These days many colleges are struggling with student retention. Some students are overwhelmed by or disillusioned with their experience, enrolling only to drop out. The effects of Covid-19 have left students feeling frustrated and many are questioning how worth it it is to endure. This is where virtual orientation steps in.
A gymnasium full of cheering students is the age-old ideal of welcoming new students to college but online orientation is a dark horse that should not be overlooked when it comes to student retention strategies and building comradery. The goal is the same, to give students a sense of belonging and a sense of direction. We are asking a lot from these students; there are a lot of new obstacles in their way and many of them are not used to self-guided learning. So, a virtual orientation that speaks to those worries and gives them the tools to handle the challenges ahead would be greatly beneficial to student retention and success. The name of the game here is expectation and frustration management.
A lot of this frustration comes from students being presented with a big new challenge and then feeling like they are being left to handle it on their own. When designing their online orientation course, CSU Channel Islands kept this change in environment and learning style at the center. They said that they “ hoped to boost students’ confidence in learning online, equip students with the tools necessary to be positive community members, and give students the opportunity to use the technology they would encounter in their courses.” Their approach was not just to use online orientation as a temporary stand in for in-person, as simply a remote orientation, but to use its capabilities to help students adjust to an online learning environment and address new first year college student needs. This seconds Inside Higher Ed’s point that “online students gain the most from an orientation that mimics or foreshadows their courses.”
One of the benefits to virtual new student orientation is that it’s uniquely designed to help them adjust to online or hybrid classes. A school can go through, step by step, and teach students the ins and outs of the tools they will be using. It can also be left up as a resource for students, helping them troubleshoot later. This takes the weight of teaching new systems off of professors and reduces the chances of students being overwhelmed at the start of the semester. This is especially true of non-traditional and first-gen students that might have a steeper learning curve in this area.
The other learning curve attached to a student’s first year experience is the element of self-guided learning. Asynchronous or not, there is a lot of self-discipline involved in college courses. To address this, CSU Channel Islands dedicated parts of their virtual orientation to time management and motivational skills, teaching students techniques to use later. They also included an interactive element that asked students to come up with their “why” for going to college, helping them envision why they should persevere. While CSU Channel Islands’ model is mostly self-guided, they made sure to add human elements to their orientation by adding in videos of staff and introducing by name students’ point of contact who they could reach out to if they ran into technical problems. This combated the feeling of isolation that can come with online courses, adding to that feeling of support.
As far as literature on the effectiveness of online orientation, one study from the University of West Georgia at a smaller school found that a virtual orientation raised student retention rates by 7%, bringing their retention rate up to 95% that fall term. It specifically reduced the number of students that were academically dismissed or chose to drop out. The study found that providing an accessible online orientation to their mostly online school helped give students a better idea of what to expect and how to handle online learning, reducing student attrition. A student survey showed that those who completed the orientation felt prepared for the tasks ahead and felt much more familiar with the tools that they would be using.
Virtual Orientation provides the opportunity to educate and prepare students for their future learning experience, on or offline. It can walk students through their tools, reducing the learning curve and frustration around adjusting to a new learning environment. A good Virtual Orientation can set realistic expectations, equip students with the tools they need, and provide them with motivation and a sense of belonging.