9 Tips for Designing a Virtual Orientation that Students Will Want to Engage With

Higher education is steeped in traditions.

Students belt out fight songs during sporting events, toss their caps on commencement day, and guzzle gallons of coffee when studying for exams. But before all this, they’re inducted into their institutional communities through orientation.

This year, we have to plan for the tradition of orientation looking… well, untraditional due to COVID-19. For most institutions, that means going virtual. 

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One usual first step when planning any annual program is to examine how it was previously executed. We hope to learn from mistakes and capitalize on triumphs. But that can’t really work for virtual orientation.

So, what can you do? How can you build a virtual orientation program from the ground up when the ground is so unsettled? 

My Presence co-workers and I came up with some ideas. They’re not prepackaged solutions, as we believe that you ultimately know what’s best for your unique population of students. Rather, these are nine approaches worth considering to help you begin re-envisioning orientation for the web and ultimately, to help your new students envision their lives as engaged leaders. 

We know that crafting a virtual orientation won’t be easy nor seamless. But we also know that student affairs professionals are a highly adaptable, innovative bunch. Many of you already helped pave the way for your institutions and your students in transitioning to online semesters. We’re optimistic that you’ll do a formidable job meeting this challenge, too.

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(Important note: before we jump in: Orientation cannot be a positive experience if it isn’t accessible.  Don’t assume that all your students have reliable internet access. Here are some low-cost deals you can connect them to. You could also conduct some programs offline but still virtually, offer drive-up Wifi in campus parking lots, or open up a campus library to a limited number of students who’ll stay at least six feet apart from one other. Be sure to communicate these options widely!)

9 things to consider

1. Don’t merely virtualize your usual programs 

Your instincts might be luring you toward tradition, telling you to simply convert every time-tested orientation event and activity of years past into a digital offering. Perhaps you’re imagining every lecture as a webinar, every group discussion as a chat over Zoom, and every building tour as a narrated video. 

And while some of those ideas might be right on the money, using this is a comprehensive strategy — as in, sticking to the same ole orientation script for every single calendar item — would be doing you and your students a disservice. 

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Think about your own life online — how you feel when engaging with digital content, what elements you pay most attention to, and what connections you make with other folks in digital communities both large and small. Your learning styles from behind a laptop or phone screen are likely different from your so-called “real world” preferences. The same holds true for your students. 

2. Seize on opportunities for innovation

It isn’t all doom and gloom. I’m not writing all this to say that your virtual orientation is fated to be a poor substitute for the usual “real” thing. In fact, digital technology may provide you with extraordinary opportunities to create programs previously deemed impossible!

I implore you to see this is an opportunity to re-envision orientation — to use creativity and innovation to make it a uniquely wonderful experience for your incoming batch of students — rather than to tackle it as an emergency program in need of simple digital conversion. Go big, get creative, and have fun.

3. Remember your “why”

To light your creative spark, I recommend (temporarily) ignoring your pre-pandemic plans for orientation, no matter how awesome they were shaping up to be. You can mix some elements of those plans in later, but don’t let them bog down your initial brainstorming for a virtual orientation.

Start with the fundamentals. You’re hopefully already in the habit of considering learning outcomes when planning any campus program. You let the question of “what do we want students to learn from this?” guide your direction. 

So, do this with virtual orientation. What do you want students to learn as a result of it? What is the purpose of the orientation experience? Essentially, Why does your institution even bother holding one??

gif of Jake Peralta from Brooklyn 99 singing 'tell me why'

Focusing on the why can also be quite motivating as you put the work in to execute your plans. Remind yourself that, even when it’s virtual, orientation isn’t just another task for students to complete; it’s essential to their college experience, and more broadly, to their personal growth. 

You, dear orientation planner, will be the coach at the start of the race, leading the way along the mysterious virtual learning pathway

4. Incorporate learning outcomes

To build that path, here are some learning outcomes to consider aspiring toward, as pulled from the orientation websites of institutions across the country.

As a result of orientation, students will:

  • be knowledgeable about at least one department location and contact information so that future questions may be directed appropriately (SUNY Cortland)
  • be able to articulate academic policies and procedures critical to their academic success (Fort Lewis College)
  • understand the transitional issues (social and academic) they may encounter during their first year and how to manage them (California Polytechnic State University)
  • feel confident and excited about their decision to attend the institution (Indiana University East)
  • be aware of campus social expectations and community standards (The University of Central Florida)
  • learn the importance of curricular and co‐curricular involvement to their success as a student and as a future professional (The University of Northern Iowa)
  • become familiar with the institution’s history, traditions, buildings, and future of the college community (The University of Bridgeport)
  • examine how drug- and alcohol-related decisions can impact their future at the institution and beyond (Stevenson University)
'College orientation programs encapsulate the essence of their institutions by introducing new students to the academic life, culture, traditions, history, people, and surrounding communities. The goal is to provide individuals with a holistic view of the new college experience.' - quote from the book Designing Successful Transitions: A Guide for Orienting Students to College

I know that the temptation to refer to “how we normally do it” will be strong. But consider how that approach may hold you back, enforcing restrictions and barriers that no longer apply — not only because your campus has gone digital but because the needs of today’s students are different from ever before. 

5. Foster social connections

Beyond the tangible things you want students to learn — such as which campus services are available, who their academic advisor is, and how to join a student organization — consider the emotional experiences you want them to have. Orientation is an intensely social experience, with many opportunities for relationship-building. In fact, I’d venture to guess that the social aspect is many students’ favorite part.

So, In addition to learning outcomes focused on academics and co-curricular involvement, consider also asking yourself and your planning team:

  • How can we help students build connections to form the basis of friendships?
  • How can we help students find both like-minded peers and peers who will positively challenge their worldviews? 
  • How can we help students build and expand upon their social, relationship-building, and networking skills?
  • How can we foster micro-interactions outside the bounds of highly structured programs? 

Many of my most cherished memories from my own undergraduate orientation are not of official events nor structured discussions led by well-trained orientation leaders. Rather, they’re of unexpected social interactions with my peers, experiences we created together all on our own. 

Now, with the move to online, your students won’t be able to randomly bump into a soon-to-be friend in their residence hall, have a delightfully awkward conversation in a lunch line, or find themselves in an impromptu game of frisbee golf on the quad. 

But you can at least set the course for random social interactions. Consider hosting events in which students will be paired with one another based on academic interests, geographical locations, or something frivolous that’s sure to be a conversation starter — such as their responses to a Buzzfeed quiz or their stance on Hawaiian pizza.

gif of Will Ferrell in Step Brothers saying 'did we just become best friends?'

You can also set up calls for students to chat over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert. Or invite them to watch a movie together.

Your orientation leaders might be your best natural resources for guiding such moments. They can facilitate small group discussions, organize movie nights, or simply be ready to play friendship matchmaker. 

Think simple and unstructured. Though you may adore icebreaker questions, team-building activities, and webinars with minute-by-minute agendas, you can refrain from working these into every orientation offering. Students need a break sometimes. They need chances to simply connect with each other, unprompted. 

Remember: it doesn’t have to have structure to have meaning. 

6. Account for distractions

Your students will be battling outside distractions that your campus bubble would normally block out. 

Students may have a younger sibling clamoring for a look at the screen, a dog whining for a walk, or parents arguing in the next room about financial burdens — not to even mention obnoxious web pop-ups and social media alerts digging all day long. (Sorry, telling students to silence their cell phone and close extra web browsers won’t be a cure. Do you always listen to such instructions?!)

You and your orientation programming team need to account for this. It would be dangerously naive to think that all eyes, ears, and minds will be on you even if all students are indeed logged onto Zoom. 

Here are some ways to address it:

  • Double down with matching visual and audio elements. Share slide screens highlighting a speaker’s key points and re-emphasize written questions by vocalizing them. This will also make your programs accessible to students with visual or hearing impairments, along with those experiencing certain internet access challenges.
  • Include a summary at the end of each session, complete with hyperlinks to campus resources, allowing students to catch up on what they might have missed. You can also send this out via email afterward.
  • Coach all presenters on speaking slowly and enunciating. It’s simple but vital.
  • Occasionally turn off the chat function. You might not be able to control students’ text messages or email inboxes, but at least you can control a wee bit of the messaging that might distract them. Just don’t overdo this to the point of stifling students’ growing sense of community. And make sure that, even with the chat down, students have a way of posing questions to the presenters and alerting monitors of technology failures.  

No matter what, students will still face distractions. Note that I don’t say “here’s how to fix it.” You can’t; sorry. But you can at least manage it, giving students tools to focus on the present and to remember what they learned in the future.

7. Connect with families 

You hopefully already understand the importance of seeing students’ families as allies in student success. But now, due to social distancing, harnessing families’ support may be more important than ever before — as more students are seeing their families every day. 

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And even the most well-intentioned and experienced family members may be clueless about how to support their students in this new reality. Perhaps they’ve sent a relative off to college before, but they probably sent them off to campus, not to their bedroom or home office.

So, keep in mind that all families will need extra support. They’ll need guidance in helping their students emotionally, academically, and even with technology. 

In addition to your usual family orientation programming, consider offering webinars and presentations about online learning, digital engagement, and at-home study habits. 

Emphasize online mental health counseling, peer tutoring, academic advising, and other services offered by your institution to help students adjust to college life. Educate families on the signs that their student may be struggling — in regards to their academics, mental health, or social life — and provide tips for intervening. 

Perhaps a virtual resources fair or a Q&A with a professional rep from each office would be appreciated by families.

Above all, help families figure out how to support students through these tough, bizarre times. Remember: This is new for them too.

8. Offer a mix of live and on-demand programming

Do you want students to engage with content like it’s an athletic championship or like it’s streaming TV? In other words, do students need to watch your content live or will it be accessible on-demand?

A major pro of live sessions is that they create a shared experience. Students can write comments and respond to one another, chime in via audio or video, and feed off of each other’s energies. They can feel connected to their peers thousands of miles away, knowing that they’re all watching the same thing at the exact same moment.

On the other hand, on-demand programming surpasses livestreaming in its flexibility. Students won’t have to ignore an urgent phone call, pass up on a much-needed family dinner, or attend to a sick housemate’s needs due to a scheduled orientation session. They can schedule orientation around their external responsibilities and build in mental health breaks at their own discretions. 

Oh, and students living in different time zones from your campus (including international students) won’t have to wake up at 4am for a bystander intervention course or sit through a lunch and learn at midnight. 

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True, you can combine the best of both worlds by inviting students to choose their own adventure: Either attend a program live or watch a recording of it later. But beware of accidentally giving students who go for the watch-it-later option a disadvantage. Don’t, for example, allow only the live viewers to ask questions, win prizes, or get first dibs at signing up for classes. 

Make sure the on-demand experience is equally wonderful. You wouldn’t want students to start off several steps behind before they arrive on campus.

9. Gamify it 

Gamifying your programs is about way more than making your programs fun; gamification adds a sense of urgency, competition, and self-improvement which motivates students to participate.

Consider: Would you enjoy a trivia night in which a host merely listed off a bunch of facts? I doubt it. The challenge — of guessing the answers — is what makes it so engaging, and perhaps more importantly, it makes the answers much more memorable.

You don’t have to be an avid gamer or a chess wizard to work gaming elements into your programs. But don’t just take my word for it; Presence recently hosted a Happy Hour webinar in which #SA pro and gamification champion Alex Barkley demonstrated many easy, yet compelling, gamification ideas. Check out it here.

And here’s a bonus idea for our campus partners: You can gamify the entire orientation experience, building direct connections between each activity! Chat with your Happiness Expert about incorporating digital incentives, points, and levels into your programs in order to guide students along intentional, customizable learning pathways — which students can later show off via SmartTranscripts.

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We know that virtual orientation isn’t ideal. But with hard work, creativity, and intentionally, you can delight students with a surprisingly fulfilling experience. Students will build relationships with their peers, become unofficial experts on campus services, and develop a dynamic affinity for your institution. All of this will heighten their chances to stay engaged, persist, and graduate on time.

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What other virtual orientation ideas or questions do you have? We’d love to hear from you at @HelloPresence

P.S. We have more posts planned soon to dive deeper into this topic. So watch this space or subscribe (via the button below) to be alerted whenever new content is shared. 

And if you’re looking for some more virtual programming inspiration, check out our 53 ideas here. We’ve also built a COVID-19 resources page just for #SApros like you!

Jodi Tandet

About the author: Jodi Tandet loves writing about the magic of campus life as the Lead Storyteller at Presence. She's also passionate about baking, mental health advocacy, all the Presence office dogs, and her ever-growing podcast collection. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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