How to Teach Your Students 7 Essential Program Planning Skills

Student affairs professionals are student development connoisseurs. It’s grad school 101!

Whether we’re helping students explore their identities or promoting autonomy in their decision-making, we’re always mindful of student growth.

But I want to take us back to the basics. I’m talking about the nitty-gritty elements of program planning. A little refresh never hurt anybody, right?

From brainstorming to execution, I’m going to highlight all the skills your students should know before hosting any program. And I’m going to tell you how to best teach those skills, too.

Organization

A proactive approach to program planning will take your students a long way. A program that’s hastily thrown together rarely bodes well — even if there’s free pizza.

A good way to encourage your students to get their ducks in a row is to provide them with a program planning worksheet, like this one.

Working through each section will challenge them to think critically about each aspect of the program and develop a plan for accomplishing each task. It will also ensure that the program meets your department’s goals and expectations.

Another smart way to teach your students organizational skills is by setting early and clear deadlines. This will get your students in the habit of thinking ahead and working through step-by-step tasks.

For example, you can have the program planning worksheet due one month before the program, facilities requested two weeks prior, and advertising posted up to one week ahead. Essentially, you’ll build this skill by exercising students’ task-management muscles.

Collaboration

Co-programming, AKA programming with a co-worker, is a great way to delegate tasks and assemble a wider audience. Inviting a campus partner to a program has a similar effect. 

Additionally, your students may need to collaborate with other departments, such as asking the rec center for yoga mats or working with the counseling center to share stress-relief materials. All that is to say, you’ll want to teach your students the importance of collaboration and the skills needed to do it well.

You can do this in a few ways. First, I recommend requiring student leaders to host at least one co-program per semester. Setting this expectation early will get them thinking about the partnerships they’d like to prioritize. And remember, practice makes perfect — or at least almost perfect. So, the more students actually collaborate, the more they’ll learn about what works well (and what doesn’t) in cooperative settings.

I also recommend providing opportunities for collaboration outside of program planning. You could require RAs to go on building rounds with another RA or ask student employees to put together the monthly departmental newsletter with a peer.

Lastly, lead the way. Invite your fellow colleagues to a staff meeting or talk openly about your experiences being on a division-wide committee. Make collaboration approachable and fun! Teamwork doesn’t need to be scary.

Communication

Programming planning requires a lot of communication. Student leaders have to talk with you about their ideas, work with partners on delegating tasks, and disseminate the program details to their residents. Therefore, it’s incredibly important for students to hone that skill.

To teach it, I recommend facilitating communication-based activities in staff meetings or one-on-ones. Some of my favorites are the marshmallow challenge and “Zoom” (not to be confused with the video conference platform). You can find more great ideas here

Another option is to mandate semesterly peer-to-peer feedback sessions. Your students will probably groan about this (I know mine did), but it has an incredible payoff. 

It’s easy to communicate when things are going well, but communicating when you disagree or when someone isn’t following through on their tasks can be quite challenging. There are great resources for building conflict resolution skills, and getting your students in the habit of holding one another accountable before tensions arise will prepare them well for the inevitable programming snafus.

Creativity

Your students should never throw a program just for sake of throwing a program. Programming should always be meeting a need, and students should be doing so in innovative ways. Of course, not everyone is right-brain dominant, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get their creative juices flowing!

When I was a hall director, I didn’t allow my students to repeat programs. They had to put a unique spin on every idea they proposed. This might’ve been frustrating to them at first, but the rule resulted in a slew of noteworthy (and award-winning) programs — including an escape room challenge created in a vacant space and glow-in-the-dark games that were blacked-out by black bulletin board paper. There isn’t really a way to teach creativity, but there are environments you can foster to promote it.

I also suggest investing in ACUHO-I’s B.A.S.I.C. Toolkit for the Challenge Cards, which “focus on a leadership attribute and a specific call to action that supervisors and paraprofessional staff can use to develop competency.” 

Each week, during staff meetings, I’d have someone from my team select a random card from the deck and they’d have to approach the challenge creatively. For example, perhaps the card said “sense of humor” and their challenge was to find a way to make their residents laugh. They’d then have to work their creative magic to accomplish the challenge and report back on how it went at the next staff meeting.

Budgeting

Most students would probably love to throw big bashes with Ferris wheels and giraffes, but such grand ideas are totally out of the question for most institutions. Why? Because student affairs’ wallets don’t run that deep. It’s important to taper our students’ expectations so they can be fiscally responsible while planning events.

To start, be transparent about the budget they’re working with. If you have a $10,000 programming budget for the year and 10 students, that means they each get $1,000 for the year. If they have to throw two programs a month for 10 months, that means they have about $50 per program to spend per event. (Phew – that was a lot of math and now I know why I chose student affairs as a career path!) Adopt a similar mathematical approach with your students so they can see how the numbers have been broken down.

I also recommend encouraging student program planners to shop around for supplies. Doing so helps them better understand pricing so that they can make calculated purchasing decisions. For example, a grocery store right across the street might be convenient but if popcorn there is $5 a bag compared to a market farther down the road that sells it for $1, the longer trip might be worth it.

You can find more tips on how to coach your students through budgeting here and here.

Time Management

The most stressful programs are ones in which student leaders haven’t given themselves enough time to set up. 

I bet you can picture it now: Your student is running to the program venue from class. They burst through the doors, throw down their backpack, and rip open a pack of Oreos. They take wrinkled coloring pages out of a tattered folder, pull together a random combination of markers and crayons, and eagerly wait to see if a resident saw their last-minute social media post about “Cookies and Coloring.” And if a resident does show up, your student is so caught up in the next thing on their calendar that they fail to even get their nose out of their phone to strike up a conversation. 

Bummer. If only they’d managed their time better.

Luckily, time management is a teachable skill! You can add a program planning line item to your meeting agenda so that students will have allocated time to think through the event schedule. You can also process timelines in your one-on-one meetings. And you can even use a botched program (like the one I described above) to discuss how to better prepare the next time around.

You might also consider asking your student to bring their course schedule and list of obligations to a one-on-one so that you can plan out their week together. See how that goes, then challenge the students to plan out their schedule on their own the following week.

If timeliness doesn’t come naturally to your student, this may feel a bit like hand-holding. But they’ll get the hang of it eventually. You’re a student development pro, after all, so I know you’ve got the patience for this!

Resilence

Your student is organized. They collaborated with a great department on campus to host an interactive program. They designed a great flyer and social media post and plastered them everywhere a week before the program. They’re hosting a brand-new program that their fellow students expressed needs. They maximized their budget so they have great snacks and fun giveaways available. They’ve given themselves plenty of time to set up the space and they are now prepared and excited for participants to arrive. Sadly, only two folks show up.

Even when your students do everything right, programming success isn’t a guarantee. Learning to persevere and give it another shot, then, is the key to maintaining a positive, self-motivated attitude about program planning.

The only way to teach a student resilience is to coach them through tough moments. Validate their sadness or frustration and acknowledge their hard work. Then, once they’ve had time to process, talk about the things that went well and the things that would benefit from changes in the future. 

For example, you can ask: Was the program planned at a time when most people were in class? Have students already been to a similar program hosted by someone else on campus? Helping your student leader consider all aspects and unforeseen barriers will hopefully instill a confidence within them and inspire them to try again.

How do your student leaders’ skill sets line up with this list? Even when you’re looking at a foundational function of their role like programming, it can be truly beneficial to challenge them in new ways. Continue to advocate for your students’ highest potentials and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised by the outstanding outcomes. 

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Chelsea Jordan

About the author: Chelsea Jordan is a student affairs jack-of-all-trades with a passion for women's leadership. She currently serves as the Assistant Director for Campus Operations at Tufts University, and if she could have dinner with anyone tomorrow, it would be with the woman who inspires her most: Brené Brown. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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