Friday, July 11, 2008



How do you make new-student orientation actually work?

I've seen this tried in any number of ways, and it nearly always falls prey to some or the other of the following:

information overload at a moment when they aren't paying attention; nothing sticks.

no meaningful incentive for the students to show up, so they don't.

students drifting in and out, either physically or mentally (thanks to cell phones and the like)

As with new employee orientations, it's hard to strike the balance between “what they really need to know right away” and “what they're capable of hearing at that moment.”

(A similar issue often arises with course syllabi. Students receive them, tuck them away unread, and then complain later that they were never told about the grading penalty for late assignments. In an annoying way, they have a point. They weren't told in a way that they could hear. In the real world, credit card companies rely on the same phenomenon: “sure, we disclosed our latest innovation in fiscal piracy, right there in four-point font on page 34, paragraph B, subsection iii of last month's bill insert! If you didn't read it, whose fault is that?”)

I've seen orientations structured around parades of speakers, which strikes me as hideously inefficient. Each new speaker requires an introduction and thank-yous, and usually a non-trivial amount of scene setting. Three minutes of arguably relevant information shouldn't take fifteen minutes to deliver, but internally there's often a push for 'representation' of the different areas, as if students care.

Oddly enough, for all the attention paid to the diversity of incoming students, student orientations are one-size-fits-all. They're based, consciously or unconsciously, on an idea of what a typical student would need to know. But the whole idea of the Typical Student is much harder to sustain than it once was, and in most other contexts, we know that.

Personal concierge service isn't really an option, given the numbers of students we're talking about, and a purely online program strikes me as just as likely to fail as anything else. (If that worked, we could just hand them the catalog and the student handbook and send them on their merry way.)

Peer-directed orientations have their appeal, but in a community college setting the 'seniors' are sophomores. Even the savviest students will have had only limited views of the place.

So, a question for my wise and worldly readers (who've been on a roll lately): have you seen a way to make new-student orientation actually work?

I teach online classes at the community college and university levels. Many of my students do not even know there is an online orientation for them because they never read all the material sent from the school prior to taking online classes. Most don’t bother to read my syllabus, welcome information, or reiteration of the most important points in the school orientation info.

So a couple of years ago I started offering extra credit points for an orientation/syllabus quiz. Well as you can imagine, the students who didn’t need it took advantage and those who DID need it, did not bother to take the time.

So my next step was to make it a mandatory graded assignment with unlimited opportunities to take the test using the materials provided while taking the test. There are two grades: A and F.

Amazing that at least a third of students in every class earn an F and never bother to take the test again for a higher grade. Those are the students, of course, who make C or less in the class.

You really have to wonder why they are in college at all. If they don’t have the desire and they are not motivated, then why are we pushing them constantly to succeed? Either they have the desire or they don’t. And those who do have the desire, meet us halfway and can and do succeed.

In my opinion, orientation is the yardstick by which we can quickly measure those who have what it takes and those who don’t. It is rarely inaccurate.

So the question becomes, why do we push? The information is available and is it not the students’ responsibility to make use of the information?

I participated with a committee to plan a CC "New Student Orientation" this year for the first time.

I learned/saw a couple of things that I think are worth adding.

My primary role was to design communications materials that would be more attractive to students than the bland, corporate-like/PTA-mom mailers of the past. As art/design faculty, naturally I see the importance of design in getting new students to show up. (We'll see exactly how much difference it makes.) Of the 5 CC/Univs I've taught at, this is the first time I've seen an administrative body consult our dept. for anything. And, oh, have I seen instances when they probably should have. So, hey admins, ask the designers for contributions, we do real stuff that can have a quantifiable impact. (*Note, that doesn't mean you should ask us to do things for your personal interests, which happens all the time. It means to ask us to contribute our design expertise to the college - for service, committees, etc.)

Another thing I picked up on from recounts of last year's experience was a real problem of helicopter parents interfering with their kids' orientation sessions. The issues ranged from distraction to corralling kids into classes they really didn't want to take (while students "wanting" to be in class is already a big issue at CCs). Our response has been to develop concurrent small-group info sections that will separate parents from students. Again, we'll see how it goes.
To answer the question you didn't ask, I assign a homework problem asking them to calculate the grade for a case that illustrates one of the key features of the grade formula. I'll also add that our on-line classes have the same problem ~vp~ noted. The only plus side is the correlation helps explain grade distributions.

On topic: Our students cannot register without attending orientation. There is a hold that is not lifted until X happens when they move from one room to the next.

Although our system has major flaws, mostly ones you identify, we do not do a one size fits all program. They get split up based on status (transfer students do not come in on the same day or, if they do, they go to a different room) and, at some point, placement test results. (I think they have to take the test before registering for one of our summer orientation programs, so they might be split up at that point with a letter code for the next room they are to go to.) We don't explain "prep" classes to those who don't need them. We also do part of it "hands on" (in a computer lab) rather than didactically.

One other thing that we do well is to have a student speaker tell them to take out the combination planner and student policy guide they just got and circle the withdrawal and drop deadlines while explaining them.

I agree 100% about too much info. IMO, orientation should be an on-going process. I think they should skip the "club" stuff completely and do that as a separate event a few weeks into the semester.

I blogged about my 'druthers for orientation last year. The one think I want to get across is that this is not Grade 13. However, doing so would send what the powers that be (all with a marketing view rather than a retention view) perceive as a negative message (you have to study and you will not be passed for "trying" like you were in HS).
We're fortunate, in that students enrolling for the first time are directly admitted to the School of Business. In addition to the generic orientation, we have an orientation for incoming business students. It focuses on the curriculum in business and on getting registered, so there's reasonable attendance (we can't require attendance, but we're around 75%), and students seem to pay attention--once they leave, they are registered.

The in-course/in-class part of the issue--orienting students to a particular class--is harder. I go through the grading scheme in some detail in class. Students who aren't there frequently don't read the material in my syllabus, so they wind up sort of at a loss.

I also go through what we're going to do in the class, why attendance is important, some study tips, some university and School of Business policies (all of which is in the syllabus, but...).

Still, a lot of my students do not know what's going on. Amazingly, many of them cannot calculate their own grades from their test and assignment scores...
Really good--and timely!--question. I would absolutely concur with previous commenters in several areas:

(1) As meteechart says, separate students from parents. Typically the students absent parents will ask questions and comprehend answers which they will not broach if the parents are present. In my observation and experience, students are usually fine with this: it is typically the parents who object and want to insist on being present--which in itself is a persuasive argument for getting them out of the room.

(2) Online orientation is something that we use for individual classes. In our (university, Ph.D. granting) program, we have used the "A or F" first assignment template ~vp~ describes, with our specific goal being to ensure that students have undergone the technical process of adding a webct class, etc and understand how to make the technology work. In our case, the first assignment in any given music history class is a "self-bio", for which we provide two templates (one bullet-points, the other a paragraph-essay)--templates are essential for new students, as they are much more comfortable imitating a model than figuring out the format from a verbal description.

(3) As ccphysicist suggests, we try to think of "orientation" as an ongoing process. To that end, we have a mandatory once-weekly "Thursday recital" which all of our students are required to attend and which their schedules are automated to include. This contains both informational presentations and also student performances, and is our best means of interfacing directly with our student body on a regular basis.

(4) Something we have not used, but which I think might be quite productive and wish to institute, would be to set up "orientation" more on a menu-driven self-selecting "cafeteria" format, rather than the string-of-speakers format. That is--set up all the requisite agencies or individuals: financial aid, advising, studio teachers, bookstore representatives, writing center, etc at separate booths around a room, and have students circulate at their own pace and sequence, but with the requisite that they must "electronically sign-in" at each station. This has the advantage of beginning to put faces to names, for both students and staff, and letting students cluster, pod, or otherwise move through the experience.

(5) Something we are instituting this year is a whole suite of Facebook groups, both specific to specific courses, and also including a generic/mandatory "music students" group. We have found that students are much more prone to check and respond to the Web 2.0 sites (e.g., the Facebook "wall") than email.

Great question and comments. Like others, I think the traditional format stinks, and that any format which permits students to be more self-selective a la the Internet is a good thing.
Echoing the suggestions to separate students from parents during orientation. (And as a disclaimer, I'm not in any decision-making position at my institution - I'm in post-PhD limbo, doing various academic and non-academic jobs on campus while sending off applications - but I worked as induction staff last year when the university was trying out some new things.)

One of the things we introduced last year was a general 'help desk', staffed by people from various non-academic departments (finance, accommodation, registry, information services, and a few others) with the idea that it'd serve as a one-stop shop for questions that students still had after the relevant orientation sessions. This worked a lot better than anticipated; students didn't seem to be using it as a substitute for orientation, and having representatives from various departments in the same place meant that any issues about student registration got resolved faster than in previous years. A lot of students just needed reassurance that their registration/fee-paying/accomodation status was all fine, but I'm guessing that students who are worrying about such things probably aren't going to be taking in as much information as they should during orientation sessions not directly relevant to whatever their biggest concern is.

There were lots of parents, though. Lots of parents, typically asking questions while the student stayed quiet and didn't look very attentive ("Jimmy needs to know when his Biology lectures start..."). Towards the end of the week, when most of the parents had left, a lot of the students we'd seen previously came back to ask questions that they hadn't mentioned with parents around, or that their parents had asked for them while they hadn't really been listening. I do wonder how much that impacts on the amount of information students took in at all during the time that their parents were around, and often attending sessions with them.

Orientation here now includes a parents' orientation which runs at the same time as the first 'welcome to university' students' orientation. This didn't stop all the parents attending the student sessions as well (because both those sessions were split into four different timeslots due to numbers, quite a few parents attended a later parents' session so that they could go to both), but I think it helped.
Coming at it from a slightly different angle, you can make orientation a lot easier and more effective by making the systems you're orienting students to easier and more effective. While I know that this is about as likely as every student showing up on time and alert and taking copious notes and asking good questions... it's still a possibility.

My college got away with having a relatively quick and easy orientation in part because everything underlying it was streamlined. Students registered for classes online, using the same simple interface for everything - that radically reduced the amount of time needed for people to explain what was needed.

There was one big packet full of information that you didn't need to read right away (but which was really useful), a station where they took your picture and gave you back your ID all at the same time (they had one of those insta-print machines, and all of the information had been entered earlier, when students enrolled; also, as a joke, they had an option for parents to send in silly pictures of their students in advance, so there were pre-printed IDs available with ridiculous pictures, if the student wanted. If not, they could take a respectable-looking picture on the spot.), one big lecture/presentation/welcome by the school president, and a couple of optional sessions/mixers after that.

Of course, this was at a SLAC, not a CC. You can do a lot more, a lot more easily with a group of 2000 kids with nowhere else to go than you can with a group of 30,000 kids/adults/etc. with lots of other things going on.

I've found that with classes and large groups, redundancy is your friend. Syllabi should be handed out physically and made available online in an easily accessible manner. (Also, preferably, available physically from some sort of central location, such as a library) The same with all orientation-related material.

I've been known to send e-mail, put things up on a website, give physical handouts, and cover walls with gigantic signs carrying the information that I need disseminated (including things like three-foot-tall banners directly over/in front of the photocopier), and still have people ask dumb questions. (People, I might add, in a 'cream of the crop' teacher-education program that I was actually denied entrance into after having worked there for some time) Redundancy certainly has diminishing returns... but it has definite CYA benefits. If people don't know where things are or how they work after you've presented things to them that many times, it's clearly not you that's the problem.
Reading the previous comments has reminded me of the biggest difference between high school and college for the students I've taught: in college, the system will not carry you along. Your professor will not call your Mommy if you cut class. You'll just fail.

I wonder if it would be possible to do some sort of demo of this during the orientation process? Use cjs' "cafeteria" strategy with electronic check-in, and hand each student a little card at the end of Orientation Week, telling them what percentage of all of the college resources the need that they managed to find on their own.
For my undergraduate university, the keys to orientation was free food and free/low cost-alcohol. At the graduate student level, free food is the number one thing.

As far as the syllabus is concerned, I think it is fair to say put it online and regularly remind students that it is there.

As far as time, I think it would be wise to stretch it out over September. One or two events a week for a few days. But it does seem like one needs to draw the line at incentives somewhere.
My 1965 freshman orientation: "Look at the person on your right. Now look at the person on your left. One of the three of you won't be here in June."
Oh man, I've dealt with the headache of orientation quite a few times, both as a student and a faculty member. But one thing I would have to say is this, when considering orientation for a CC: put all the important events together (registration, getting parking passes etc.) and put all the fun events at a different time. I think commuters often have work and other responsibilities at home, so they would appreciate the opportunity to get in and get out.

Also, if freshmen/new students have to register in person, it *really* helps if you can access the college's banner system (or whatever online system tells you which classes are available) in the room where the students are picking their classes. I used it for one orientation that was very close to the start of term, so we could avoid disappointment by preventing students from picking classes that were full.

And, above all, have the parents' events (tours, talks, etc.) separate from the student events. I do think that students should pick their courses on their own.

Another option is something my undergrad uni does: in the first semester, they have a one-credit course (one day a week for 50 minutes) called Freshman Dialog. It's basically like a term-long orientation to the place: library, IT services, career center, student government, etc. We also used the time to talk about the typical first-semester problems and concerns and to plan our course schedules for the next term.
A true Nugget O Wisdom way up in the thread:

We have programmed our educational system on the premise that every kid should go to (and then through) college.

This not true- and grossly unfair- mainly to the students themselves.

It is unfair both to the students who show up and don't belong there; more so to the students who do belong there (think about it).

Perhaps the folks who designed "Anonymous" 1965 orientation program got it right.

There is a larger issue here- not the topic of the thread (sorry about the digression) but relevant.

*Should* we work so hard to drag kids kicking and screaming through a baccalaureate program (pogrom) in spite of their talents and desires?

We have created a tremendous drain of talent from our economy . . . students *and* faculty alike . . . many of us could be put to more productive use actually contributing to improving the lives of others . . .
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