The right questions to ask at your next higher ed conference
Lessons learned at League for Innovations 2016
Professional conferences can either be incredibly productive or a waste of time—it depends on how you spend the time.
Echoing Matt Reed’s point about last week’s League for Innovation conference, when conference agendas are mostly filled with sessions detailing colleges’ newest and most successful programs, it can be incredibly difficult to uncover what didn’t work—and why.
So how can you make sure you avoid pitfalls and understand the nuances of what might make some student success efforts thrive—and some fail?
Simple. Ask the right questions.
When discussing first-year experience programs or structured pathways
Ask: “What guidance do you provide students to select the right academic program?”
During last week’s League conference, I attended several sessions about improving the first-year experience for new community college students. Most strategies were variations of a structured pathway approach or a formalized first-year experience (FYE) program—neither of which is new. Conference programs are filled with sessions on implementing pathways on campus, and according to CCSSE, over half of two-year colleges (56%) offer FYE programs.
What’s missing from these conversations is how college leaders can help get students into the right academic programs from the start.
Let’s take an incoming student named Mary. If Mary’s skills, goals, and interests align with advanced manufacturing, but she selected a nursing program instead, no amount of contextualized student success courses and co-curricular health care workshops can fix that.
Colleges need to help students choose the right academic programs to maximize the impact of FYE and pathway programs. Ask colleagues how they support new students’ academic program selection during intake.
Related: Recommendations for guiding students to the right academic program
When debating how to fine-tune reform efforts
Ask: "How do you incorporate the student perspective to ensure campus-wide buy-in and adoption?"
There was general acknowledgment at the League conference that pilot program alone won’t move the dial on student success—to truly make a difference in persistence and completion rates, pilot programs must turn into success initiatives with campus-wide adoption.
But how will we know what students will adopt?
Ask them. Gathering student feedback early and often helps to ensure that students will take advantage of institutional investments in new campaigns, programs, or large-scale redesigns.
While developing Navigate, EAB’s user experience team first surveyed students to measure how the platform boosted their willingness to self-serve through enrollment, improved their understanding of the financial aid application process, and paired them with the right-fit academic program. Student surveys are a great first step, but they must be combined with more nuanced interviews to fully capture the student perspective and forecast their future actions.
To get even more insight, EAB experts also conducted one-on-one observational interviews to study how students navigated the platform on their own—Did they understand the text? Were they finding the right next step on their own or getting stalled searching for directions? The results of these interviews inspired us to make small changes in the platform that significantly improved the student experience.
At your next conference, ask colleagues how they gather and interpret student feedback when building or refining student success initiatives—and refer to our student-intake focus group guide for ideas on how to structure effective focus groups on campus.
When learning about new technology offerings
Ask: "How does your technology account for the entire student lifecycle, rather than solving one particular student challenge in a silo?"
Most of the sessions I attended at the conference focused on scaling student success efforts through technology. This is a worthy and noble effort—but the majority of technologies I encountered were focused on scale within silos: point-solutions that improve efficiency for a singular student activity without connecting to other points across the student lifecycle.
For example, a degree planning tool may help students choose the right courses for their major, but doesn’t leverage intake survey information to help students choose the right major, build the right schedule, or connect with campus resources they need to succeed.
Rather than adopting a technology tool that enhances a single student activity, college leaders should consider a more holistic, comprehensive solution that connects and elevates the entire student experience.
When our team built Navigate, we relied on years of best practice research and hundreds of interviews with community college students, staff, and administrators to identify opportunities to leverage data from one student activity to others across the lifecycle:
- What if we nudged students towards support services based on items in their admissions application?
- What if advisors could see which majors students were most interested in pursuing?
- What if we used degree maps to build recommended student schedules?
The goal is for every data point to serve more than one purpose and inform recommendations and reminders throughout the platform, ensuring students have adequate and informed guidance from entry to completion.
At your next student success conference, whether you’re discussing technology solutions in the exhibit hall or in a session, ask how data gathered in a platform for one purpose is leveraged down the road.
Arm yourself with information
By asking these questions and probing to understand what has worked, what hasn’t, and why, you’ll leave your next student success conference with more answers than questions, and feel empowered to take action on your campus.