Why Won’t Students Listen?

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3I had a presentation recently in front of a slew of prospective students. They had a variety of questions ranging from “how will my AP credit count” to “what’s the difference between a co-op and an internship?” To be honest, those questions were from the parents. The students were in varied states of sleeping or looking at the floor.

Was the presentation that bad? Are you just so disinterested that you can’t manage to pay attention to a 45-minute long presentation? Wait, is this my fault? Should we change the presentation? Should we have known that students in a group have a limited attention span? Should I have been more engaging in my response to their questions? It’s almost as if they didn’t care about the research opportunities in robotics that we offer!?!

It’s unfortunate that the easiest means of communication are often the least effective. It’s fairly easy to plop down some information in an e-mail or in a presentation and put it out there. But it can be exhausting to pay attention for long periods of time; or short periods of time if the information is boring or repetitive. Raise your hand if you’ve ever ignored the flight safety speech right before takeoff. Bonus points if you held your book or newspaper up as though to say “No. I’m not listening. I’m much more interested in this crossword puzzle.” It’s not that the information is unimportant, it’s that we don’t think we’ll need it.

Think about all of the advice our students get. US News and World Report conveniently ranks institutions and gives median test scores — the students don’t even have to work to find their reaches and their safety schools! Their parents, afraid their student might move back in, are nudging them toward certain job-oriented majors.

Then students get to campus for orientation and we shout at them:


SPEND 30-45 HOURS PER WEEK STUDYING! (more than they spent on any single activity in high school)


Our students don’t need more information. They don’t need automated e-mails with lists of the things they should be thinking about. They need the right information at the right time and they need help processing that information. This is where we come in. Students need help unpacking all of the information sent their way. They need support connecting what we have to offer with what’s right for them.

The support they need is not simple, it’s not easy, and it sure isn’t efficient. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I’m hinting at mentorship; someone who knows a student and can help them craft their college experience. Through these relationships, students build trust with an individual who knows them. Someone who’s not disappointed when they’re not the student body president or not getting straight A’s.

Most of our offices are not set up for mentorship. We have many students to serve and not much time for each one individually. I think the first step toward these relationships is to personalize an interaction whenever possible. Refer to something they said in an e-mail. Use their name frequently in the conversation. Find ways to communicate that they’re not just one of many students you work with. The more students feel like we know them, the more likely they are hear the things we want them to hear.