D. (2015). Student Preferences and Attitudes to the use of Early Alerts. Puerto Rico: Paper presented at Twenty-first Americas Conference on Information Systems.

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor's dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(10), 1302-1318. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167299258011

Dweck, Carol. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books

Robertson, D. L., & Pelaez, M. (2018). Rules, rule-governed behavior, and organizational change in a large metropolitan research university. Behavioral Development, 23(1), 1-13.

Simons, J. (2011). A national study of student early alert models at four-year institutions of higher education (Doctoral dissertation). ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (UMI 3482551)

Smith, J. S. (2018). Early alert academic warning system: A quantitative study of two characteristics of early alert warnings and the impacts to retention among first-time fall freshmen (Unpublished master’s thesis). West Texas A&M University, Canyon, Texas, United States. Retrieved from https://wtamu-ir.tdl.org/handle/11310/179

Walton, G. M., Murphy, M. C., Logel, C., Yeager, D. S., & The College Transition Collaborative (2017). The Social-Belonging Intervention: A Guide For Use and Customization. http://collegetransitioncollaborative.org/academic-standing/

Walton, G.M. & Brady, S.T. (2019). Bad Things Reconsidered. Paper Presented Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology: Applications of Social Psychology

Wong, B. T. (2017). Learning analytics in higher education: an analysis of case studies. Asian Association of Open Universities Journal, 12(1), 21-40.

Yeager, D. (2016) Psychology of College Persistence webinar: https://aascu.adobeconnect.com/p6gxmz39ogm/