Does your orientation program give students what they really need?

Orientation can offer students a powerful way to begin their postsecondary experience, but it's not cheap. 

Schools commit significant resources to making sure that their relationship with new students starts off on the right foot. But when it comes to planning these activities, administrators and incoming students might not always agree on the priorities. This is when having information about student preferences goes from being helpful to necessary. 

A recent StudentVu panel survey uncovered what Canadian students expect and want from postsecondary orientations. Overall, responses from 1,279 college and university students across Canada painted a clear picture.

Is school spirit as important as you think?

Given that a quick Google search of ‘College Orientation’ or ‘University Orientation’ brings up images that look like a summer festival, it may come as little surprise that panelists most commonly saw the primary focus of their school’s orientation as: “Meeting other students” (32%), “School spirit” (25%), and “Getting to know campus” (23%). 

But is this what they're actually after?

When talking about what they thought the focus of orientation should be, most students again said that “Meeting other students” (33%) and “Getting to know campus” (17%) should be priorities. But guess what we didn’t find in their top responses? 

Which of these should be the primary focus of a school's orientation?

That’s right, only 7% of respondents said “School spirit” should be the primary focus of an orientation, dropping it well out of the list of top priorities. Instead, “Learning to succeed academically in PSE” rose into the top three with the support of 31% of surveyed students. One panelist summed up this trend in the following way:

I didn’t gain any knowledge about the school other than tradition. I would have liked some sessions on academic success
— StudentVu Respondent

Another panelist echoed this sentiment:

It felt more like a party than orientation. I wanted it to be more serious so that I could actually feel prepared for classes.
— StudentVu Respondent

These findings suggest that if orientation planners want to be responsive to students’ priorities, they might place a little less emphasis on “School Spirit” in favour of using more time at orientation to help prepare students for the academic expectations of higher ed. That said, taking the focus completely off school spirit can pose a “long-term risk for institutions that want engaged alumni,” according to Emerson Csorba, a former Students' Union Vice-President Academic at the University of Alberta. Instead of abandoning school spirit, Csorba suggests that schools should focus more on their core values and on “outlining what they feel is unique about their own history and values as institutions—rather than remarking on how they are ‘excellent,’ or ‘world-class,’ which mean very little.”

Inclusiveness

The challenge of offering an orientation that provides “something for everyone” means that inclusiveness is a bigger concern for orientation planners than ever before, and schools face a growing demand to base their orientation activities on trustworthy evidence regarding student needs, preferences, and circumstances.

Even a shallow dive into the StudentVu survey results reveals how much opinions and experiences can vary for different categories of students. A recurring theme in the panelists’ responses was a request to have more “introvert-friendly” events, as one panelist requested the following from their institution: 

More structured and/or low-key socialization time. As an introvert, I enjoy meeting people, but I get easily overwhelmed and drained by small talk and parties. Having quieter, structured activities would have helped me meet others with similar interests and would have made me feel more comfortable.
— StudentVu Respondent

When asked whether their orientation was inclusive for certain groups, the panel suggested overall that orientation activities were least inclusive toward mature students/adult learners and students with a disability, although this trend was much stronger among university students than college students.  

On a scale of 1 to 5, how inclusive was your orientation to the following groups?

Tamara Leary, an associate professor at Royal Roads University and expert in Student Affairs, believes that planning for orientation is becoming more complicated as non-traditional and international students make up a growing proportion of student bodies.

She notes that:

with an increasingly diverse first year student population across Canadian campuses that today includes mature students and students from around the world…institutions are also challenged to provide orientation programming that offers something for everyone. There are also online learners to consider—what type of orientation programming is expected from this group of learners and how can institutions offer it effectively?
— Tamara Leary, Associate professor, Royal Roads University

These comments remind us that priorities in orientation planning inevitably shift over time, and thus need to be informed by up-to-date information on students and their motivations. 

College, mature students far more invested in meeting faculty, staff

While many students might not think of meeting professors and staff when they hear the word “orientation,” our study found a significant difference between college and university students’ interest in this activity. 

Although a relatively small proportion of respondents said that “Meeting school professors, school staff” should be the main focus of orientation, it is worth noting that college students (13%) were more than four times as likely as university (3%) students to choose this as their main priority. Respondents over age 25 were also much more likely to place importance on meeting their professors and staff than younger respondents.

When asked what their school might have done to offer a better orientation experience, one respondent noted that they would have liked a better chance to meet peers and faculty: 

More activities and opportunities to meet with other students and faculty members, as well as showing/teaching students how better to prepare themselves for post-secondary.
— StudentVu Respondent

Orientation planners might want to keep this type of student priority in mind—especially as it relates to mature learners and college students—when setting their orientation itineraries. On this point, Emerson Csorba argues that “these types of in-person discussions and relationships are especially important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, where social capital is conducive to achieving success over one’s years on campus.”  

For Tamara Leary, it is also important to remember that the underlying goals of orientation should remain a priority long after formal orientation activities have ended, as “being able to offer students the support and information throughout the first term or first year is ideal.” This is why Leary believes it is necessary for a school to have “an evidence-based understanding of the orientation needs and expectations of its incoming classes” if it wishes to offer the most effective programming.

Takeaway: 

Many StudentVu panelists suggested that some of the more practical outcomes of orientation can be overshadowed by a climate of celebration and school spirit, especially if that climate is generic and doesn’t reflect the unique values of an institution. Students generally preferred an orientation that helped them get to know their campus, peers, and faculty/staff while offering them a practical sense of the academic, emotional, and financial challenges of PSE.  

An Invitation

Contact us to learn more about a custom and innovative incoming student study designed to provide your institution with actionable intelligence.

It all starts with a deep understanding of the sector, the institution and the stakeholder groups. We’ll bring our two decades of applicant and student survey data and combine it with custom research that is specific to the challenge you’re facing or strategy you’re considering.

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