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?