7 Ways Advisors Can More Effectively Engage Online Students

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Online students are at significant risk for attrition as they experience isolation and a sense of disconnect from the institution, as well as find themselves lacking resources and information. Advisors can greatly impact students’ perceptions of their online experience by providing ongoing support and information to students.

Advising online students can be challenging, however, as academic advisors are responsible for providing quality advising to students they may never meet, relying on phone and electronic communication as an alternative to face-to-face advising. Advisors who have traditionally worked with students in a face-to-face environment may experience frustration, dissatisfaction, and a lack of connection with the students with whom they work. Advisors run the risk of eliminating critical, comprehensive developmental advising strategies as they attempt to manage a seemingly unmanageable amount of emails and phone calls.

It’s important for advisors to remember that online is not a type of student, rather, it is a mode of delivery for academic coursework.

Students study online for a variety of reasons, including geographical limitations, learning style, work, and personal commitments. The needs of these students are no different from those of any other students, although students in an online environment often perceive a sense of isolation, a lack of structure and support, and lack of information.

7 Strategies for Engaging Online Students

Here is how academic advisors can make a difference:

  1. Include in every call and email a greeting that humanizes you and makes the student feel cared for. “It’s great to hear from you,” or “I hope that the semester is going well for you” are simple phrases that can make a student feel connected.
  2. Replicate face-to-face advising whenever possible. Insert your picture in your email’s signature line. Call students whenever possible. Take advantage of videoconferencing products to deliver individual and group advising. These types of efforts will let students know that distance is not an obstacle for them.
  3. Provide the student links to resources but avoid information overload. Don’t try to replicate the catalog or website. Provide developmentally appropriate resources that answer the students’ questions while providing information you anticipate they’ll need.
  4. Help students navigate the institution’s systems. While an on-campus student has the ability to walk to the one-stop student success center to register, pay her bill, and ask questions, an online student may have to be transferred 3-4 times to get the same assistance. Helping students know exactly who to call and what to ask can help reduce their frustration. Making calls on behalf of students is another excellent way to show you care and provide them with the information they need.
  5. Proactively outreach to students via calls and emails. Provide them useful information and offer assistance, but be careful not to overwhelm them. Too many emails with too much information will eventually be ignored. The students must feel that these communications are relevant to their needs.
  6. Provide an anchor for students. By encouraging them to contact you with any questions they may have, you will quickly develop a productive partnership. Even if you need to refer the student to another department, you will increase your opportunities to connect and address other issues which the student may have.  Resist thoughts such as “It’s not my job.”
  7. To provide students structure and control, facilitate a sense of shared responsibility. Informing students of your action plan, “I will check on your application and call you back” and assigning students responsibility, “Please let me know when you’ve sent the transcript and I’ll update your records” provide the structure that online students often perceive to be lacking.

By employing these strategies, advisors will find that they can successfully engage students and develop positive and effective advising relationships. The outcome of these relationships will be an increased sense of satisfaction on the part of both student and advisor, and will positively contribute to online student retention.