Three Steps for Enhanced Student Communication, During a Crisis and Beyond  

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Colleges and universities usually move like ocean liners, hard to steer and slow to turn in a new direction. In the past, that hasn’t been a problem. But now it certainly is. This article focuses on three steps for enhanced student communication during a crisis and beyond to re-direct your course for success.

If, in 2019, you had been asked to develop online course formats as part of your college’s strategic plan, you would have picked a suitable project timetable. Perhaps three to five years? In the pre-COVID-19 world, we would have given these implementations the deliberative reflection they deserved. Instead, in Spring 2020, nearly all colleges converted to online learning within a matter of weeks. Not perfectly, but we did it. Because we had to.

We flew the plane while building it, and adapted classes for remote teaching. In addition, we shifted prescriptive student support into a virtual format. And used video meetings and other innovative resources to recruit a hesitant fall class in an uncertain time.

We had no time to give full consideration to cost, capacity, or effectiveness. Instead we leapt into the fray, and guessed on the best course. The luxury of time and resources disappeared. We couldn’t identify the problem and spend months discussing it in a slow and deliberate manner. We chose a direction and moved ahead.

And we stumbled into the void with varying degrees of success.  We focused on short-term measures, getting through the few months until the semester’s end. We tried to find a way to make an online graduation ceremony meaningful. Furiously paddling against the current, plugging leaks in our little life rafts, we just tried to stay afloat.

But now we must confront a dim and foggy horizon, following a crisis that is more widespread and more damaging than any other in memory. How are higher education admissions leaders planning to gain a measure of control over the years to come? How will we estimate enrollment? What is required to safely resume campus life? You can’t make those decision without asking your students. In the next sections, I outline strategies to enhance student communication that will give you answers to support those decisions.

You need two-way communication, rich in feedback and nuance. And you need it now.Begin, As Always, with Communication.

With all these changes, students are bewildered and full of questions. And only your students can tell you what worked, what didn’t, and what needs improvement. There’s no shortage of topics: tuition refunds, student financial aid, faculty response, and the value of an online education. But your students may have concerns that you haven’t anticipated. So, you need two-way communication, rich in feedback and nuance. You need to ask. And you need it now.

Start your own student conversation

Conversations and feedback from your students will give you what you need most – reliable information to guide your next steps. But don’t rely on any of the hundreds of COVID-19 response surveys that have appeared in recent months.  While each one has valid results, none of them apply to your individual situation. Your school, your state, your financial base, and your situation are unique.

Only homegrown data will tell you precisely how your students feel about coming back in the fall. Will they be able to afford tuition, succeed with online learning, or willing to live on campus with masks and social distancing. You’ll get the answers with a personal, customized survey. With that knowledge, you’ll have the information you need to create a plan for various scenarios – your own Plan A, B, and C.

Let me tell you how to make it happen.

Your Students. Your Survey.

A survey is the best way to efficiently communicate with many people at once. You want to collect as much information as possible. But the more data you collect, the more time you need to compile, analyze, and distill it into a meaningful story. It takes time and effort to craft a survey that will truly enhance student communication.

I’m going to show you a way to compile and analyze it quickly, so it can be shared with students, administration, staff, and faculty. Below, I offer my three best tips for developing an effective student survey.

Ask only the questions you need to ask. Let the survey do the analysis for you. Open the discussion.

Step One: Ask Only the Questions You Need to Ask

Keeping in mind the need for speed, you should condense your questions down to the essentials. The fewer questions, the better your response rate, and the quicker your analysis. Putting together a survey is pretty easy with all the latest web-based tools. But you also want to end up with good data that easily translates into a clear story and actionable results.

It is essential to collect data now so you can resurvey later, carefully balancing the need for new data against the possibility of survey fatigue. This will help you get a handle on the shifting mindsets of your students. Clearly, it’s important to get the survey questions right the first time.

Start off right by creating the kinds questions that will provide you the information you need. But be prudent on how many questions you want to ask. Ask only the survey questions that matter right now.

My rule of thumb is to create three key questions that you want your survey to answer. Think about an overall theme or the questions that are on the minds of your stakeholders, in this case, students. Then build off them to develop your survey items. If you devote a good amount of time to this step, and persist through many rewrites, then the next step will pay off even more.

Whether you create your own survey or use one that is available in the public domain, such as HEDS or IEHE, include questions that are specific to your situation. IEHE offers a free survey — Ask Our Students – which they administer. This can be a great option for institutions who need an effective survey, but don’t have the time or expertise to develop and administer it themselves. IEHE will provide you with a summary report and detailed data.

Step Two: Let the Survey Do the Analysis for You

The key to a successful survey that will produce actionable results is to create one with the analysis built in. After all, you don’t want to increase your workload while half your department is out on furlough. The key is to use lynchpin questions to anticipate how you will work through the data you gather and fill the operational gap.

Lynchpin questions can segment the population as you survey them. They will allow you to figure out relationships upfront, without using linear regression. This will let you quickly locate the group of students that need support the most. You can get the survey analysis right the first time by using questions that do the analysis for you. Let me show you a few examples to get you started.

If you are asking students how well they are adjusting to the new remote learning environment, you should first ask the format of their courses prior to COVID-19. The question might look something like this:

Prior to the COVID-19 changes, I attended [Name of institution]: a. entirely online. b. through a mix of online and in-person classes. c. entirely in person.

Use this question against the other items you collected in the survey. You might ask how well your students are adjusting academically to remote learning. What have been their biggest challenges accessing the internet, and their enrollment plans for the next term? These answers are better explained by separating those who were previously comfortable with online learning, and those who weren’t. The latter group might need more help adjusting. Phrasing the question in this way helps you find that answer quickly.

The most actionable results tend to be based on those questions that are part of the ground game. While Bayesian statistics have their time and place, the goal here is two-fold.  First, leverage the data so it can be explained in one or two PowerPoint slides. Second, share which students are at risk with those who are best equipped for a student in need. This kind of question helps you dig deeper without getting stuck in the data.

This next lynchpin question groups students into five categories covering student retention, a topic on the minds of many of us.

Please choose the statement that best describes your current situation: a. I am very committed to completing a degree at this institution. b. I am committed to completing a degree somewhere, but probably not here. c. I am not certain that I will complete a degree here or elsewhere. d. I do not intend to complete a degree here or elsewhere. e. I do not wish to continue with college study, at this time.

This question is best used when you are surveying students about their satisfaction with their college experience. Adding a simple item like this gives the analyst certainty (and sanity) in managing the sea of data generated when collecting satisfaction survey data. It would be great to provide retention services/personal counseling to every student that responds to the survey. But segmenting students based on this question allows you to identify those who are on the fence completing a degree (b and c), so you can target them first.

Remember, those who are relying on you for answers are looking for actionable results, and you want your analysis to identify where they can find a quick win. When you have this kind of question to help you analyze the results upfront, you can be proactive about approaching all areas of the college as you create questions for the survey. In the end, you may enhance relationships or establish new partnerships while developing a functional survey analysis.

Examine your recruiting strategy

Another major source of information is admitted students who—following substantial recruiting— decided not to attend your institution after all. Despite your efforts, they chose to enroll at a competitor institution, perhaps staying close to home to create some certainty in uncertain times. Was there something you could have done differently to inform your recruiting strategy? How can you determine what those issues were? Again, adding a lynchpin question like this to your survey can furnish the answers.

How close were you to choosing to attend [Name of Institution]? a.Not close at all - it was only a backup option b. Not very close c. Somewhat close d. Very close - it was one of my top choices e. Extremely close - I nearly chose to attend [Name] instead f. Don’t know

This question works very similarly to the retention question. In this case, separating those admitted students who had you on their radar from those who are lost will help you determine what areas of the recruiting cycle they were dissatisfied with. This will help you make adjustments at your next opportunity to recruit admitted students.

Step Three: Open the Discussion

The two-way part of the two-way conversation is sharing the results. Students will want to know if they were alone in their frustration, and if others are eager or afraid about getting back to crowded classrooms.

When you communicate your results, pay attention to your tone. It should be open and honest, frank about fiscal and physical difficulties, but promoting trust, unity, optimism, and assurance. Assuming you have a plan for Fall 2020 and beyond, decide in advance what your overall message will be, and the key points you want to make. Then find survey results that support them. (Remember, the data don’t lie. If your survey results don’t support your message, you may have the wrong message. Or even the wrong plan.)

Perhaps your current communication sounds something like this:

Ingram University’s administration is doing everything we can to restore your former campus experience. But it isn’t going to be easy and it isn’t going to be what we’re all used to. We have increased our cleaning and sanitizing practices, but that will only get us so far.

Until we have a COVID-19 vaccine, we will have to use social distancing to keep the spread of disease to a minimum. This will mean changes. In our recent survey, X% of students said they were willing to wear masks in crowded places, and to sit six-feet apart in lecture halls.

We hope to be able to offer virus testing, an expanded student health clinic, and supported quarantine facilities on campus in the fall. We will continue to offer an option for online courses for those that want them, which may reduce crowding in lecture halls. In the same survey, X% of you said you were willing to continue with some online courses, up to twice a week.

Consider how you will customize the communications around the survey for other audiences – parents, faculty, alumni, and donors. Their responses could help set priorities if you need to make cuts, seek other sources of funding, and decide what to offer next year.

Students in face masks reading books during COVID 19What have we learned?

Many people are asking if anything good will come out of this experience. If we’ve truly learned how to be flexible, and pivot quickly when necessary, higher education could emerge from this pandemic better than before. Do we dare to learn from this and transform our educational offerings and campus experience into something new?

We might:

  • Make education more accessible, more affordable, more diverse
  • Make students more accountable for their own learning
  • Make choices to offer what is vital to education, and eliminate what isn’t.

So if you are going to captain your ship into the great unknown – or even if you are just a navigator second class for this particular vessel – make sure you’ve relied on clear communications based on solid data to shine a beacon ahead.

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John Ingram

John Ingram

John Ingram is a Principal Consultant at Ingram Market Analytics.




The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.