Knowing is Half the Battle, or Is It? A Randomized Experiment of the Impact of Supplemental Notification Letters on Placement Exam Participation, Preparation, and Performance

  • Brian G. MossEmail author
  • Peter Riley Bahr
  • Leigh Arsenault
  • Meghan Oster


Community college students often are unaware of the stakes involved in their performance on placement exams, used to sort the students into their first math and English courses. In our randomized experiment of approximately 13,000 newly admitted community college students, we test whether informing students, via a supplemental notification letter, about the implications of placement exam scores influences their placement exam participation, preparation, and performance. We also test whether message framing (loss-framed vs. gain-framed) alters the effect of the information on study outcomes. We find that neither type of message has an effect on placement exam preparation or performance. We find limited evidence to suggest that the loss-framed message may have a small effect on the avoidance of placement exams by increasing the likelihood of students’ submitting alternative evidence of academic preparation. Overall, our evidence suggests that students’ prior knowledge about the ramifications of placement exams is not enough to improve performance. Colleges should consider alternative means of assessing college readiness, such as measures of high school achievement, and should provide students who still have to take placement exams with detailed information about test content and study materials before testing.


Community college Assessment Placement Developmental education Remedial Intervention Experiment Randomized trial 



An earlier version of this study was presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education in Columbus, Ohio. The authors thank the Editor and anonymous referees of the journal Research in Higher Education for feedback on this work. In addition, the authors thank the administration of the study college for support of this investigation, and also thank Susan Dynarski (University of Michigan) for the suggestion that ultimately led to this investigation.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian G. Moss
    • 1
    Email author
  • Peter Riley Bahr
    • 2
  • Leigh Arsenault
    • 2
  • Meghan Oster
    • 2
  1. 1.Wayne State UniversityDetroitUSA
  2. 2.Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary EducationUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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