How to write more effective reminder emails

Close up of the top left corner of a laptop with Gmail open

No matter how good your marketing is, and how many incentives you offer, you’re likely going to want to send students personalized reminder emails to help get them across the finish line to completion. For the last two years, we’ve sent emails the week before the first day of classes to students who have interacted with the program in some way, but not yet completed all activities. To some students, these emails act as a nudge towards completion; to other students, it alerts them to the fact that while they may have thought they completed everything, but in fact have not!

Designing these follow up and reminder emails based on Keller’s ARCS theory of motivation can improve their effectiveness at eliciting the desired behaviour: Getting students to return to the program and complete it. When writing these emails, you should think about the reasons why a student may not have completed the program, analyze their motivational requirements, and then write a message that pertains specifically to those identified needs and requirements. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Attention. Address the email specifically to the individual student (hello, mail merge!). This captures their attention and curiosity, and leads them to believe the message is specifically for them, even if you sent the same message to dozens of other students. A personal message always carries more weight than a generic one.
  • Relevance. Remind the student of how they can benefit from completing the program. The more specific you can make this to their particular situation, the better. List the parts of the program they have not yet completed, and remind them how those parts specifically can benefit them. If you are able to refer to responses that the student gave you in the program as reasons why they should complete the remaining activities, take advantage of the opportunity! For example, if a student indicated in a pre-assessment that they wanted to learn about getting involved on campus, but they haven’t yet completed the involvement module, remind them of that!
  • Confidence. Make the student feel like completing the remaining parts of the program is doable! Remind them of how much they’ve done so far, and provide them with an estimate of how long completing the rest of the program will take. For students who still have a large portion of the program left, present the time commitment in a way that seems reasonable to someone who is busy. For example, if someone has an estimated two hours of work left on the program, compare that to watching one movie or two episodes of the Crown, or present it as four 30-minute time slots.
  • Satisfaction. Some students may be resistant to completing the program because it feels like work, like another task on the to-do list. If you have student feedback talking about how the program was fun, engaging, informative, etc., use it in your email to try and reduce a student’s resistance to doing work! Additionally, while it’s important to remind them of the inherent benefits of completing the program, you should also remind them of any external benefits, such as certificates of completion, contest entries, etc.
Example of a reminder email
Example of a reminder email, highlighting the use of the ARCS theory of motivation


Keller, J. M. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development, 10(3), 2.

Kim, C., & Keller, J. M. (2008). Effects of motivational and volitional email messages (MVEM) with personal messages on undergraduate students’ motivation, study habits and achievement. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(1), 36–51.

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