How You Say It Matters in a Pandemic, Too

Institution-wide online communication strategies can support students during the pandemic.
Blog Post
July 23, 2020

The pandemic moved the majority of higher ed online, including all communication between students and their institution. Students, faculty and staff did their best as they moved communication online, and while experiences were mixed, a recent survey showed that students praised institutional communication regarding coronavirus safety measures. However, students also felt that they needed better communication around student support services such as financial aid and academic advising. One student I interviewed, for example, tried to get in touch with advising at her campus but could not find an appointment. Another student struggled to make a counseling appointment when she needed emergency services and "was calling every three days to see if they had availability."

As higher ed continues online for the foreseeable future and students face challenging circumstances, colleges need to create a more organized and intentional communication strategy across the institution. This will be necessary for students to access support services and be successful during the pandemic.

In my report, How You Say It Matters: Communicating Predictive Analytics Findings to Students, I offer research-based guidelines on how institutions, academic advisers, or faculty, should communicate predictive findings to students. The guidance in my report can also be helpful to colleges trying to communicate effectively during this challenging time, as predictive system findings are also communicated online and can be sensitive in nature.

First, colleges should create an institution-wide communications strategy, or at the very least, guidelines for those who will be contacting students.This will help ensure students receive essential information. A common challenge since the pivot to online is that every school-related communication is now electronic. This makes it difficult for students to discern what information is most important, as the volume of messages they receive significantly increased. This has led to overwhelmed students and prevented institutions from effectively distributing important information. An institution-wide communications strategy or communication guidelines can streamline communication, provide guidelines on how to prioritize messaging, and allot certain platforms to important campus entities. An institution-wide strategy for communication will help ensure that the most important information gets to students, especially as the pandemic and higher education continue to be in flux.

Once an institution-wide communication strategy is implemented, institutions should also use behavioral economics concepts to craft messages that will get students to take the actions asked of them, like requesting permission to stay in residence halls, applying for emergency aid, or registering for classes. The most effective messages are brief, personalized, and make taking action as easy as possible. Including a link or brief instructions on how to complete a task minimizes the actual and mental barriers to task completion for students. Letting students know that their peers also engaged in an action, like submitting an important survey or registering for classes, can also be a powerful tool for helping students engage in behaviors that will keep them on track for graduation, even during remote learning. Using behavioral economics concepts in a message makes it more likely that a student takes action and that they receive the support they need to stay in school.

At the same time, institutions will want to balance an effective message with an ethical approach to minimize potential harm to the student. Especially during these trying times, sensitivity to students' realities will help create messages that are supportive of students. Messages that affirm a sense of belonging to the institution are particularly important during this time of isolation and student doubts about colleges’ priorities. Balancing a positive and realistic tone will help students understand that they have the option of taking an action, such as opting in to take a course as pass/fail, but will also make them aware of potential limitations, like an individual professor's class policy.

The College Transition Collaborative created a guide to help institutions craft effective and ethical messages to students during the pandemic. These sample messages are designed to get students the information they need to continue to be successful while using social psychology to affirm the students' concerns, challenges, and needs. These kinds of messages strike the necessary balance of ethics and effectiveness that institutions should strive for when communicating with students during the pandemic.

As higher education remains online for the foreseeable future, ensuring that institutions are effectively and ethically communicating with students is of utmost importance. And as the primary mode of contact with students, online communication must be thoughtfully crafted to be effective in getting an institution's important information across and helping students complete their education in spite of what they are facing. A communication plan can help colleges prioritize the most important messages for students and ensure students are not overwhelmed. And using both behavioral economics and social psychology concepts to create effective and ethical messages is key to not only getting students to take helpful actions, but minimize potential harm. Although many things are uncertain during this time, institutions' commitment to student success must remain strong, and effective and ethical communication must be a piece of that commitment.

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