Of course, new students are in need of a certain amount of critical information (e.g. How do I register for classes? Where do I buy my books?); however, I wonder if our attempts to provide easy, pre-packed answers to these types of questions might reinforce a consumer mentality. At it's core, new student orientation is a learning experience just like sitting in a class or taking an exam. And, if I'm right in assuming that engaging learners in a creative process leads to meaningful learning, then there is no good reason why orientation shouldn't do the same.
If I was remaking an orientation program on a college campus (particularly a smaller campus where numbers and logistics aren't a huge problem) this is how it might look:
1. Fewer "Easy" Answers: Rather than sitting students down in an auditorium and bludgeoning them with slide after slide of dry information, it would be interesting to expect students to find some of their own "answers." This would not be a scavenger hunt--I don't think gimmicks are the answer. But, if we could design a meaningful experience that requires students to locate key resources, pieces of information, campus locations, etc. and then report back to a larger group, I think we would see students learning more. We make a mistake when we try to make learning easy. Struggle on the part of a learner can pay dividends (see Chapter 1 of Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code for a more in-depth discussion of this concept). Of course, we don't want students wandering aimlessly across campus during orientation, but guiding them in finding or creating their own answers could have some interesting outcomes.
2. Opportunities for Meaningful Written Reflection: Even more important than transmitting specific information, orientation is as a time to transmit the values and culture of a particular institution. For instance, what does it mean to be Yale Bulldog or a Delaware Blue Hen? What kinds of things do students at Harvard do? While orientation programming can hep create this vision for a new student, an equally valuable component is the personal reflection that a student does after orientation is all over. What if students were asked to reflect in writing about what it means to be part of the heritage of Washington State University or what Boston College really expects of its students? For colleges that require enrollment in a freshman seminar course of some kind, this could be the first assignment and bridge the gap between orientation and the first day of the course. This sort of activity engages students in creating their own picture of what it means to be a college student at their particular institution, which could help frame the way they approach learning. Asking students to share "orientation stories" of struggle, anxiety, excitement, celebration, etc. could also drive interesting reflection, reflection that could help students make meaning and grapple with transitional issues (as an aside, these stories might also provide some interesting qualitative data that could be used in assessment of orientation programs).
3. Opportunities to engage with real problems or issues on campus: What if each orientation group was tasked with developing a solution to a real campus problem during orientation? A good problem or task would require students to make use of a variety of campus resources (e.g. the library, the Student Union building and its offices, campus maps, etc.) in gathering information and articulating a thoughtful solution. Even if none of the proposed solutions are feasible, students will have been engaged in an authentic learning experience that introduced them to campus and modeled the type of learning (learning that benefits a community) that we hope happens during their time on campus. In the best case scenario, some of the elements of these "solutions" could be adopted and highlighted so as to reinforce the importance of students adding to or enhancing the learning community that they are a part of.
We are experimenting (in a very small way) with some of this on my campus. We have selected 20 students to be part of a small pilot program that involves them in creating film documentaries of their orientation experience. These 20 students will be broken into groups of 4 (within their larger orientation group) and each group will be provided with a video camera. We will provide them with a short list of learning outcomes for orientation and ask them to, using the medium of film, illustrate that they have learned or experienced the things we hope they will. Ideally, we hope that the act of creating something during orientation helps focus their learning. We have also made these students aware that what they are creating could be used to market orientation to new students that come to our campus in the future.
We'll see how things go. Maybe it will crash and burn, but I feel good knowing that we are at least making an attempt to provide a more interactive and engaging experience during orientation.