September 26, 2019

Experience Design Tool: Improving the Student Journey from Applicant to Alum

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

Colleges and universities are trying to better analyze, improve, and compete on student experience, but they face three big challenges: they lack a shared definition and understanding of what they mean by “student experience;” they lack a holistic approach that connects different departments, services, and technologies; and student experience is typically assessed (if at all) through separate student surveys with low response rates that aren’t readily acted upon.

No matter how good their assessments, institutions still need an alignment tool that helps them synthesize what they know, uncover what they don’t, identify the student experience pain points, and spark collaboration across departments to make things better for students. So, building on the success of other tools we’ve created and courses we’ve taught, we created the Student Experience Canvas to help institutions literally get on the same page.

Why are Colleges and Universities Focusing on the Student Journey?

Based on our work with over 80 institutions, we’ve observed that while the nuances may vary, institutions have three aspects in common when they commit to a focus on student experience. First, they aspire to be “student-centered” by considering things from the student point of view – the Gates Foundation has an initiative on “Student Centered Colleges” on this very topic. Second, institutions act on this student-centered approach to design more effective and efficient services, policies, processes, and systems for students to interact with; for instance, if a student has a registration problem that turns out to be bill payment problem that’s caused by a financial aid issue, should she have to go to three different places to resolve it? Third, institutions aspire to better utilize data to measure and improve the impact of these interactions in terms of key metrics like acceptance rate, engagement, retention, graduation, and alumni giving – to name a few.

A student’s experience is a kind of mosaic built from his or her physical and digital interactions with the range of offerings from the school. These include academic programs, technology systems for everything from paying a bill to taking a course, administrative services like registration and financial aid, academic services like advising and tutoring, facilities like dorms and classrooms, and students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community.

Journey Map, Portland State University

What is the Student Experience Canvas?

The Student Experience Canvas is a tool to understand and improve your students’ experience holistically across all the different touchpoints along their journey from applicant to alum. The Canvas can be completed by students themselves, faculty, and/or staff from academic affairs, student affairs, technology, facilities, assessment, and other areas. Working individually or in teams in a facilitated workshop, you imagine different types of students, evaluate students’ journeys made up of touchpoints over time, identify what’s working and what isn’t in the current experience, and then reflect on the journey to identify priorities and questions.

Example of Completed Student Experience Canvas

The Canvas enables colleges and universities to synthesize what’s known, reveal what’s unknown, and combine different departments and perspectives to spark collaboration by taking a design thinking approach to student experience. First, we employ a student-centered ethos so institutions can design student services not around their internal business process or the technical requirements of their technology but based on the students’ needs. Second, with a holistic sense of what’s working and what isn’t, institutions can make progress by prototyping new programs, services, spaces, and technology tools to address specific pain points (e.g., summer melt) and our specific segments (e.g., first-gen students).

Student Journey Mapping Workshop, Portland State University

Beyond the holistic, design thinking philosophy embedded in the Canvas, it also has four important design principles:

  1. Adopt Student-POV: Completing the Canvas can be done by students themselves or by college and university staff based on what they have heard from students directly during interviews, workshops, surveys, and other research as well as what they’ve learned about students through other assessment activities (e.g., data analytics on LMS usage).
  2. Segment Students: Institutions may get started by creating one general Canvas for their overall student experience, but should then segment their students into strategic categories. There is no single “student experience” but rather a mosaic of them; for instance, there might be specific pain points and bright spots for a first-gen STEM student compared to a returning adult learner shifting careers.
  3. Organize by Persona: For each student segment, you will complete a Canvas by summarizing a student persona, evaluating their current experience, and reflecting on the journey to identify priorities and questions. These personas can be from national studies or be specific to the institution.
  4. Evaluate the Student Journey: To evaluate the current experience, the Canvas considers two dimensions together: the touchpoints students interact with including academic programs, student services, technology, facilities, and community as well as the phases of the student journey over time. We think about these as six stages in progression: apply > adjust > approach > advance > attain > affiliate.

What’s in the Student Experience Canvas?

The Student Experience Canvas contains four sections: student persona, evaluating the student experience, vision and goals, and planning implementation.

Step 1. Personas: Each canvas you complete will correspond to a segment of your student population. While there is not one student experience (and Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk on spaghetti sauce is great background on this philosophy), we’ve found that sometimes doing a more general, overall student experience first is a great way to get oriented before moving into specific segments.

  • Institutions may have an existing set of personas, want to use an existing set that represents students nationally such as the Lumina Institute’s personas, or create new ones (this page in the Learning Space Toolkit we co-created with NC State is a good free resource).
  • Regardless, students, faculty, or staff can start by summarizing the motivations, behaviors, and expectations of their personas which correspond to different segments of their population, and then summarize the persona in a name that captures the essence of the persona, like “Career Shifter.” (hint: these typically contain a verb ending in -or or -er)
Example Persona, NYU LaGuardia Computing Space

Step 2. Evaluating the Student Journey: The Canvas evaluates the student journey along phases of time from applicant to alum as students interact with touchpoints including programs, services, technology, facilities, and communities.

A. Touchpoints: The Canvas asks college and university staff to consider what students interact with, and each moment of interaction is a “touchpoint” for a student, which can be a pain point or a bright spot in their experience. The touchpoints to consider are:

  • Academic Programs: Interactions, relationships, projects, and motivations related to degree and non-degree programs
    Student Services: Academic and admin support such as admissions, enrollment, finance, advising, library, and career
  • Technology: Technology hardware, software, and infrastructure for creating, communicating, and collaborating
  • Campus Facilities: Classrooms, dining, health, laboratory, library, residential, sports and study spaces
  • Community and Culture: Belonging, feeling supported, having a say, opportunities to lead, participating in groups/activities

B. Phases: An experience is made up of these student interactions over time. The phases of the student journey include the following:

  • Apply: Searching for, applying to, and deciding on a school
  • Adjust: Getting oriented to the school’s programs, people, and places
  • Approach: Early experiences to explore different topics & communities
  • Advance: Later experience to focus on progressing along a selected path
  • Attain: Transitioning to becoming part of the workforce
  • Affiliate: Staying connected to and affiliated with the school as an alum
Journey Map, Temple University Library

Step 3. Reflection: Once you’ve completed the evaluation of the student journey – qualitatively and quantitatively – it’s time to reflect and prioritize to identify the top three to five student pain points to address or “bright spots” to sustain and scale up. This reflection will also likely uncover gaps in your knowledge that you’ll need to fill by working with students and staff from other departments, by gathering new data, or by analyzing data you have in new ways.

brightspot Student Experience Snapshot

How Will You Move Ahead?

Once you have thought about your students, evaluated their experiences, prioritized their needs, and identified future questions, what should you do next? We recommend that you set your vision and goals, identify actions by department/group to hold staff accountable, and conduct prototyping and piloting of the proposed changes to create some quick wins that build momentum and refine your ideas.

Keep your eye out for a companion tool we’ll soon by launching – The Student Experience Roadmap – to prompt and organize these next steps. In the interim, we’ll explain these steps below.

Roadmapping Activity, Georgia Tech Library

Set your Vision and Goals: Look across the Canvases you’ve completed, and create your overall student experience vision and goals. (You will probably have somewhere between 6 to 10 refined Canvases to represent your different student segments.)

  • Your vision describes is your ideal future state (e.g., Bill Gates’s vision in the 90s: “A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.”). This will likely be common across personas.
  • Your goals are the major specific things you’ll need to do to make it happen. A great way to get this started is to write a bunch of “From ____ to _____ so that ____.” statements that you can shape into a set of goals.

Plan for Implementation: Once you’ve evaluated the current experience and then set vision and goals, it’s time to get into the implementation mindset and start thinking about how to sustain and scale up what’s working and address the pain points that aren’t.

  • Given that many student experience problems occur where greater coordination or integration is needed – the course registration problem that turns out to be a bill payment problem that turns out to be a financial aid problem – think about accountability within and across departments by identifying actions needed to address the priorities you identified.
  • To apply the design thinking mindset, you should prototype and pilot your ideas. So, identify some options and look for ways to test your ideas, reduce risk, and build momentum. Something as easy as a pop-up service point at a table in a building lobby can teach you a lot while demonstrating your commitment to meet students where they are.

Using the Student Experience Canvas, college and university staff can better understand, improve, and compete on the basis of their student experience. Completing a canvas will spark collaboration and coordination across departments and help create a shared definition and understanding of what they mean by “student experience” to promote a holistic approach that looks across the different parts of the institution that students interact with along their journey from applicant to alum.

Good luck as you move ahead!

We’d also love to hear from you about how you’re using the Canvas and what feedback you have on it – please drop us a line. We are always trying to improve our tools and help colleges and universities transform their student experience.

PS: If you’d like more of a “blank” Canvas approach where you can define your own rows and columns based on terminology your institution already uses, you can download that version here.