Student engagement: Strategies to help institutions retain students during the COVID-19 pandemic

Student engagement: Strategies to help institutions retain students during the COVID-19 pandemic

In March of 2020, higher education in the US underwent a massive, unexpected change. As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread, institutions closed down their physical campuses and began to move students to remote learning—or implemented immediate plans to do so. The University of Washington began to move its 50,000 students to online courses. Stanford University followed suit, and within a few weeks, nearly every college or university—from small, two-year schools to large public and private institutions—found themselves asking the same question: How do we engage (and retain) students in a brave, new world of online-only instruction?

It’s certainly a critical question. The sudden shift to a different educational paradigm can leave some students disoriented and unmoored from the institution. There’s the danger that some will drift away and not come back. Others may lose sight of what they were doing in the first place. Those who thrive in a physical classroom, surrounded by other students, may become disinterested in online classes.

No doubt, this is a time of momentous change, and engaging current students is more crucial than ever. However, there is some good news. Institutions do not need to reinvent the wheel here. It’s important to be agile and rely on the talents of your teams to continue to offer high quality education while focusing on the well-being of your students and personnel, but one thing remains the same: Institutions must remain committed to their mission. That is your anchor. You do not have to do all new things. Many of your current strategies will work—they just need to be adapted to a world in which many students will not be living on campus or attending classes in person.

1. Reaching out–virtually

According to a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed, maintaining student engagement right now is a top priority and is recognized as a leading challenge. But keeping current students engaged in a COVID-19 world doesn’t require a tectonic shift in thinking or approach—nor does it have to be expensive. The key here is to follow a few common-sense suggestions—and to leverage technology to make that happen.

2. Connect with students (and their families) on a personal level

Colleges and universities have long known that a “personal touch” when communicating with students (both current and prospective) is an effective technique for engaging learners. And most institutions have been doing that for years—through techniques such as personalized messaging and orientation and advising groups led by peers with common interests.

But now, institutions need to make that personal connection a priority.

Humanize your course

Before students connect with a course—they need to connect with a human being. That’s why one University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor adjusted his syllabus to include personal, very human messages. Rather than launch into a reading list or an outline of upcoming tests and quizzes, this professor’s syllabus begins with messages such as, “Nobody signed up for this—not for the sickness, not for the social distancing, not for the sudden end of our collective lives on campus…” and “The humane option is the best option—we are going to prioritize supporting each other as humans…”

Faculty as agents of communication

As students have less contact with the physical institution, it becomes paramount for faculty to reach out to their students—and talk to them on a human level. In this new era, faculty will be the vanguard to help advance the messaging of the institution—and it’s vital that they communicate that the institution cares and will continue to value students as people, while also providing a high-quality education.

A video from the president

Yet another tool for connecting with students—and their families—is through a video from the institution’s president or provost. Many institutions already do these, but now it’s vitally important for the message to express concern for the health and safety of current students and employees. The video should provide rationale and the “why” for decisions that are being made, since transparency is the keystone to building trust. This video should be updated regularly and address how the institution is being flexible and adapting to maintain academic excellence and social well-being. This video is also an opportunity to remind students and their families that some important things are not changing, such as the institution’s purpose and values.

Recruit alumni

Alumni can play a role in connecting with students as well. Institutions can recruit alumni to call or text current students to check in from time to time. Matching alumni from the school of business, for example, to reach out to current business students can forge an impactful and meaningful connection. Even recruiting outstanding or well-known alumni to send a message to students will make a difference.

The physical is still important

And remember that online-only education will psychologically impact students differently. Some students crave a physical connection with their institution—and there is no replacement for attending classes in person or strolling across the quad. For those students, some visual connection to their college or university will be beneficial. It’s a good idea to occasionally send appealing photographs of campus, or to create virtual campus backgrounds for students and instructors to use during teleconferencing and online classes. Those students missing the campus environment will find comfort in these images, so consider posting photos to social media with encouraging messages. Both Purdue University and Swarthmore College have taken this approach.

3. Promote summer enrollment… and look ahead to fall

Many institutions offer a slim schedule of summer courses, as students are often taking advantage of co-curricular opportunities such as study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, or working a summer job to save money for the next academic year. For summer 2020, many students will be homebound and may consider the summer as an opportunity to earn academic credits. Colleges and universities can step in to provide new and expanded course offerings. As students become more comfortable with remote learning processes, they may be more inclined to enroll in summer courses. And online summer courses allow institutions an unparalleled opportunity to fine-tune the systems and processes around online learning—before the anticipated crush of students in the fall. To sweeten the deal, some institutions, such as Houston Baptist University, are offering tuition reductions for online summer courses.

That being said, this is a prime time to focus on fall advisement and registration as well. A critical metric for fall enrollment is the early registration of continuing students. This presents an opportunity for one-on-one engagement between students and academic advisors and faculty. Generation Z learners have a preference for advising and coaching in person, so enabling advisors and faculty to set up phone or web-based conference sessions to discuss fall registration can also allow for a personal check-in for continuing students. These connections with a trusted member of the institution can influence a student’s decision to return.

4. Lean on technology

Now is the time to leverage your campus technology to its fullest. A robust IT support system is the backbone for any top-notch online education program—or the Achilles heel of a sub-par one.

Strengthening student engagement depends on access to more than just using the learning management system for course delivery. Institutions can strengthen engagement through trainings, career and academic success workshops, and asynchronous leadership conferences.

Additionally, institutions will need to maintain online access to other areas of student support, including disability services, counseling services, and academic support resources. Institutions such as Delta College have moved their counseling services online, and the Florida State University Student Resilience Project, for example, is an online resource promoting mental health and well-being—particularly valuable for at-risk students who may be feeling deeply isolated during this time.

Institutions may also utilize video or audio conferencing for advising appointments, synchronous office hours for faculty, counseling appointments, and clubs or organization meetings.

Leveraging video and remote meeting tools for these services will solidify the crucial link between student and institution, which is now more important than ever. Some institutions that have taken important steps to establish remote services to support students in new learning environments. Coahoma Community College is hosting a virtual advising week, and Delta State University is offering virtual photo puzzles to keep students in touch with the physical campus.

5. Seize the moment

If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the stereotype that higher ed institutions are slow to respond to change and wedded to tradition. On the contrary, we’ve seen that institutions have pivoted rapidly and successfully to embrace a new pedagogic paradigm. Colleges and universities that may have been kicking the tires of online education are now finding that it’s time to commit. Almost overnight, higher education has been vaulted into a new century. The important lesson here is that it doesn’t have to be a painful or disorienting process—what matters is maintaining that vital connection between institution and student. And that’s something that will never change.

Meet the authors
jennifer latino
Jennifer Latino
Management Consultant, Principal

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