Launching a new program is always a learning experience, and launching UVic’s Pre-Arrival Program was no different. Reading through the feedback in our end-of-program survey really highlighted what mattered to students, what we had gotten right, and where we had missed the mark.
As a preface before sharing what we learned- don’t judge me! Some of these lessons may seem like common sense when you read them, but as I say (in my head) to students who comment that portions of the program were common sense… common sense is only common once you know it.
1. If they need to know it pre-arrival, include it in the program
When we initially built the Pre-Arrival Program, we were trying to fill gaps that existed in our orientation programming. This meant that in some cases, if a resource already existed for new students that covered a topic, we didn’t feel the need to include it in the program. Turns out, this was the wrong approach. If we are telling students that this program will prepare them to start at the institution, is should contain everything we expect them to know to do so. Sure, things like how to pay tuition, set up your technology systems, and more might be covered in various places on your institution’s website, but if they’re important for a new student, they should also be covered in the online orientation program, even if you’re just pointing people to the existing resources.
2. They always want less text
Our program didn’t even have that many text-based activities, and still, students commented that they wanted less text. Reading feels like doing work, and students don’t want to feel like an online orientation is work. We had thought we had done a pretty good job of keeping text short and to the point, but it still wasn’t enough for some of our students!
3. They love hearing from current students
Our new students loved the videos, profiles, and tips from current students- so much so that they wanted more. I’m convinced that the program could have been 100% student stories, and they would have had no complaints. Current students are able to share the most authentic representations of what post-secondary life is really like, and all new students really want is the inside scoop.
4. They LOVE games
Surprise! For a lot of students, their favourite parts were the activities where they didn’t feel like they were learning, but were just having fun. Students seemed to appreciate all of our interactive activities, but the ones that were straight up games were mentioned the most. This included our Jeopardy game, which was intended to help students learn and think about new responsibilities they might be taking on during this transition to ‘adult’ life (i.e. cooking, cleaning, laundry, finances, medical appointments, etc.), and our Guess the Cost game, a rip-off of The Price is Right that had students playing games to determine how well they knew the cost of everyday items they would need to be purchasing.
5. Most students are worrying and wondering about the same few things.
While students commented on content from all areas of the program, as I continued to read comments it became quite clear what students are wondering and worrying about the most. They’re thinking about academics, and wondering what a ‘day in the life’ of a university student looks like. They want to know more about student life. They have a million questions about living in residence- a topic we didn’t even talk about at all. Moving is a nerve-wracking activity, living on your own for the first time can be anxiety inducing, and they want to know more about this major change in their lives. Finally, they want to learn more about campus, and how to get around. This was a topic we initially left out of our online orientation, with the thought that they get this information in spades during our in-person programming, but feedback during our pilot changed that thinking real fast!
6. Inclusion matters
We obviously knew that inclusion mattered when we were creating the program, but the feedback we received really drove home just how much of an impact it could have for a student. We were very intentional when selecting students for our videos to ensure that, across all videos, diversity was represented. We were also very intentional when choosing the characters inside our interactive activities. I don’t even want to admit how much time we spent debating and deciding on the characters, but it was important to us that we showcased a variety of genders, religious backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, and more, and that no character was represented in a way that might perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Hearing from a student that a specific character that we choose made them feel seen by the institution made all the time we put into these decisions worth it.
7. Make it shorter
We estimated our program would take students 3 – 4 hours, and most students seem to be on the lower end of that spectrum. They still wanted it to be shorter. I don’t know how short the program would have to be before we would stop getting comments about time, but it’s definitely an important factor to keep in mind when designing content. While you need to make sure you’re including everything that’s important, you also need to keep in mind that the longer the program is, the less likely it is that students will make it to the end.
8. They wanted more targeted content
This learning wasn’t exactly a surprise to us, but it was good to hear it straight from the students. While we initially built one program for “everyone” (we only had so much time!), the reality was that the target audience that we had in mind was first-year students coming straight from high school. Transfer students and mature student told us that some of the content wasn’t relevant, international students told us that would have liked content directed specifically at them, and some students even asked for content related to their program or faculty.
9. Students generally complete from top to bottom
We created our program so that students could access any content they wanted, at any time. While we recommended that they complete the activities within a topic in order, there were no restrictions put in place to force them to do so. Despite giving them the option to pick and choose, and jump around, the majority of students started at the beginning, and went through all the program’s content in order. Even students who skipped a specific topic still seemed to complete the rest of the content in order. Since not all students make it to the end of the program, this really highlighted for us how important our decisions around the order of the content really were.
10. Your online orientation really demonstrates your institution’s values
We talk about UVic’s community values explicitly within the Pre-Arrival Program, but every decision made about the program is also an implicit demonstration of those values. Multiple students commented that they appreciated that we had talked about mental health and sexualized violence within the program, and we also had students comment that the existence of the program itself, and all the thought and care that seemed to go into creating it, demonstrated that UVic really did care about its students and their success. Awwww.