Designing Interactive & Engaging Family Orientation Programs

If you’re a Family Engagement professional, chances are you’ve spent your fair share of time sitting through classes, presentations, meetings, speakers, etc. Chances are also good that some of these experiences have been energizing learning opportunities, while some might have fallen flat…nap time, maybe?

Programs like Parent and Family Orientation are amazing opportunities to connect and engage with families. As Family Engagement professionals, we spend significant time building the orientation experience, with decisions ranging from what topics will be covered (and how) to what will be served for lunch … and much more. The (hopeful) end result of all that planning is a dynamic experience where families will be prepared for their student’s transition.

So, how do we build dynamic, energizing, and learning-filled family orientation programs? Here are five considerations for approaching programs and events to maximize learning and engagement, as well as a few examples of how we have approached them on our campus.

1. Think about physical space.

The environment that people are in can impact how they receive and retain information and how engaged they are in the presentation. In a study related to undergraduate student learning, students perceived lecture halls and auditoriums as passive spaces designed for them to just sit and listen (Hodges, 2018). Conversely, sitting in circles was perceived as conducive to discussions. What kind of space(s) can you use for your program? Other questions to ask yourself about physical space could include:

  • Are the seats comfortable?

  • Is the room temperature controlled?

  • Are there windows or natural light?

If you can, consider mixing up the spaces used during the day. A change in environment can refresh people and set the stage for a high level of engagement.  

2. Gamify the experience.

Including game-like elements or fostering competition can go a long way in keeping your audience engaged. This could include things like the opportunity to score points for participating, getting the top score on a quiz, winning a prize, or being entered into a raffle. Many web-based programs, including Kahoot or Menti, can be used to add gaming elements to your presentations.

3. Mix up your methodology.

Think beyond the “PowerPoint and lecture” combo and consider ways to incorporate additional elements or methodologies into how you present. Consider your presentation as a lesson plan and use various tools to accomplish your learning goals. Some different elements to include might be:

  • Small group discussions (for an added bonus, have a staff member or campus partner at each table)

  • Incorporate videos

  • Include an interactive worksheet that does with your presentation    

  • Add a reflection component and then ask for volunteers to share

  • Do polls at different points during the presentation

  • Use technology like Menti or Qualtrics to collect questions in real-time during the presentation

4. Adjust the length of time.

One of the most engaging conferences I have ever attended consisted of sessions that lasted 25 minutes or less and then gave a 5-10 break between them. This allowed attendees to learn the most important aspects of the session but not enough time to feel tired or bored with the topic. Consider switching up your time blocks for your sessions, and be sure to give adequate breaks for folks to refresh.

5. Use interactive or experiential components.

This might be my years of working in Residence Life talking, but I do love a good role-play training scenario. One of the most effective elements of our Family Orientation program has been a session called “Phone Calls from Home” (adapted from a similar program by our amazing colleagues at Emerson College). During the session our student Family Orientation leaders act out a one-sided phone call that they are making to their parents. These phone calls focus on different transitional topics, like homesickness or academic concerns. Once the students are finished, we open it up to the families in the audience to talk about how they would respond. As we process through the scenario, we also have a panel of professionals from various campus offices give tips, resources, and advice.

During this session families receive all the important information about campus resources, but they also get to experience how they would navigate a similar phone call from their student. This links resources to the action step of how they would use them in collaboration with their student. We use this session as the end cap to the Family Orientation experience.

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