Open Menu Close Menu

Student Experience

How Creative Listening Helps Institutions Better Serve Students

Listening to students' wants and needs throughout their interactions with a college or university can help uncover the moments that matter — the intervention points that can make or break the student experience.   

We know students rarely take straightforward paths to success. Their journeys are as unique as they are — full of twists and turns, forks in the road, and too often, dead ends. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that less than half of college students in the United States graduate on time. Even after six years, only three in five students at four-year institutions have earned a bachelor's degree. That drops to less than two in five for associate degree seekers at two-year institutions. Educators across the country are aware of this problem but are often left wondering what to do about it.

The answer is deceptively simple: Listen.

Students will tell you what they think, how they feel, and what they need. The trick is to listen in the right places, creatively and comprehensively, to understand each student's holistic experience. Then, you can intervene in personalized ways when it matters most, or in other words, at "moments that matter." Using relationship-building technology, schools can listen to understand individual students, gain visibility into their journeys, and identify risks sooner, connecting individuals with the personalized resources they need to succeed. At the same time, schools can uncover and replicate the moments that have the biggest impact on student success.

Starting with Student Journey Maps

Just as syllabi outline the structure of a course, journey maps are a tool used to outline the steps a student takes in their educational journey. These maps portray the actions a person takes, along with their emotions, as they seek to accomplish a specific goal, whether that's registering for classes, signing up for a meal plan, or graduating on time.

Journey maps can help you put institutional policies and processes in the context of students' broader lives and educational journey. Maps will look different for different groups of students based on demographics and enrollment status. Once you map out the steps students have to take to accomplish their goals, you can identify "touch points" that impact their experiences.

Touch points include all the people, processes, and things that the student will interact with at any given step and that may leave a positive or negative impression. These include both the tangible and the intangible. For example, a student's class registration experience will be affected by tangible things such as the institution's interactive app or website. But it will also be affected by less tangible things like payment deadlines, course scheduling processes, and faculty assignments.

Of course, the ultimate goal of journey mapping is not the map itself. The point is to use the mapping process to develop a deeper understanding of students' lived experiences and needs. This understanding will help you establish targeted listening posts at points of criticality that can make the difference between a student dropping out or graduating.

Establishing Targeted Listening Posts

Once you understand the student journey, you can identify where and how you want to ask for students' direct feedback — through a quick pulse, a deep-diving survey, or course evaluation. You also want to look for the right times and places to collect indirect and unstructured feedback, such as sentiment from social media posts and contact center calls. Look for friction points that are likely to generate the greatest emotional intensity — good or bad. These are the points of criticality that have an outsized effect on students' perceptions of their experience with your institution.

Friction points include:

  • Difficult hand-offs. While institutions operate departmentally, students believe they have one relationship with their school, regardless of the department that may be serving them at the moment. Bad experiences often hide in transitions or handoffs —such as the "campus shuffle" which involves having to go back and forth between financial aid and the student accounts office to get an account statement. Despite the fact that these moments are frequently fraught with uncertainty or frustration, the negative impact tends to go unnoticed by the organization because they take place between channels or departments. 
  • Inefficiencies. Most organizations have unnecessary or overly rigid processes, rules, and policies that create negative experiences. For example, a school might require continuing students to fill out a form every semester, when they could save the student's information and ask them to periodically verify through the student app. Watch out for instances where inefficiencies are impeding students' ability to accomplish their goals, and then streamline, simplify, or even automate processes to improve the student experience.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Sometimes, bad experiences are the result of a mismatch between students' expectations and reality. Listen for pain points that might be alleviated by adjusting how you communicate. For instance, if you find that waiting on hold to speak to a call center representative is a major source of frustration, let people know up front how long the wait time is expected to be or offer a call-back service. This will reduce the frustration of not knowing, resulting in a better waiting experience.

Don't try to evaluate every moment. Choose a few moments that matter most, starting with the above, and tune your listening antenna. Get highly curious. Asking about students' decision-drivers and satisfaction levels at these key touch points will allow you to identify the sources of friction causing students to struggle or give up. Once you understand what is happening with students on this level, you'll be able to identify opportunities to make life better for students and improve their overall education experience.

Listening Creatively

Listening creatively means moving beyond traditional e-mail-solicited outreach like surveys. Candidly, surveys are not enough and when e-mail is your only channel for feedback, you risk missing digitally disadvantaged students, as well as those who prefer SMS/text, in-app notifications, and social media. Where are students already talking, how are we remembering what they already told us, and what are we doing to act on that information? Adding channels for listening not only increases response rates, it also demonstrates to students that your institution understands their needs and preferences.

Listening creatively also means embedding listening posts within the student experience. For example, many of us are familiar with filling out a short in-app survey after a rideshare trip or food delivery. As consumers, students are far more likely to provide feedback in the moment than via an e-mail survey received a day (or more) later. It isn't possible to integrate feedback into every experience, but for each point of criticality, look for the most natural and timely channels for feedback.

Finally, listening creatively involves finding ways to hear how students feel about their experiences without having to ask. With advanced conversational analytics, you can listen to what your students are saying about your institution in whatever venue they're saying it — from the contact center to social media to online reviews and rating sites. Integrating this kind of always-on listening provides richer data and deeper insights.

Adjusting and Adjusting Again

Just as students need to take what they learn in class and eventually apply it in the real world, the real power of listening comes from acting on what is learned — boldly or incrementally.

What you hear from students might spark a dramatic policy reversal or radical realignment of a business process, but far more likely, their feedback will point to many small-to-medium changes that reduce friction. After making initial adjustments, listen carefully to the student response and then make further adjustments as necessary to demonstrate that you really care.

While seemingly small negative experiences can accumulate until the proverbial last straw causes a student to drop out, reducing friction at the points of criticality can turn previous challenges into moments of support or even delight. These moments can make all the difference.

comments powered by Disqus