Listen, Collaborate, & Instill Belonging to Drive Student Engagement
A recent study of college students across the globe recently found that stress levels for students in colleges and universities are at an all-time high. This isn’t just attributed to financial stresses, in fact, student free time, academic demands and expectations, and technological advances are all areas where today’s college students find new pressures in their daily lives.
With all this coming at them, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to engage with students. We all hear a great deal about student engagement, but why is engagement so important and what can we do about it?
Student engagement is really a measure of how “plugged-in” students are in their university culture and setting. Everyone wants to belong to something, and when they don’t, they will look to find that somewhere else. Engaged students mean improved retention rates, more stable university economics, and improved student graduation rates. Engaged employees mean less turnover, better trained staff, and reduced expenses (and typically lower prices to consumers). Engagement is key to the success of any college, university and business.
So how can we engage students so that they become part of our community and culture, and want to stick around? The answers really aren’t as difficult as one would think.
1. Listen. Life moves at a furious pace sometimes. On campuses across the globe, whether you are faculty or a staff member, a business partner or administrator, the semesters seem to come and go quicker and quicker each year. One moment students are moving into their residence halls, and before you know it they are donning caps and gowns. Slowing down to really listen to student feedback is more difficult, and more important, than one might think.
Students are not shy to share opinions. Whether the wi-fi is too slow, the lawn mowers to loud and too early, the parking fees too high and the chocolate shakes too runny, there is no shortage of immediate feedback from students. But how often do we collectively take the opinions of students and truly listen to understand the reason for them? As a dining services professional, I’ve definitely heard my fair share of student feedback. You can engage students by taking a “seek to understand” approach. By seeking to understand the reason for the feedback, not just the actual feedback itself, you can attack the root cause, and hopefully solve the real problem. As students and student groups begin to trust that you actually listen, the feedback becomes more valuable. Students begin to provide feedback in a fashion that promotes rectifying the issue, rather than complaining to complain. The trust that’s built allows students to feel like their feedback is heard – considered – taken seriously. That promotes engagement, and students feel like they are an important part of the community – which they certainly are. When we don’t truly listen – when we “hear” what students say, but we don’t seek to understand – students disengage and distrust. They won’t come back. And why should they?
2. Collaborate. Getting students to be a part of implementing new programs, finding solutions, and making decisions is key to their feeling of community.
Administrators and staff make decisions every day on behalf of students. These range from small decisions that impact just a few (like choosing paint color for a hallway) to huge decisions that impact the whole community (like tuition increases). Just as there are different levels of decisions to be made, there are also different levels of collaboration we can ask students for. There are a myriad of ways to collaborate with students. Surveying is on the increase, and the industry is seeing that students are suffering from “survey fatigue”, which drastically reduces both the quality of the survey results and the accuracy of the information you can glean from them. Instead, consider small focus groups in order to get real conversation started without giving students the feeling of this being “just another survey”. Invite small groups of students to participate and reward them for their time. Prepare specific, targeted questions for the group to respond to, and make sure you’re listening to understand the root of their feedback. From there, you should be able to have a firm understanding of where they are coming from, and can action plan to address it.
3. Create opportunities for students to belong to something bigger than themselves.
Students arrive at their university excited and nervous about what the next four or five years is going to be like. Their primary concern on move in day isn’t the difficulty of their classes or how to find the campus health center…it’s making friends. While nature typically takes care of students finding a group they fit into, there is a great deal of data that points to student retention being tied to the belonging of a team or group that is bigger than just their typical social circle. Many students find this in Greek Life or through collegiate athletics – groups that naturally give students a sense of belonging that keeps them coming back their Sophomore year and beyond. But what about students that don’t have those avenues? Student employment is a major way that you can bring students onto a team of their peers with a shared goal. It is also an avenue for students being able to contribute to their university through service or action. By getting students on a team of their peers, and committed to a specific department or function on campus, you give them ownership of their school, and create loyalty in the process. Students with jobs they love on campus – even jobs that are only ten or fifteen hours a week – typically can’t wait to get back for their Sophomore year. The friends they work with and the social engagement they find through their work make them a part of something bigger.