Whether you work in an educational institute (such as a college or university) or an organisation that supports students in other ways (such as accommodation providers), it’s important to know how to communicate with your students. They frequently deal with issues including struggles applying for a course or difficulties getting support, and as a result the assistance you offer needs to be suited to them.
I’ve spent years helping students, from the typical questions (“What grades do I need for this course?”) to the atypical (“What colour will the carpet be in my student flat?”). Regardless of the question, you need to approach it with kindness and professionalism. Here’s a few things you should be doing, and a few things you need to avoid.
This article mainly covers social media, but it’s useful for a range of educational staff members.
Be empathetic and human
There are loads of times during a student’s education where they’ll be stressed, such as preparing for university or waiting for exam results. It’s likely they’ll come to you with several questions, and it’s unsurprising that they’ll sometimes feel frustrated or ignored. It can be difficult when someone is lashing out at you, but often it stems from the difficulties they’re facing or their drive to succeed.
As a communicator, you should make students feel at ease. Show them you genuinely want to help and put the work into resolving their issues. You may be powerless to enact change, however you can still listen to them and offer a shoulder to cry on. Regardless, students will be glad to be listened to.
Above all, make sure your communications with students aren’t simply corporate responses. Stock answers and empty words won’t fly. The key is to respond in a way which clearly recognises the issue that specific individual faces, because even if a hundred students are facing the same problem, they’ll process it in different ways.
Be direct and to the point
Why do students follow education providers on social media? The main reason is usually to stay on top of current events; fun content such as pretty campus photos are a bonus. Students don’t want to wade through loads of text to get to the point, especially if the information hasn’t been shared elsewhere.
When you’re creating informative content or responding to messages, make sure your first sentence sums up the information as much as possible. For example, if you’re informing someone of how to apply for a scholarship, try “Applications for scholarships are now open and can be completed at [WEBSITE]”. Anything after that should be supplementary information, such as the deadline or who to contact for more information.
Your information also needs to be straightforward due to the size and complexity of educational institutions. It’s not always easy for students to find the information they need, for example if your institution’s website isn’t up to scratch or if a specific service could fall under multiple teams. Make sure your information doesn’t cause any further confusion and make it clear exactly who they can talk to for more information.
Keep them regularly updated
As a communicator, one of the worst things you can do is leave your audience without information for long periods of time. Not only does this break the trust they have in you, it gives them the impression you don’t have anything to share. It’s important that you provide information as regularly as possible because trust is hard to regain.
Covid-19 is a great example of where a constant stream of valuable information is necessary. Students have loads of questions about how it’ll affect their education. What will halls of residence look like in September? Is there a chance teaching could be online-only? How are contact hours with tutors affected? They may seem angry and frustrated, but students are mostly scared about how this will affect their future.
The key is to provide timely information that’s vital, to-the-point and practical. Avoid padding out your communications with buzzwords and empty platitudes – after all, students can tell when you’re being sincere and human, and they can tell when your words are hollow. Even if your information is just “we’re planning to do this, but it might change depending on future events”, you’re giving them something to work with.
Give them the information they want (within reason)
Social media is not simply a platform to put messages out. It’s a way to listen to the issues your audience is facing and understand what they want. Social media is a two-way street, so to only create content and ignore feedback and requests is not good enough.
It’s not always possible to share everything – for example, some information is confidential – but you should be as helpful as possible with both your content and your responses to enquiries. It may mean linking them to a web page, sending over images/screenshots or just writing out a bunch of information, but students will appreciate you taking the time to help them out.
What you should avoid doing is only responding with an email address or phone number. Students often must jump through many hoops to get the support they need, so the last thing they want is to be bounced from person to person. The only times you should ask them to call or email someone is if the information is confidential or if it’s regarding a service that cannot be processed over social media.
Giving them a direct answer also means they can share it with other students – never underestimate how quickly information spreads between them.
Go overboard with internet slang or try to be "cool"
Let’s get this straight: no matter how you frame things, you’re still an institution offering a service. While it’s great to be friendly with your audience, and while you absolutely should be human, you’re in a different position of power to your students. As a result, trying to be on “their level” can come across as patronising. One of the biggest ways this happens is by using slang, especially internet slang.
You’ve likely seen the emergence of words such as “bae” and “on fleek”, and as they entered the mainstream brands decided to use them too. Audiences tend to react poorly to this, as they see it as a desperate attempt for brands to seem “cool”. Furthermore, most businesses do not have the credibility to pull these off effectively, and the desperate attempt to seem cool becomes even more apparent.
It should also be highlighted that many examples of internet slang originate from African-American Vernacular English (or AAVE) and the appropriation of such language (including the erasure of its roots) has become controversial. It found its way across the internet, became ingrained into the queer community, and is frequently used by white people to seem hip and trendy. Despite this its origins are often ignored, and by using it as part of their corporate tone many businesses make these phrases lose meaning. It’s best to develop your own style that’s authentic to your company instead of using words which are portrayed as “trendy”.
Use complicated or corporate language
On the flipside, your language can’t be too stilted or formal (especially if you’re a business targeting members of the public). One of the biggest barriers businesses face when communicating is making their content accessible and easy to understand.
If your language is too complicated, your audience won’t understand it. Remember that your audience may not know the same terminology and references, so you should instead use plain English. With students, that means avoiding internal phrasing and acronyms, or at least explaining what they mean. You should also consider who you’re talking to – a third year will understand what dissertations and referencing are, but a prospective student won’t.
One criticism of this idea is that people are “dumbing themselves down” by not using academic terms or specific terminology. It argues that communicators treat their audience as if they’re idiots, but that’s not the case. You’re simply making the information easier to understand, eliminating extra follow-up questions and helping (even in a small way) to make education more accessible and less scary for people.
Copy and paste responses
As discussed earlier, a hundred students could deal with the same issue in different ways. Their unique situation could relate to many factors including their course, their living situation, their year of study or their financial status. Each issue must be approached differently, and most importantly each person must be supported with empathy and care. This is why copy/paste responses won’t fly.
Another reason copy/paste replies don’t work is because it’s easy to tell when this is happening, especially when it’s public. When multiple students receive the same response about a significant issue, they’ll share it amongst themselves and call you out for it. Copy and pasting also makes it more likely to overlook a detail that your response doesn’t cover. If you’re at a point where you can’t deal with the amount of individual responses, you may wish to put out a statement on social media or on your website. It can be difficult to not copy/paste when you're overwhelmed with messages, especially if you're a small team, so this needs to be taken into account.
Students want to know they’re speaking to a human who listens and helps. Copy/paste responses don’t make them feel like an individual, and as a result they feel the institution isn’t listening to them. The word “human” has been used a lot in this article, but it’s probably one of the most important aspects of your communications. Don’t view students as numbers or statistics; view them as people with individual needs and desires, who genuinely want to learn and just want their institution to support them.