Friday, July 11, 2014

New Student Orientation as an "Inoculation" for the realities of the college experience

As I've argued before on this blog, student affairs and higher education professionals are often overly
preoccupied with making new students feel comfortable when they arrive on campus for new student orientation.  Of course, it's important that students feel safe and supported as they begin their college experience.  However, we often have a fairly narrow definition of what a safe and supportive environment looks like--one that emphasizes comfort, hyper-positive messaging, and reassurances that "things will be fine" and "you'll do great."

While this approach to orienting new students provides initial feelings of safety, it fails to consider what is required for newcomers to feel safe and supported after the honeymoon phase has ended and they find themselves in the midst of the realities of the college experience.  At that point, what new students need is an accurate understanding of what to expect, including the "warts and all" description of the challenges that they're likely to face.

In their most recent book, Decisive, the Heath brothers describe the idea of the "realistic job preview" and its value in combating the problem of employee turnover and hiring mismatches.  The idea behind this approach is to make sure that job applicants really understand what they're getting into, by providing cautions, warnings, and simulations that "expose people to a small dose of organizational reality" (see Jean Phillips research in the Academy of Management Journal).

Realistic job previews have been proven by a large research literature to reduce turnover.  Like I did, you're probably thinking "of course turnover went down--people stopped taking the job."  While that's true in some cases, the effect of "dropouts" in the recruitment or new hire phases is actually quite small.  In fact, in many of the studies reviewed by Phillips, people more no more likely to drop out of the recruitment process that recruits who weren't exposed to the realistic preview.  

Instead, realistic job previews seem to be effective because of the way that they "inoculate" new hires against shock, disappointment, and frustration.  In short, when new members of an organization have a realistic view of the challenges they should expect, they aren't quite so alarmed or taken back when they encounter hard experiences.

Here's the interesting implication for New Student Orientation:  realistic job previews seem to reduce turnover even when they're given after an employee is hired.  The message here is that realistic previews don't just help people make better choices about what job to take (or, for those in higher ed, which school to attend), they help people more effectively cope with the difficulties and challenges that they are certain to encounter.  Not only do realistic previews decrease turnover, they increase satisfaction.

So what does this mean for New Student Orientation programming?  First, we should do a better job of talking about the hard things that we know (from both experience and the research) students will encounter (time management struggles, homesickness, issues in the residence halls, substance abuse, etc.).  This should move beyond discussion of abstract challenges and include real stories, of real people, and the real challenges they've faced.  Whether it's orientation leaders sharing stories of the challenges they've faced (if you go this route, be sure to provide training and scaffolding so that they're sharing the kinds of stories you want) or faculty members and administrators sharing stories from their own undergraduate experience, students need to be exposed to the hard things they'll be facing during their first year (check out what Stanford is doing to leverage the power of stories in preparing students for challenges).

Second, and more importantly, new student orientation (whether you define that as a one or two day program or a more extended orientation in the form of a first-year seminar or peer leader program) should trigger students coping mechanisms by engaging them in thinking and planning about how they'll react when the challenges come.  These mental simulations and reflections are what really provide the inoculation students need because it prepares them with a concrete plan they can implement when they've failed their first exam, heard about a tragedy at home, or realized their roommate is an alcoholic.

So, to sum up, here's a set of recommendations for student affairs professionals who want to "inoculate" students during new student orientation:

  • Be real -- make sure students understand what to expect during their first year of college

  • Use stories to provide understanding of (a) what to expect and (b) how others have responded to the challenges they should expect to face

  • Provide opportunities for students to reflect on the challenges they anticipate facing and, most importantly, how they'll respond
Clearly, what we're currently doing to retain students and encourage persistence isn't working.  And, I can't help but wonder if part of the problem is that students haven't been sufficiently inoculated for the college experience.  Ultimately, a safe and supportive environment includes a clear understanding of expectations, not just well-meaning (but hollow) messaging about how "you're great," "you'll do fine," and "don't worry."

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