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Future-Focused: Laying the Groundwork for Student Success with an Effective Orientation

July 2, 2024

Dr. Kevin Tuohy and Robyn Hammontree

Butler University has long been recognized for its commitment to providing high-quality education and fostering the development of well-rounded professionals. The Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) program has been a cornerstone of the university’s academic offerings for decades. Through a continuous commitment to improvement, Butler has embraced innovative approaches to ensure its offerings remain relevant and accessible to a broader audience. One significant step in this direction has been adding an online sequence of the PharmD program, expanding its reach to students nationwide who seek the exceptional education Butler provides while living outside of the region or balancing other life commitments.

Adding an online platform presented unique challenges and opportunities, particularly in rethinking how to effectively orient new students to the program. Because orientation plays a critical role in setting the stage for student success, the school partnered with Noodle, a tech-enabled strategy and services partner for higher education, to revamp the orientation experience, ensuring it was comprehensive, engaging, and tailored to the specific needs of online learners.

The Importance of Orientation
How the Program Began and What Was Learned
Making Changes and Seeing the Outcomes
Broader Applications: Going Beyond Orientation
WEBINAR: Learn More From the Source

The Importance of Orientation

Orientation marks a pivotal phase in a student’s academic journey, serving as the gateway through which they navigate the complexities of academic life, acclimate to their new environment, and forge connections crucial for personal and academic growth. A well-designed onboarding process is vital, laying the groundwork for academic success by providing students the necessary tools, resources, and support to thrive from the start. 

But effective onboarding is not solvable with a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, it requires a tailored strategy to accommodate diverse student demographics, recognizing that each individual brings unique needs and preferences to their educational experience. Interactive orientation modules cater to these varied demographics by providing personalized guidance and information relevant to each student’s academic journey. Through engaging multimedia content and interactive exercises, students gain a comprehensive understanding of their educational environment and the resources available to them.

A seamless integration of orientation with academic advisors and support staff ensures that students can access personalized assistance when they need it most. On-demand access to resources like online libraries, research databases, support services, and tutoring further facilitates students’ success by providing the necessary tools to achieve their goals.

How the Program Began and What Was Learned

Initially, the standard orientation structure for Butler’s PharmD program seemed comprehensive. Elements included an overview of the university and school, a detailed program overview, an introduction to experiential learning, a guide to course technology, an introduction to co-curricular engagement, a mix of live and virtual events including live orientation, basic student services, and success tips, and a checklist of important forms to complete. Despite this thorough structure, students still faced significant challenges.

Many struggled with the use of Canvas and other course technologies, leading to faculty being inundated with questions about these tools and managing course expectations. Time management was another major issue, with students finding it difficult to balance their schedules effectively. Engagement in discussions and live sessions was also lacking, indicating a need for better strategies to foster participation and interaction.

Addressing these issues required significant collaboration. Dr. Kevin Tuohy, Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Assistant Director, and Noodle’s Robyn Hammontree maintained open communication by hosting meetings where faculty could bring up questions, concerns, and successes. Throughout the nearly two-year build process, they held weekly meetings to identify issues and course-correct as necessary.

Making Changes and Seeing the Outcomes

To improve the orientation experience for Butler’s PharmD students, several key changes were implemented. In the area of navigating technology, a section on preparing for live classes and utilizing Zoom to its full potential was added. This included tips for live class sessions and comprehensive guidelines for navigating Canvas. In addition, support for the courses was enhanced, with a Primer course being developed to introduce all courses, which is set to launch in Summer 2024.

In the realm of student services and success tips, additional support for time management was provided. Netiquette sections were included for live sessions, discussions, and community-building activities. A section on reframing mindsets about online courses was added, emphasizing the rigor of the program, its self-directed nature, and the support available from faculty. A Next Steps section was also included, providing information about the two-day live online orientation.

Immediate feedback was incorporated into the orientation process so students could make necessary adjustments before beginning the program. A Student Readiness Assessment was introduced to ensure that students had absorbed the information presented in the orientation. To encourage engagement, additional peer-to-peer interaction was fostered through sections like “Share Your Strategies for Success,” allowing students to engage with peers and faculty early on.

These changes led to several positive outcomes. Faculty reported fewer questions from students about Canvas and course technology. There was greater and deeper preparation and participation in live sessions, and better peer-to-peer relationships were established from the start, fostering camaraderie and community. Overall, there was a higher level of student engagement and success earlier in the program.

Broader Applications: Going Beyond Orientation

The importance of personalizing orientation content and updating it as student needs evolve really can’t be overstated. To implement similar improvements in your own orientations, it’s essential to first identify where students are struggling and determine the potential causes. This can be done through formal course evaluations, listening sessions with students and faculty, and close contact with your student support team. Providing support early, ideally during orientation, is crucial. 

It’s also important to consider all available resources when choosing partners for these projects to develop the best possible process for your individual scenario. There is an unfortunate tendency for support and service team work to be siloed, but it’s absolutely essential to student success for program leadership, student support, learning designers, and faculty to be aligned and communicative in order to identify and fix issues. We recommend regular meetings among these groups, as well as a standard status report deployed to all stakeholders, to ensure swift solutions are found.

Once you’ve gathered feedback, it’s important to work with faculty and learning designers to determine why certain issues have arisen. Ask yourself where students are struggling in your online program or course, how you are currently orienting students to the online space, and whether there are ways to better prepare students for success. Partnering with people or teams that can help explore creative solutions can help avoid tunnel vision. Establishing an ongoing evaluation process for your orientation that allows for continuous improvement is key to ensuring its effectiveness.

Ensuring you have this thorough evaluation and revision process for your online courses has applications beyond orientation: it can also be applied to the revision of existing courses and programs. Too often, we don’t devote enough time or resources to ensure online courses are responsive to rapidly evolving student needs. Implementing a review and revision cycle, not just for your online orientation, but for all your courses, can make a huge difference in student success and satisfaction. 

WEBINAR: Learn More From the Source

To delve deeper into these strategies and see the full transformation of Butler’s PharmD orientation, attend our Tuesday, August 6 webinar with Dr. Kevin Tuohy and Robyn Hammontree, the experts behind this project. Whether you’re looking to refine your own orientation programs or simply curious about the process Butler followed, this webinar will offer valuable insights and practical tips.

Register today to explore with us how to create future-focused, effective orientations that cater to the diverse needs of tomorrow’s online learners.

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