The Story Behind the College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College

How broad institutional support, strategic partnerships, and opportunistic student affairs professionals launched the only research centre focused on student success – at a 2-year or 4-year institution – in Canada.

By Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College who also leads the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC).

To the best of my knowledge, the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC) at Mohawk College (in Hamilton, Ontario) is one-of-a-kind. We have had a great deal of success in a relatively short period. Since 2015, we have received external funding for 7 research projects totaling 1.7 million, and we were just recently awarded the Program Innovation Award from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), which is an association similar to NASPA and ACPA. And, as a community college offering primarily 1-, 2- and 3-year credentials, our graduation rates have steadily risen from 60% to 65% since 2012, a rate of improvement unmatched by our key comparator colleges.

I have been asked many times in recent months how we got to this point, and truthfully, it is difficult to distill our journey down into a couple of key determining factors. There are a few things that I continuously point to including: 1) unbridled institutional support, 2) a host of key partners, and finally, 3) the unique ability of our Student Affairs team to see and respond to potential student success research opportunities. At every single stage of our work over the last seven years, each of these three elements has played a critical role in paving the way for the CSSIC to become a reality.

The purpose of this article, with the invitation from Tricia Seifert, is to share the lessons we have learned that could be useful for others wishing to put more energy into Student Affairs and student success assessment or research. As Student Affairs professionals, our strength is our focus on students and day-to-day practice, which means we also do not naturally celebrate or share our successes publicly. We are humble practitioners by nature. This creates a scenario where our institutions could forget how core Student Affairs work is to the academic mission, which in times of fiscal restraint (such as what is occurring in Ontario right now, which is another story and blog altogether), we risk diminishing resources that could increase barriers and reduce support for our students. With those caveats, here are three foundations of our College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College.

Broad Institutional Support

I am not entirely sure where this research centre had its true beginnings, but since I joined Mohawk in 2012, a few important things occurred. Perhaps one of those items was the creation of my role at that time – Director of Student Success Initiatives – which was designed to coordinate new campus-wide efforts to improve student outcomes. Around that time, our then President made a public call to action, challenging all faculty and staff to work harder to improve student persistence and graduation rates.

In 2014, we launched our first Student Success Plan to guide our institution on this journey. As part of this work, we committed to more purposeful data capture activities, which was more than just counting participation rates; it was our way of starting on an important assessment, evaluation, and research journey. This included introducing and using new advising software and dedicating a lot of energy toward supporting our staff with training as they evolved their practice and reporting.

Institutional support in these efforts spanned all traditional college silos. We had committees that included membership from academic, student, and corporate services. We had – and still have – a strong relationship with our Mohawk Students’ Association, too. With these close partnerships, requests for data with our corporate partners in the Institutional Research office were easy to navigate, and collaborations with faculty, our Deans, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning also proved to be quite natural, especially when we began our work with HEQCO’s Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium later in 2017.

In 2016, with a new President, we doubled down on our commitments to students in a few meaningful ways. First, our new Strategic Plan included pillars such as student success and graduate success. Second, our new Strategic Mandate Agreement (a process directed by our provincial government) included a pitch for a new provincial student success innovation and research centre to build off the momentum we had gained over the last few years. Each of these institutional commitments, pillars, and ideas created a strong foundation of support to allow our team to take risks, say yes to new opportunities, and start to build the collective experience in student success research that we have today.

Strategic Partnerships

The first partnership we formed, which is still a critical partnership today, was with Dr. Ross Finnie at the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI). Dr. Finnie and his team of researchers helped ‘mine’ some of our data to help us learn more about our students. Seven reports were produced between 2012 and 2014, including the first drafts of a predictive model that would later be critical to our early research efforts.

Many interesting partnership opportunities presented themselves to us during this time, including participating in the Supporting Student Success research, and some additional projects with EPRI. For each, we simply offered our support ‘in-kind’ and received no payments. Much of this work was done off the side of my desk and those of my Institutional Research colleagues. In other words, as new additional work that was not formally planned in annual work plans, we fit it in wherever we could. With Dr. Finnie, for example, he brought in partners from Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada (both federal government agencies), for what eventually resulted in some fascinating research about the labour market outcomes of Canadian students. We also needed to develop data sharing, transfer, and privacy agreements, and go through the research ethics process. These experiences helped us learn even more about our students, our institution, and how the research process should work at the community college level. Understanding how to structure partnership and data sharing agreements also became an essential element of future collaborative research with other institutions and our local school boards.

Our partnership with EPRI included participation in HEQCO’s first Access and Retention Consortium, and a number of publications, including one on a new approach to proactive advising. As an aside, HEQCO’s approach to funding research through participation in consortiums has been a tremendously productive practice, fostering a network of partnerships across the province. HEQCO has been our largest funder and an enormously supportive partner for many years. Our success would not occur without the funding opportunities or the partners we met through them. For example, we met a number of incredible researchers through HEQCO, who we then joined forces with when HEQCO launched their second Access and Retention Consortium. This resulted in new Online Goal Setting interventions for our students, based on the work of Dr. Patrick Gaudreau at the University of Ottawa, and a new, ‘psychologically attuned’ way to communicate to students on probation implemented with the expertise of Dr. Shannon Brady at Wake Forest University. New publications with both Dr. Gaudreau and Dr. Brady via HEQCO are forthcoming later this summer or early in the fall.

The largest partnership we are a part of today, however, is one that we are leading with funding from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities in Ontario. With EPRI as a research analytics partner, we are replicating our proactive advising study from 2015 at Humber College, Centennial College, and Fleming College. In doing so, we are trying to support them in their student success research in much the same way that we have received support in the past from HEQCO and so many others.

An Opportunistic Student Affairs Team

Every time an opportunity to participate in research presented itself – one that provided the chance to learn more about student success – we said yes. This would not be possible without broad institutional support, or strong partnerships inside and outside of the college; however, this also required a willingness to work extremely hard (often off the side of our desks) to complete the work. While research was envisioned within the Director role when I started in it, the projects were often not a part of our regular operational work plans. So, I needed to find ways to make it happen.

One of my early approaches was to create a new part-time staff positon in my department to support the operations of the projects. I cobbled together funds from within my budgets, secured small amounts from our Vice President’s contingency fund, and built in staffing dollars into funding proposals. I also pitched this new role as a support for divisional assessment, evaluation, and special projects to have a more current and tangible set of outputs. In many ways, this staff position and the projects themselves were like a set of pilot projects. And, due to the success of the research and the local assessment projects, I was able to propose and secure this as a full-time permanent role. We used a similar approach to create our Learning Outcomes Assessment Consultant role just this past spring.

We have continued to build an incredible research team, for which I am grateful to work with every day. These wonderful people include faculty and Student Affairs professionals alike. Each person and each role contribute to the work of the centre in important ways.

Conclusion

The formal launch of the CSSIC was only a year and a half ago, but we had been on the research path for quite some time before that. This started with the College investing in new and strategic leadership roles. Some of the next critical milestones included the investment in external reports to understand our students better. Then, we invested time and resources into data capture initiatives and staff development. We started to support external researchers who were doing research on student success, and provided them with access to our data and student population. Through all of this, we learned many critical lessons, and forged partnerships that prepared us to apply for research funding. The opportunities continued to present themselves, and we continued to apply (to receive funding) and re-invested in more roles on campus and with more partners. This was the point when the Ministry funded our Centre, and we have continued our momentum since then. Some of it still happens off the side of our desk, too, but we are passionate about understanding ‘what works’ in our student success programming.

There are two final reflections that I think are important. First, while the Centre is led by Student Affairs, the vision was one that was collectively endorsed and has been continuously supported across our institution. Faculty and our partnerships with Ideaworks (our Applied Research department), the Institutional Research Office, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning continue to play an increasingly important role.

Second, there are no shortage of articles and books that express the role of institutional culture on the outcomes of students. Project Deep and the work of George Kuh immediately come to mind. The idea that there is a pervasive student success ideology and approach on campus that everyone understands that ‘this is the way we do things here’ has been shown to be a defining factor of institutions that have strong student outcomes relative to others.

So, on that note, last month when I was cleaning out some old files in my office, I came across a 2007 concept paper from a large committee on campus titled, The Centre of Excellence for Students, Access, and Success. Perhaps our Centre really isn’t so much of a new idea. Leading in student success is part of our ethos at Mohawk – and I suspect it will continue.

Supporting Student Success Summer Blog Series

Supporting Student Success Summer Blog Series

Over the past three months, our research team has travelled across Canada and the United States to present findings from the third phase of the Supporting Student Success study. Those who attended our ACPA, AERA, and CACUSS presentations were eager to discuss initial findings and implications. Several colleagues expressed interest in replicating these conversations with stakeholders on their campuses and wanted to know when we would publish our findings… ideally a.s.a.p! We are thrilled by the enthusiasm, so much so that we are introducing a weekly summer blog series that will expand upon previous presentations by exploring the research questions and associated findings in greater detail.

You might be wondering: what’s all the buzz with these findings? Chances are, you’ve encountered conversations where faculty and/or student affairs and services staff perceived a lack of knowledge of each other’s roles, programs and services, resulting in frustrations and challenges for best supporting student success. At the same time, you can likely recall instances when shared knowledge and mutual understanding have promoted student success. It is interesting for us to consider how personal interactions and experiences have shaped our perspectives towards faculty and student affairs and services colleagues, and whether these are representative of what one might encounter in other departments and/or campus contexts.

An exciting outcome of Phase 3 of the Supporting Student Success study is the opportunity to compare our own experiences and perceptions with a national sample. In 2014, we administered surveys at 9 universities and 2 community colleges located across Canada (BC, ON, QB, NB) with a goal of measuring faculty and student affairs and services staff’s awareness of and engagement with institutional strategies aimed at promoting student success. Building from the qualitative themes that we developed from the interview and focus group data collected during the first two phases of the study, our survey instruments measured faculty and student affairs and services staff members’:

  • Awareness of programs and services to support student success
  • Engagement with others across campus to support student success
  • Perceptions of their department and the institution’s retention efforts

The first round of data collection included 1501 complete responses (909 faculty and 592 staff); the faculty population included full-time and part-time faculty who taught undergraduate courses in the 2013-14 academic year. The staff population consisted of all those who reported to the Senior Student Affairs and Services Officer (SSASO), with the exception of one institution in which housing, residence life and recreation staff who reported to a different supervisor were also included. It is important to note that on two campuses where French was the primary language of instruction, participants received all study communications and survey materials in French. The survey instruments were recently administered at an additional 13 institutions; the coding process is underway for these institutions and we look forward to including this data in future analyses.

We encourage you to visit our blog on a weekly basis to engage in a discussion of how faculty and student affairs and services staff compare in terms of:

  • June 18: Learning about student support programs and services
  • June 25: Accuracy of awareness of student support programs and services
  • July 9: Referring students to support programs and services
  • July 16: Engagement in cross-campus partnerships aimed at supporting student success

We especially look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas. What possible implications for policy and practice do these findings suggest to you? Please be part of this virtual conversation by “leaving a comment” in the comments section below each post. To receive copies of upcoming blog posts via e-mail, use the ‘subscribe’ function located in the upper right hand corner of the blog’s homepage. You can also engage with us at any time on our Twitter account: @CdnStdntSuccess.

Next week’s blog entry will explore how faculty and student affairs and services staff compare in terms of how they learn about student support programs and services. Until then, consider finding a moment in your week to reflect upon:

  • The ways in which you’ve learned about student support programs and services
  • How your colleagues and/or institution have supported this learning
  • Examples of additional communication strategies and/or resources that if implemented, would likely support learning about programs and services

Until next week,

The Supporting Student Success Research Team

Simplifying the Experience Building Process + Networking

The last couple months, we’ve been sharing posts about the incredible ways that students support their peers’ success. Recently, one of the Supporting Student Success research team members introduced me to Aly Madhavji, a University of Toronto alumnus who wrote “Your Guide to Succeed in University.” Aly exemplifies the student who connects his peers to opportunities and coaches them through tough times. He is definitely a role model and one worth copying.

With convocation upon us and summer just around the corner, I invited Aly to guest blog and share tips for staff members who work with students during this busy season of job-searching. I invite you to share his post both with your staff and students.

Simplifying the Experience Building Process + Networking

Two of the biggest things that students miss out on during their post-secondary education are building career experience and learning how to network. Regardless if a student is a recent graduate or has simply finished a year of college or university, building experience and networking are vital to a successful long-term career. As with anyone, sometimes students need to learn and hear about these topics multiple times, in different ways, or from various sources.

Over the summer months, it’s critical for students not leave a gap in their resume. The main possibilities are: taking summer courses, part-time/full-time work, travelling, developing a skill (dance, languages, sports, etc.), or volunteering. I would recommend a combined approach but we’ll focus on developing skills through volunteer or work experience. My distinction between volunteer and work experience is that volunteering generally provides flexibility, leadership opportunities and more personal development; whereas, work experience will supplement income and build independence related skills.

What are the first-steps for students?
Start by putting together a refined resume. Be sure to incorporate feedback from the Career Services Centre, peer feedback, and reviewing various online formats & templates. Once a student has a refined resume, they are competitive for the job searching phase.

Let’s break down job searching into a few different avenues for what a student should do:

1) Have others search for them (Recruiting Firms)
a. Contact recruiting firms or recruiters through online searches, LinkedIn, and through their network.
b. Students should meet with the recruiters, and explain their credentials and what type of position they are looking for.
Results: Get access to new job portals and even while they’re not looking, recruiters will be looking for them.

2) Post their credentials (online resume for numerous companies)
a. Ensure they have a LinkedIn profile and update it with their resume.
b. Find job portals to create a profile, such as Workopolis, Monster.ca, Career Centre portals, etc.
Results: This will allow individuals, companies, and opportunities to find the student, even if they didn’t directly search for them.

3) Apply to positions of interest
a. Find specific positions of interest through their college/university, Career Centre, LinkedIn, job portals, networks, etc.
b. Try to seek opportunities to personalize the process through coffee or lunch meetings.
c. Submit a tailored cover letter and resume for each position
d. Follow-up with friendly phone calls or emails.
Results: This will allow the student to target specific opportunities build relationships with staff from the specific entity.

It’s important to remember that job searching isn’t easy, especially in this tough economy. A student ought to know that they are not alone if they’re having trouble, but perseverance is the key to success.

A critical area of the job searching process is building relationships, which forms the networking component. Networking is a give and take relationship. One of the biggest misconceptions related to networking is that networking is limited to a specific time and place. Networking is something you can practice anywhere, anytime!

Here is a brief introduction to my networking formula which comes in 4 key pieces and it is very useful for students:

1) Network up and Down

  • Networking shouldn’t be confined to superiors, think about the people both within or outside of your circle; every single person has a talent, skill and a connection that could be beneficial.

2) Help others including your competition

  • Remember the people around you aren’t your competition; working together to refine your applications, tag-team networking, and practice interviewing is more beneficial.
  • The key here is that being genuine and helpful pays-off.

3) Make friends not “Networks”

  • Approaching the networking process as a way to build friendships will help you enjoy the process and you’ll be more successful.
  • Networking is a 2-way street; make sure you’re “giving” at least as much as you’re “taking”.

4) Be yourself but don’t be nervous

  • Remember that this is just a learning experience and you’ll get better from observing the people around you and through trial and reflection.

Remember, this is only a snapshot into building experience and networking skills. Feel free to get a Free copy of Your Guide to Succeed in University, rated the #1 Hottest Study Aid in Canada and #2 in the US, which discusses these topics in more depth. It is available on all major e-platforms (iBooks, Google Play, Amazon, etc.) at http://www.SucceedinUniversity.com . There is also a free downloadable poster on the “About the Guide” section of the website, which is permitted to be customized with your institutions logo and used in print and electronic format.

Posted by Aly Madhavji, Author of Your Guide to Succeed in University
Email: alymadhavji@live.ca

Communities of Practice and the Ecology of Supporting Student Success

Posted by Tricia Seifert

I had the great opportunity the other week to speak to the residence life and housing professionals at #NWACUHO14 (Northwest Association of College and University Housing Officers) about communities of practices and how they can be instrumental in developing relationships, sharing practices through a variety of means (listservs, twitter chats, webinars, websites to name a few), and creating new knowledge to inform one’s practice. A few days later, I spoke at the Ontario University Registrars Association’s sold-out conference about the ecology of student success. The two presentations are clearly connected. Communities of practice increase the linkages between students’ microsystems, thereby supporting student success.

Okay, let’s take a step back to sketch out the basic tenets of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of ecological human development. The Person-Process-Context-Time model presents individual development as a result of a person interacting with a host of processes within a specific context and time. Bronfenbrenner also states that development is individualized because how one interacts with these processes within the environment depends on that person’s characteristics.

Intuitively, that makes sense. We all know twins who approach the world in vastly different ways despite sharing the same DNA and growing up side-by-side. Bronfenbrenner asserts the twins’ unique characteristics influence how they interact with processes that comprise their immediate environment. Each process within a person’s environment is a microsystem in Bronfenbrenner’s theory.

Imagine these twins are first year students at your university. Their microsystems may consist of friends, family, classmates, job, faculty members, staff in the Registrar’s office, and staff and peers in their residence. Bronfenbrenner argues that the mesosystem is the space in which these microsystems link or connect. Although other systems comprise the full ecological model, I am going to keep the discussion to microsystems linking within the mesosystem. The figure below represents this ecology for a hypothetical situation involving one of the twins, Julia.

Mesosystem

In the case of our twins, Julia is not doing well in several of her courses and fears she will be placed on academic suspension. She has mentioned her struggles to her Residence Don but has not confided in her twin sister. Her Residence Don, Mark, knows that he doesn’t have answers to all of Julia’s questions so he takes her confidential inquiry to his Residence Director.

Recently, the Registrar’s Office initiated an early alert system on campus and convened a community of practice across campus to discuss issues related to academic success. Along with staff from the Academic Skills Centre, Accessibility/Disability Services and Counselling, the Residence Life staff have attended community gatherings to learn about the early alert system and how thy can support students who have been identified as experiencing academic difficulty. Because of her engagement with the “academic success” community of practice, the Residence Director provides Mark with information on the programs and services designed for students who have been identified through the early alert system.

In this example, staff from Residence Life, the Registrar’s Office, and the Academic Skills Centre (all members of the community of practice and individual microsystems) interacted in Julia’s mesosystem in way that supported her success. From our data, we found positive linkages across microsystems that support student success like that of this fictional community of practice appear to exist more often at institutions where faculty and staff from across the campus recognize they have an important contribution to make in supporting student success.

What communities of practice exist on your campus? What microsystems do they connect? How has your institution used the relationships and knowledge from this community of practice to support student success?

We want to learn from you. Please leave a comment so that others can learn from the communities of practice you have on your campus.

Resources:

Communities of practice Step-by-Step Guide

Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. (1993). The ecology of cognitive development: Research models and fugitive findings. In R. H. Wozniak & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 3–44). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

For a great application of Bronfenbrenner’s theory within higher education, I recommend Kris Renn and Karen Arnold’s 2003 article, Reconceptualizing research on college student peer culture. The Journal of Higher Education, 74(3), 261-291.

Share Your Blueprint: Student Experience Video Competition

We are officially launching our ‘Share Your Blueprint’ student experience video competition! We know that you interact with postsecondary students on a daily basis, and as such we invite you to encourage them to create videos showcasing the blueprints they have developed throughout their education. 

Please share the following call for submissions with students who you think would be willing to share their college and university involvement experiences.

Thank you for your support.

Tricia Seifert & Christine Helen Arnold (Youth Outreach Coordinator)

Ink Blot3

Share Your Blueprint

Student Experience Video Competition

The Supporting Student Success research team invites submissions for our 2014 ‘Student Experience Video Competition’. In the format of a short 4-5 minute video, we would like students to depict and discuss the blueprints they have created for themselves during their time at college and/or university. What initiatives and programs have you participated in, who have you engaged with, how did you get involved and how do the pieces fit together to support your success? Student blueprints may include but are not limited to: interactions and/or relationships with college and university staff, advisors, counsellors, faculty and peers; study groups; learning skills workshops/programs; career training; community outreach; leadership opportunities; peer helper programs, employment on campus; residence life; student government; clubs and sports.

The contest carries a first prize of a $75.00 Pizza Pizza gift certificate and a second prize of a $50.00 Starbucks gift certificate. The top 5 videos will be featured on the Supporting Student Success research team’s new youth outreach website, entitled Blueprints for Student Success. The website is dedicated to educating high school students about the services and programs offered on college and university campuses.

Contest Rules:

  • Video creators must be current students in a college and/or university.
  • Students are to be creative, humorous, ingenious and authentic in conveying the blueprints they have created.
  • The video must be original material between 4-5 minutes in length and not submitted previously for any event or contest. The content must not infringe on any person’s third party rights.
  • Individual students or groups may submit videos.
  • Prizes apply to both individual and group submissions (groups are responsible for determining how to distribute/share winnings).
  • The Supporting Student Success research team reserves the right to disqualify any videos that contain advertisements or contain any unlawful, misleading, malicious, discriminatory, sexually explicit or other objectionable content.

Submissions:

  • Please upload your completed video to YouTube. Once successfully uploaded, please submit the following items to shareyourblueprint@gmail.com:                 1) Title of submission, 2) Names of all participants and 3) YouTube video link.
  • The deadline for all submissions is Friday, March 14th 2014.
  • Any inquiries can be directed to Tricia Seifert tricia.seifert@utoronto.ca or Christine Helen Arnold c.arnold@utoronto.ca.

Engaging Student Staff in Professional Development

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

I was lucky enough to attend my first Ontario Association of Colleges & Universities Housing Officers (@OACUHO) Residence Life Conference in 2003 at the University of Windsor. I was a resident assistant at Humber College, and was lucky enough to be presenting on accessibility with a few of my coworkers.

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More than a decade later, I can still remember the experience of walking through the doors of the conference entrance to register. Dressed in a rainbow of school clothing, people were cheering and for the first time I really understood that residence life was a vibrant community outside of my own school. Rather than just an RA at Humber College, I was part of a large network of para-professional student staff, and there was theory and best practice within our work. I spent a weekend learning, networking, and rejuvenating for a second semester of work. I felt connected.

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This year I was lucky enough to send six of my staff to the Residence Life Conference at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and watch them experience some of the same things I got to be a part of in 2003. The excitement of making new friends, and learning about interesting ideas and solutions to shared challenges in residence life. Best of all, for professionals it offers an opportunity for us to reevaluate the processes and pedagogy we use in our home institutions and adopt new and innovative ideas that excite our staff.

 Thinking to some of the data we’ve seen through the Supporting Student Success research, I think conferences like the Residence Life Conference highlight how important communication and information sharing is for the field of student affairs and services. In Canada in particular, we are in the thick of examining our approach and the pedagogy of our profession. A common theme we heard throughout the focus groups and interviews was the importance of sharing our goals, our understanding of our students, and how student life affected academics for students in university and college. Conferences not only allow staff to engage with each other to discuss problems and possible solutions, but also allow us to understand ourselves as members of the wider profession.

For this reason, I believe it is important for institutions to send our staff to conferences like the Residence Life Conference – we should engage our student staff in discussion about professional issues and encourage them to form their networks. Not all of our student staff will end up becoming student affairs and services staff – the vast majority won’t – but for those who do, us as their supervisors should help to stoke the passion and help them find their place within our ranks.

In Search of the Silver Bullet: Communication and Our Students

Posted by Leah McCormack-Smith

Of the biggest challenges facing the relationship between post-secondary institutions and their students, communication seems to be one at the forefront. Do students know what resources are available? Do they understand the system and supports? Do they know when classes and exams start? How do we tell them so they will actually hear what we are saying, and listen?

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When I think back to my first foray into post-secondary education at Humber College, things were “simpler”. All communication was done by paper and sent through the mail. I was given an institutional email, but it wasn’t used for anything official. There were no smart phones, Facebook or Twitter, and the website had some information about services, but if you wanted to know something you needed to ask a faculty or staff member or go to an office. Things were much more face-to-face transactional in nature, but answers sometimes came slow and there wasn’t the ease and immediacy of information that is expected now (by faculty, staff and students). This experience was not 25 years ago. This was 2001.

By my second experience into post-secondary education, the landscape had changed immensely. In 2005 when I entered University of Toronto, knowing how to use CCNet (the precursor to Blackboard) was a must. Emails were used by faculty and departments to communicate information, and websites were more thorough. However, information about start dates for classes, fees, and course selection were still sent by mail, and this was when Facebook was in its infancy, and there was still no Twitter. Communication still happened mostly face-to-face or by phone, and email was still a hit or miss way to connect with certain staff and faculty based on their comfort with the technology.

As an undergraduate student at U of T, I saw this change dramatically in 4 years. Now as a staff member (and not that far removed from the generation of students just entering post-secondary study) I feel the gap in their needs and expectations of communication, and my understanding of how the institution “does” it. This is where the challenge, I believe, lies. Understanding how communication happens for a generation that doesn’t really remember a time before computers, has been on Facebook since elementary school, and has been using smart phones for years is different from my youth experience, and as a staff member I feel it is now up to me to figure out how to bridge that gap and how to communicate effectively with this group of students. I need them to know what I need them to know.

U of T started the process of hearing the voices of our students through NSSE and other focus groups and surveys. On May 16, using the previous work and knowledge to inform the conversation, U of T held a Communication Summit to bring together the different areas of the university along with its students to strategize the best ways to communicate with them – meeting both their needs, and the institutions.

At the recent Student Life Professionals retreat held at U of T, some of the results of this were discussed. Not surprisingly, students are looking for information to be as streamlined as possible, and want that information somewhat tailored to them. There are a few people who are more likely to have their emails looked at (such as the registrar’s office) and students are wary of being “spammed” by information from the university. They are also looking frequently to Facebook and Twitter for information.

From the conversations at the session, along with some of the data we’ve seen through the Supporting Student Success study, the one thing that is clear is that there is no silver bullet for communication. Students are all getting information from a variety of sources, and all have preferred methods, which are probably far less uniform than they were years ago. Methods and means of communication are also changing rapidly, and institutions, staff and faculty need to be adaptable enough to meet new needs and incorporate new means of communication in accessible and meaningful ways. Students need to continue being a part of the conversation on how they are communicated with, because the solutions of today may not be solutions a year from now.

One of the pieces of the conversation that really stuck with me, however, is that one of the best allies in all of this is other staff. We need to be cognizant of how we are communicating with each other, and that we are being responsive to each other’s needs in regards to communicating with students. Do you have a cool event you want your colleagues to promote? Make sure you know their deadlines and distribution dates for e-newsletters and their listserv policies. Do they accept posters or only want text and links? Can the tweet the information or post it on Facebook for you? These are all helpful things to consider so that institutionally we try to cut down as much spam mail as we can, but also help each other out to be as responsive to student needs as possible.

We want them to hear us, and I think they want to listen. We just need to try to make sure that we are speaking the same language, and include them in the conversation so that we as professionals can stay in touch with new methods of communication, and how they are using them. It’s a changing landscape, and flexibility will be the thing that probably serves us best in the long term.