Take a journey (map) in your student’s shoes

Get out the post-its, flip charts and markers to improve the student experience

Back when you were starting college, what was the toughest part of the process between applying and enrolling?

That’s not just a fun icebreaker for cocktail parties (or your next conference meet ‘n’ greet). When Erin Swenson, a success coach at InsideTrack, asks it at the start of a Student Journey Mapping session, your answer could be the first step to improving student outcomes.

“It helps everyone put themselves in the student’s shoes,” she explained. 

And walking a mile — or at least the steps between acceptance and enrollment — in those shoes can help you spot challenges and barriers to success much more quickly than analyzing student records ever could.

When the student journey goes off-course

According to Kate Reilly, an operations manager at InsideTrack, “putting yourself in the shoes of the student can be putting yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t understand the policy, is afraid, and may be looking for a reason why this isn’t going to work for them.”

Higher education leaders spend their lives immersed in the institutional culture. Acronyms and academic lingo are shorthand for the systems and structures meant to guide students toward their degree. The goal is student success; too often, the outcome is student confusion and distress.

Student Journey Mapping helps institutions pinpoint the exact stages or phases in the journey where students may go off-track. For instance, if summer melt continues to be a problem, mapping the prospective student journey could provide insight. If students who pass their first term courses never register for the second, something may need to be adjusted in the enrollment process.

Map your way out of organizational silos

For SUNY Onondaga Community College, student journey mapping provided the opportunity to enhance student engagement — by first providing faculty and student-facing staff the opportunity to engage with each other.

“Staff needed something to connect themselves and make better connections with the student,” explained Wendy Tarby, Onondaga Community College’s associate vice president for institutional planning, assessment and research. 

The college’s student journey mapping engagement with InsideTrack is part of a larger partnership designed to improve retention and enhance the student experience.

A major “a-ha” of their journey mapping process was realizing that if faculty and staff don’t know how different departments engage with students, students likely won’t know, either.

“Employees walked away by saying, ‘If we couldn’t walk ourselves through this process, how are our students supposed to walk through it?’ Especially given the make-up of our students — many are first-generation, or have been detached from the college lifestyle for a while,” said Russ Corbin, assistant director of grants and partnerships at Onondaga Community College. 

According to Reilly, building cross-functional awareness is one of the most valuable aspects of the student journey experience — but can also be unexpected.

“Typically the first reaction we get is, ‘No, we’ve never met together, no, we’ve never done this before,’” she said.

Feeling your way through

Once the introductions are made, then the real work begins. Whether with flip charts and markers or post-its on a whiteboard, the journey mapping process gets everyone to roll up their sleeves, interact, and illuminate a process most have only seen bits and pieces of before.

The process, Swenson explained, guides institutions in thinking through the steps students have to accomplish to reach a certain milestone, and the departments or functions in charge of those tasks.

But there’s a “more holistic” element too, she explained. “You’re not only identifying each step, you’re also looking at what the student is feeling, and what are the student’s challenges.”

Empathy for the student is the secret sauce to InsideTrack’s journey mapping approach.

InsideTrack’s student support methodology focuses on developing students’ knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors. When institutions partner with InsideTrack for journey mapping, they apply these same noncognitive abilities to each stage in the process.

“That’s when you really start to see people’s wheels turn,” said Reilly.

“You see rekindled acknowledgement that every interaction with a student is a teaching and learning moment. Really what we’re saying is, ‘everytime you interact with a student, you are teaching them how to interact with the school and with their own education.’”

In other words, you’re putting the student at the center of a process that can sometimes feel more driven by systems.

The map is just the first step

Prior to partnering with InsideTrack, Tarby said, “we had defaulted to a transactional environment. Our staff was used to checklists, and making sure that students were checking the boxes.” Although different aspects of the institution were engaging with students in their own way, “we didn’t have a universal, campus-wide connection.”

But now, she said, “we have started on an organizational change model.”

InsideTrack’s “guided hand,” Corbin said, “provided awareness in the group that there was a flaw in the way we were identifying with students, whether it was being too focused on the employee point-of-view, or not adapting to generational needs, or not understanding what was going on from the student perspective.”

The student journey mapping process helped identify specific changes that could be made, like adjusting the timing and wording of student-facing communications. Something as simple as figuring out “what to say and when,” as Tarby described it, can add up to a major shift in the campus culture.

“The college is going through a collective inward look in order to create a more student-focused environment,” Tarby said. “It’s an exciting time.”

Enhancing the student journey creates deeper engagement for staff, too. Read about the connection between student support and staff satisfaction here.

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