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  • Writer's pictureRyan O'Mealey

Online Student Support: Is It Hard to Be A Student Here?

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

Is It Hard to Be a Student Here? A few practical tips on overcoming the cultural learning curve.

Have you ever examined your institutional data, hoping to find ways to improve student retention?

You search and analyze and review. You’re collecting all the indicators. You’ve got the early warning systems and you’ve gone over files of at-risk students with your CARE team. Participation in both coursework and co-curricular activities seems to be good.

Yet, retention rates are still not improving. Where is the smoking gun? I thought data collection was supposed to be the answer COME ON YOU STUPID SPREADSHEET.

(I find yelling at Excel sheets to be a productive use of time.)

So why are students still not returning to school?

The answer may lie in how difficult it is to be a student at your institution.

In my experience, this is not something that most people examine. Oh, we talk endlessly about the student experience and improving processes or efficiencies. We buy the latest software and spend hundreds of hours implementing it, then another two years refining it. We collect student surveys and satisfaction metrics and everything appears to be ready.

Then student retention rates don’t budge.

It is often difficult for students to get very simple tasks done.

Paying the bill, interpreting a financial aid award, adding a class, reserving a space, finding out who can answer my question, understanding residency policies, putting together an academic plan, appealing a decision, turning in forms, uploading homework, checking out equipment, finding office hours, getting my ID badge, and on and on.

If you think this learning curve is only relevant to first-year students, spend some time in student services! Daily, we encounter juniors and seniors who are confused about accomplishing necessary tasks.

Nothing is more humbling than talking with a senior who is applying for graduation and hearing that they never bothered to get help, the whole four years of college, because it was too much of a hassle.

They’ve been suffering and confused for four years. How many more didn’t stick it out to graduation?

I have this conversation with students, all the time. All. The. Time.

Understanding Student Retention and the Cultural Learning Curve

At Arise, we know from experience that difficulty in getting tasks done can be a major problem, especially for students enrolled in online or hybrid programs who can’t just pop into an office. To address this, one of our research and analysis services is called “Is It Hard to Be a Student Here?”

To improve, we must first understand why this concept is so important. I’m going to give you some context around the current generation of college students, and then we’ll tie this in to how it affects their interactions on campus.

Generation Z, the newest generation born between 1997 and 2015, are now college age. Along with quite a few late Millennials - the previous generation - Gen Z students are nearly paralyzed at the thought of talking to someone on the phone.

I’m sure you’ve encountered this.

Voicemails are almost useless. They are getting a little more comfortable with Zoom. But, by a wide margin, these students generally prefer text, email, chat and messaging over any form of personal interaction.

These are passionate human beings who long for engagement and are primarily motivated by acting for change, so why do so many avoid personal interaction with strangers?

One reason could be that they’ve grown up with social media, where every post is perfected, filtered, re-written, and photoshopped before it goes out to the world. Have you ever been texting someone, and you can see that they are typing, but they stop and re-type about seven times? That’s the need to craft a perfect reply.

Even with people we know, the pressure to be hilarious, to be beautiful, to be successful -- it is intense. It’s actually very hard for any of us to admit that we don’t know something.

Now, add the fact that smartphones have changed everything. It’s very comforting to be able to do research on your own.

You can look at prices before you buy that item in the store. You can examine ratings and reviews before you recommend a movie, or buy a bottle of wine. Before, you had to become a wine connoisseur by trial and error. Now you can be somewhat knowledgeable by whipping out that smartphone.

I would bet that you have had the following experience:

You’re eating lunch with a friend, having a perfectly normal conversation, and you ask rhetorically “Hmm I wonder why that is?” Your friend has their smartphone in hand before the sentence has left your mouth, searches for the answer, and tells you confidently exactly why that is. They smile triumphantly at you, waiting for your immediate approval of their Google search prowess.

If you’re like me, you avoid saying “yes, I own a phone as well” and instead just make a soothing noise and take a very large bite of your food.

No? Is that just me?

This is a new kind of peer pressure. It’s the “you should already know that” peer pressure.

It’s the discomfort of being second place in finding an answer, when you both were ignorant two seconds ago but now the power dynamic has shifted and you’re the student, expected to be grateful for the education you just received.

It’s the comfort of infinite knowledge at your fingertips, which insulates you from the need or desire to ever ask a question of another human being.

It’s a horrible balancing act of the need to appear absolutely original to the outside world, yet to also conform to their expectations so that you receive a minimum of criticism.

Therefore, your resiliency to criticism is honed only by being able to control what you put out into the world.

Now imagine that the answer to “how I accomplish this task” at your college is not easily found using the search bar.

When a student has to go into an office to ask a question, the student is forced to admit - to a highly educated person with a clear power imbalance and control over this part of their lives - that they don’t know how to do something.

This is very real. If we dismiss the ways in which young adults develop resiliency, or dismiss how they form defense mechanisms inside of human interactions, we do so at our own peril.

We will continue to yell at that spreadsheet and never understand why students are dropping out.

The research on this cultural learning curve is consistent with first generation students, as well as many students who identify with a minority group. Dissatisfaction ratings frequently talk of “not belonging”. It’s a culture of “us and them”. A campus feel. A sense that other people were better prepared for this. An expectation that you should already know the answer.

Most commonly, our profession responds to this by trying to be more friendly. We plan more activities and icebreakers. We put up all manner of signs that try to convey “You are welcome here. You are wanted here.”

But do we ever truly change how difficult it is to be a student?

Once I was working with a student who had been having some real challenges getting a couple of holds lifted so they could register for classes, and they had been bounced around between several offices by the time they came to see me.

As I was looking up information on my laptop, the student said “I didn’t expect you to be so nice.” This stopped me in my tracks, and of course I wanted to know what they expected. They told me that my campus-wide emails were very formal, and that my title was intimidating.

They went on to say that, when they had enough of being bounced around and decided to march into my office, several of their friends said “you can’t just walk in to see him!”

This absolutely broke my heart. It was a bucket of ice water thrown onto my face. Here I thought I was being so clear and welcoming, and yet I was throwing out barriers without even meaning to do so.

There was a divide of “us and them”, one that students felt they couldn’t cross, even though I was trying to be communicative, clear and open.

Despite all the signs and friendly messages and activities, they don’t feel like this is their home away from home. There is still a barrier.

These expectations are real, and to truly support student retention and successful degree outcomes, we have to examine our day-to-day processes through the lens of someone who is overwhelmed or highly anxious about exposing their vulnerability and asking for help.

A few tips on breaking down barriers

To start the process of examining how easy it is to be a student at your institution, here are a few easy tips.

Decide which web pages are for long-form content, and which are utilitarian.

This seems obvious, but it is very rare to see it executed well. Because we are nice people who care about students, we want to make sure that they are informed. As a result, we throw everything they might ever need to know up on a single web page, expecting them to read and comprehend the entire thing.

Please hear me - they will not do this. Nobody will do this.

“How-To” tasks should be exceptionally simple. How to submit your FAFSA, how to change a grade, how to drop a class, how to make an appointment, how to access your account, etc.

They need to be like text messages. No, I’m not kidding.

Here’s an example from a random institution I pulled from an internet search:

“Paying Your Bill. If you would like to pay your tuition bill on [PORTAL], our internal portal designed for students where you can register for classes, get announcements and more, log into the system using your campus ID and the password you created when you first arrived to campus. Once you are logged in, be sure to view your financial aid award letter which can be found under the Financial Aid tab within [PORTAL]. This will tell you how much of your tuition is covered by financial aid so that you can understand what you will owe. Then, click on the Student Account tab and view your tuition billing statement, which is generated monthly and includes the outstanding balance and any late fees you may have incurred. Within [PORTAL] you can pay your outstanding balance via credit card or online checking account. Call the Office of Student Accounts with any questions you may have. Our office hours are 8am - 5pm Monday through Friday.”

Here’s how I would re-word the above information on the same page:

“Pay My Bill [link]”.

The paragraph started with “If you want to pay your tuition bill…”, so if the student found this epic paragraph, that’s probably what they are trying to do. Shouldn’t we make it easy for them to give us their money in return for an education?

Long-form content has its place, particularly if you are trying to improve your SEO results or give prospective students a virtual deep-dive into an academic department. But when it comes to accomplishing tasks, it’s the worst approach you can take.

Test Your Tasks in Two Ways

Make a list of tasks that students will need to complete. Choose some that are commonplace (such as adding/dropping a class), and some that happen infrequently (such as filing an academic grievance).

Pretend you are an online learner, and you can’t drop into a student center and ask around. You need to find this information digitally.

If you already know where everything is, get a small group of students and staff together. Order some pizza, and make a game of it.

Test #1 - Start on the home page. For each task, start on the home page and click until you can find out how to accomplish that task.

Even if the information lives in the campus intranet portal and not the website, start on the home page and see how long it takes to figure out that it’s in the portal, log in, and find it there. Write down the time you start searching, and the time that you find it. Track how many clicks it took, and how long it took you to read the information.

If the timer goes past 3 minutes, stop searching. Very few people will keep searching the site longer than 3 minutes to find out how to do something. They will get frustrated and stop. Note how many people couldn’t find the information within 3 minutes.

Test #2 - Search for each task using a search engine, not the website navigation menu. Use an internet search browser, and also the search feature on your website.

If you use a campus intranet portal, use the search feature within the portal, don’t use the navigation. Same thing, time when you started searching, and if you can’t find it in 3 minutes, stop.

What are your results? Is it easy to find out how to accomplish all the tasks at your institution?

For large institutional websites, most people will start with a search bar, whether yours or their browser’s. If the search is not robust in finding what they want, they may try the navigation menu before giving up entirely.

Use accessible language

By far, the most egregious error that institutions make is to use severely heightened language, advanced vocabulary, and the assumption that people reading the instructions have the same level of familiarity with the institution as does the author.

If I had to guess, I would estimate that less than 3% of institutions have websites and student handbooks that use accessible language for a broad range of audiences.

To some, this is controversial. I have been told - frequently - that institutions of higher learning should sound educated in their public-facing website, and that students will “have to get used to” reading and comprehending more advanced language.

That, my friends, is a lot of garbage. Go look at the Microsoft website, one of the most innovative companies with some of the greatest intellectual minds in the world. They use exceptionally accessible language to discuss some of the most complicated new concepts that are revolutionizing the world.

When things need to get technical, they put that advanced content where it belongs: in white papers, articles, editorials, books, reports, etc.

College students are in the process of becoming highly educated. They aren’t there yet. If they were, they wouldn’t need us.

Write for your audience, and make the language accessible. Taking complicated subject matter and explaining it in a way that makes sense is what educators do every single day.

If your students are finding it hard to be a student, start with these few tips as a quick self-assessment. The results may lead you down a pathway towards overcoming the cultural learning curve and improving educational access for the regions you serve.



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