Student Engagement; why it matters and how to tackle it.

Zooming in on the issue with the President of the VSNU and a case study at the TU Delft

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Imagine; you became a student a few months ago.

If you were lucky, you joined the online intro week but you didn’t really get to meet many people, you’ve gone to campus once or twice but mostly followed your lectures online, you forgot to join an association but you do have 1 or 2 roomies that you get along fairly well with.

If you were unlucky, you still live at home, haven’t met fellow students yet and are still waiting for your first campus visit.

That’s been reality for tens of thousands of students across the country. It’s a student problem, but one for universities to solve.

But is student engagement really that important? And how can you solve it? Two interesting questions worth looking at.

Why Student Engagement Matters

To answer this, we spoke with Pieter Duisenberg, President of the VSNU (Association of Universities in The Netherlands). The VSNU is the overarching organisation that represents all universities in Dutch politics. They witnessed the recent change within higher education first-hand.

Pieter Duisenberg, President of the VSNU
Pieter Duisenberg, President of the VSNU

Pieter Duisenberg:We were amazed how fast universities were able to provide their education online, but at the same time it hurts to see how much the social and broader academic learnings (i.e. extracurricular activities) are falling behind. It’s become very clear that the campus had and will continue to have a crucial role when we go back to normal in facilitating social interactions.”

“The future of higher education will be hybrid. We’re going to have to look at what we needs to stay offline, and what can be moved online”.

“In the meantime, here’s a message to all students: reach out.”

“A community can help you feel connected, but whether online or offline, it starts with you. If you need help, reach out your hand and be amazed by how many people are willing to grab your hand and lift you up. Whether it’s joining an existing student activity, setting up your own initiative or reaching out to someone you don’t know, there’s so many things you can still do.”

How it can be tackled

In a recent survey, students at the TU Delft indicated that they feel less part of the community, are not as engaged and occasionally feel lonely.

The university said: “At TU Delft, we have known for a long time that there is a group of students who feel lonely and not connected to a TU Delft community. This problem has been exacerbated by the arrival of Corona. Recent research shows that less than half (and decreasing!) of TU Delft students feel part of a TU Delft community. The same research shows a negative correlation between belonging to a TU Delft community and the feeling of well-being and loneliness. Well-being and loneliness in turn correlate with dropout. Both from our commitment to the well-being of the students and our aim to reduce dropout, TU Delft benefits from students feeling part of a TU Delft community.”

The university took the matter into their own hands and started brainstorming a large campaign to make sure no student had to feel alone during the Christmas holidays. As their official event platform, they asked us to help solve this issue.

Uni-Life is the platform that helps universities & hogescholen facilitate student engagement. It helps keep students involved, connected and informed about all the opportunities and initiatives a university offers.

Together with the TU Delft, we immediately structured three hypotheses that we wanted to validate:

  1. There are lots of student initiatives, but they can be hard to find
  2. Social interaction helps students feel more involved with the university community
  3. Low barriers to entry make social inclusion a lot easier (e.g. low commitment, no costs, etc.)

The University added: “To date, it has proved difficult for TU Delft to reach students who are not members of an association. Conversely, it is also difficult for these students, especially in Corona time, to come into contact with other students with the same interest.”

To test whether this was true, we got creative with the Uni-Life platform.

We created a ‘fake’ event where we told students they could meet other students, sent out a “meet new friends’’ push-notification, set up an Instagram poll and emailed all our TUD users about a “new feature” mention. Within 24 hours, hundreds of students had almost unanimously communicated that they would love this.

Based on these results, we launched two Uni-Life initiatives together with the TU Delft just before the Christmas holidays.

Initiative One: Student Activities

Usually, the Uni-Life platform is only intended for organised events & activities from student associations, faculties, university departments and organizations that have a verified Uni-Life account. We now wanted to let students organise their own small initiatives as well. And that went really well! Within no time, student initiatives were rolling in:

“Hey everyone, I’m looking for a golf buddy! Anyone want to go on a bike ride? I love cooking, anyone want to join me? Hey everyone, I’m in search of someone to be my workout buddy. Anybody else love photography?”

The process to organize this was successful, yet surprisingly simple:

  1. At the top of the Uni-Life app, we posted a “post your own initiative” event
  2. Students were then directed to a special landing page we created (https://www.uni-life.nl/tud-student-initiatives)
  3. In the form, we asked students for their name, faculty & TU Delft mail (to make sure they were a student), interests and a description of their initiative.
TU Delft Initiatives on the Uni-Life App
TU Delft Initiatives on the Uni-Life App

From there on, we handled everything to ensure we kept the barriers for students to post their initiative as low as possible. We would upload the event for them and send it to all relevant students.

TU Delft:Uni-Life not only understood this problem but also built a community feature in their app in a short time. With this, students who are not member of an association can now also reach out to like-minded people. Within 2 weeks, 25 new groups of students with the same interest were formed. Clearly there was a need among students for such a community opportunity.”

One student told us:

“I made contact with three people so far through the initiative, met one of them in person, and will probably meet the others once the restriction eases off.

My initiative is basically about my hobbies, and I want to make some friends who have the same interests. Because of covid, it is hard to meet like-minded people offline (or in general), and I am glad that there is a platform for this!”

The best part is that new initiatives are still coming in as we speak (and they’re all very diverse)! So far, these initiatives have already connected well over 100 students.

Initiative Two: Student Groups

The second initiative we introduced was setting up large WhatsApp groups for certain areas of interest. To begin, we started with six topics: art, fashion, movies, music, politics & sports. But before long, students had requested we also create a gym & strength, technology, food, history and photography group.

Students were able to find these groups based on the interests they had provided on the Uni-Life platform. From the app, students we’re taken to a separate page where they could find the WhatsApp links for every group.

Although this initiative may seem a little less innovative, it helped validate that students are looking for low barriers to meet new friends. Rather than having to attend online events where they know no one, might not say a thing or even leave their camera off entirely, they can now simply join a group they like and see what other students are saying/organising.

TU Delft Initiatives on the Uni-Life App
TU Delft Initiatives on the Uni-Life App

Conclusion:

Here’s the biggest lessons we learned:

1. Despite everything, there are so many students who will reach out if you provide them with the right tools.

2. Keep things simple. You don’t always need a complex well-being program filled with psychological expert tips & tricks (although of course that’s also welcome), sometimes a new friend is enough!

3. The biggest problem isn’t related to innovation, there’s enough creative students with lots of ideas. The real challenge is bringing them together in one, accessible place.

As Pieter Duisenberg said; reach out and be amazed how many others are willing to lift you up.

Got any questions or want to get in touch? Contact the Uni-Life team here!

Hey, we’re Uni-Life. Our mission is to help universities facilitate a valuable student life.

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