Site icon ABC West

Maximizing Communication Methods to Promote Student Development and Success

Mollie Hartup, Youngstown State University

Amy Cossentino, Youngstown State University

It’s a typical Tuesday morning for Angela, a college junior with a full schedule of classes and an internship at a local television station. When she wakes up, she will get ready for six hours of classes followed by an eight-hour shift at the station, helping to produce the 11:00 p.m. news. As the 6:00 a.m. alarm sounds on her phone, she hits snooze and catches a glimpse of the notifications that have filled her screen overnight. Instead of resting for a precious few extra minutes, she picks up her phone and starts swiping through 20+ notifications that have popped up since she went to bed only six hours earlier. She knows the messages are new, because like every other night the last thing she did before going to sleep was check her phone for anything pressing before retiring. Emails, text messages, Blackboard messages, tweets, and breaking news alerts fill her thoughts as she quickly triages the notifications. Multiple messages from many sources are the last thing she sees at night and the first thing she sees in the morning. Is it any wonder college students are overwhelmed by constant communication?

Messages come from personal and professional contacts and unsolicited sources. It’s so easy to send a message any time, and now services allow emails to be crafted and scheduled for future, strategic times of day or night. This ease of around-the-clock messaging can lead to email overload and reduced opportunities to make connections face-to-face (FtF). This is especially so for college students who are exposed to messages from various campus entities, not to mention their own social media networks. Quick access to information and people has been touted as a benefit of email technology (Mano & Mesch, 2009). Yet perceptions of overload have emerged as a negative side effect to email technology for some users. McMurty (2014) defines email overload as “the feeling of being overwhelmed by the constant flow of messages appearing in the inbox and the inability to manage the high volume of messages effectively” (p. 31). There is no end in sight with the number of emails sent worldwide predicted to grow by more than 4% each year through 2022 (The Radicati Group, 2018). 

The challenge for university administrators and faculty is to find a balanced communications approach that both disperses information and enhances deeper, more meaningful, and long-term connections with students. The proposed two-pronged approach to communication leverages the best affordances of FtF and electronic communication. We explore how one honors college personally connects with students in the first year and maintains consistent virtual contact throughout the college career.

Current research shows mixed communication preferences among college students. While our students indicate that they commonly use technology to communicate, a study of first-year students elsewhere suggests a preference for FtF communication in ten communication scenarios studied (Morreale, Staley, Stavrositu, & Krakowiak, 2015). That same study finds students’ attitudes toward social media are generally positive, but their attitudes toward FtF are more positive. So how do we best communicate with students who may already be overwhelmed by technology when it is impractical to always connect face to face? Professionals must balance the need to communicate efficiently with large numbers of students in a timely manner with the desire to connect meaningfully and build relationships with students.

The college under study has embraced a two-pronged approach to communication that supports its mission statement of “placing students at our center” to enhance student development. In short, the first prong involves creating opportunities for personal connection in the first year. Face to face communication occurs regularly in the required Intro to Honors seminar and at the first-year honors student retreat. The second prong, which involves consistent electronic communication from the college, begins in the first year and continues throughout a student’s time in honors.  

The college operationalizes its mission through its brand of “Opportunity. Community. Family.” Making a personal connection and welcoming students into a familial atmosphere is a critical part of that process. However, as the honors program transitioned to a college in 2014, the rapid growth in enrollment that followed required a more intentional approach to maintaining the close connection and sense of community among students. In a matter of four years, honors grew 262%. The size of incoming classes is now equivalent to total honors population from four years ago. This surge of students occurred without any increases in professional staff, which required the college to rethink its communication strategy. Exploring how to utilize various communication methods to best connect with students while leveraging limited staff resources was necessary.

While the college values personal contact as a way to build community, face-to-face communication could not be scaled to individually connect with the increased number of students in the college without a proportional increase in staff. However, relying heavily or exclusively on email communication would be too impersonal for a college that derives identity in part from commitment to building community and fostering a familial atmosphere.

To help the honors college find the right balance between personal and electronic communication, a series of exploratory studies were conducted. Collectively, the four inquiries that are described as follows support the two-pronged communication approach that could be replicated by other colleges and organizations.


Establishing FtF connections in the first year of college is the initial part of our two-pronged communication strategy. Intro to Honors, the first-year seminar for incoming honors students, is the foundational course that orients students to the college’s expectations and opportunities. Data shown in table 1 shows higher freshman-to-sophomore university retention rates among students who took Intro to Honors compared with those who did not take the course.

In order to advance connections with incoming students, the college decided to increase FtF interactions within the seminar. Part of the Intro to Honors curriculum aims to raise student awareness of campus resources. In order to achieve awareness in a more meaningful way, several campus partners from career services, study abroad, and communication instruction delivered an in-person presentation about their areas to ten separate sections of Intro to Honors students.

Since the FtF presentations required an investment of time, we conducted a focus group with four of the campus presenters to collect feedback on the experience. Though this is a small sample size (n=4), results supported offering the presentations face-to-face. Three of the four presenters felt the time was worthwhile; one (quoted below) assigned greater importance to student awareness of the contact person than an advance interpersonal connection with the individual—

“I don’t think that the personal piece is as influential as consistency of delivery. So I think when a student understands that there is a point of contact and then sees that point of contact represented at multiple points throughout their university career, I think that that’s what’s going to encourage the follow through.”

Another presenter felt the personal connection did make a difference—

“I do think the personal connection helps, a lot of people are just intimidated by the concept, so when they see me, hopefully mothering, nurturing looking, we’ll take good care of you, and then they see a peer who has done it successfully, they’re like ‘oh yeah, I can do this, you know,’ so I think that does help. I think the in-person opportunity is good because a lot of your students do study abroad in general, many of the students who study abroad are honors.”

The main themes (shown in Table 2) that emerged from the focus group centered on the message itself, technology use, and the personal component. Presenters agreed on the importance of choosing a delivery method for messaging with intentionality. Technology was the only main theme that emerged with inherently positive and negative subthemes, though the presenters viewed technology as largely positive.

Convening campus partners to discuss the topic also led to ideas for course improvement.


We asked students enrolled in Intro to Honors 2017-18 to answer a 19-question survey about communication preferences. Fifty-five of the students enrolled in fall 2017 sections of the course and 47 of the students enrolled in spring 2018 sections responded (approximately 28% of the course enrollment). Results suggest making an initial in-person connection enhances some students’ comfort level in seeking future services from a campus partner. When asked about comfort level when having met someone prior to service utilization, more than 30% of students indicated greater comfort, 50% indicated comfort either way, and 10% reported discomfort not meeting in advance. Furthermore, when asked if learning about departmental offerings directly from a staff member made utilization of the service in the future easier, 89 students indicated yes; 11 indicated no. Most students surveyed indicated both their primary and preferred form of communication is email, followed by FtF. Reasons students gave for preferring email included convenience, ease, works for conflicting schedules, anxiety/shyness, and record-keeping. Reasons students gave for preferring FtF interactions included: urgent situations, easier to gather complete information, condenses time to collect, and advisement situations.


The freshman retreat offers an additional opportunity for first-year honors students to practice and hone FtF communication skills. The event, which occurs annually at the start of spring semester, allows students to engage with the college, make FtF connections within the honors community, and grow personally and professionally with a focus on leadership, team building, and citizenry. Given the size of the college, students have not yet been able to meet everyone in their class of 300+ members after only one semester on campus. Data from a post-retreat survey shows that 80% of the students who responded placed some value on the opportunity to connect FtF with fellow classmates.

While opportunities for FtF communication exist throughout the entire college experience, data from these three separate studies suggests support for these specific first year approaches.


Though the first three studies explored assign importance to FtF communication, limitations exist. Mass communication is necessary for dispensing information frequently and efficiently. We propose consistent mediated communication as the second crucial piece in this two-part communication strategy.

The honors college has produced the PHil newsletter in some form for more than 25 years; however, PHil’s transformation to a comprehensive weekly digest of all things honors occurred in the last two years. PHil is a graphic-intensive e-newsletter designed in MailChimp by honors college student staff and delivered to all honors college members every Sunday at 5:00 pm. PHil has become an important piece of communication that students expect to receive at the scheduled time. They rely on PHil for information on course offerings, volunteer opportunities, engagement activities, and other announcements. When PHil was delayed one week due to a holiday last year, students noticed and inquired.

Consistent delivery has made PHil an effective tool to help students with their information needs and seeking behaviors. PHil’s recent transformation came as a result of students complaining about being bombarded with honors-related emails. The revamped newsletter has led to a consolidation of messages and reduction in the number of emails the college sends to students. Students now know to search for the most recent PHil to find current information. Section headings aid in information retrieval.

Data from freshmen shows that they value PHil. During the pre-retreat survey, students were asked to rate the importance of PHil to help them stay connected (see Table 4). Nearly 90% of students surveyed indicated that PHil was at least somewhat important to them. Only 8.9% of students were neutral, while less than 1% (2 people) viewed PHil as not important, and less than 1% (2 people) indicated they do not read PHil.

Meanwhile, PHil serves as a natural marketing tool for student recruitment. As a comprehensive communication piece, PHil is a central showcase of everything happening in honors. Each week, the newsletter is emailed to honors students and faculty, posted on the college website, and shared through social media. Placing the newsletter in public channels expands the audience to include prospective students and their parents who can use PHil to imagine a typical week in honors. While reading a newsletter is not the same experience as visiting the college personally, PHil offers a digital snapshot.


This two-pronged communication strategy that begins with establishing FtF communication in the freshman year allows the college to make connections with students early and build a sense of community while outlining the opportunities the honors college experience can provide. Maintaining this relationship through regular electronic communication allows for consistent weekly connection that students now expect.

Data shows our students appreciate opportunities to connect FtF. Students also overwhelmingly value the weekly PHil as a tool to keep them informed about honors. Together, findings support a dual approach of communicating with students.

During the focus group portion of this study, we experienced the richness that is possible from FtF communication. The interpersonal nature of the experience allowed conversation to expand to additional topics, including the Intro to Honors curriculum as a whole. Upon discovering that university first-year experience courses had added a similar communication module, it was decided to revise the honors curriculum to eliminate the duplication.


​Communication cuts across every industry and is at the core of workplace efficiency and effectiveness. While our study is within higher education, college students will one day enter and be part of the workforce. Understanding communication preferences and pitfalls given current available methods can aid organizations in the development of best practices that will resonate with professional audiences.

Current research suggests different skills are required for FtF versus electronic communication (Schulze, Schultze, West, & Krumm, 2017). Findings indicate that our students generally prefer email for communication. Consideration needs to be given to create additional opportunities for students to practice FtF interaction to reduce anxiety and shyness. While the data from this study indicates 30% of the students will utilize a service from a campus partner when they have had personal contact, the survey results suggest a resistance to FtF communication, even when students recognize its benefits. Literature also indicates email has been used as an alternative channel for those wishing to avoid face-to-face communication, even when a synchronous method might be more efficient (Chase & Clegg, 2011). Since FtF communication will continue to be a part of human interaction in the workplace and in life, providing FtF interaction opportunities remains important for development and success of today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce.


Chase, N. M., & Clegg, B. (2011). Effects of email utilization on higher education professionals. International Journal of Technology of Technology and Human Interaction, (4), 31 – 45.

Mano, R. S., & Mesch, G. S. (2010). E-mail characteristics, work performance and distress. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(1), 61–69.

McMurty, K. (2014). Managing email overload in the workplace. Performance Improvement, (7), 31-37.

Morreale, S., Staley, C., Stavrositu, C., & Krakowiak, M. (2015). First-Year college students’ attitudes toward communication technologies and their perceptions of communication competence in the 21st Century. Communication Education, 64(1), 107–131.

The Radicati Group, Inc. (2018). Email Statistics Report, 2018-2022. Retrieved February 19, 2019, from,_2018-2022_Executive_Summary.pdf

Schulze, J., Schultze, M., West, S. G., & Krumm, S. (2017). The knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics required for face-to-face versus computer-mediated communication: similar or distinct constructs? Journal of Business and Psychology, 32(3), 283–300.

Wajcman, J., & Rose, E. (2011). Constant connectivity: rethinking interruptions at work. Organization Studies32(7), 941–961.


Survey Questions (referenced in Study 2)

Q1.* What is your Banner ID#?

Q2. What day/time do you have Intro to Honors?

Q3. Select the class presentations that you were in attendance. (Check all that apply.)

Q4. Which presentations were of interest to you? (Check all that apply.)

Q5. Which services that were presented, if any, have you utilized? (Check all that apply.)

Q6. If you haven’t used any of the services yet, do you envision utilizing any of the services while you are a student at YSU?  If yes, check all that apply.

Q7. How would you compare utilizing a campus service with having met a staff member in advance to going to utilize the service without a prior connection? Which statement best describes you.

Q8. How would you describe your comfort level utilizing these services since meeting a staff member from the department?

Q9. If you have already used any of the services, please describe your experience?

Q10. If you were to tell a friend about the service, what would you say?

Q11. Is there a service on campus that you would like to learn more about and have a staff member from the department attend our class?

Q12. If you answered yes to question #11, please list the departments/services that are of interest to you.

Q13. Would learning about what a department offers from one of the department staff members face-to-face in Intro make it easier to utilize the resources in the future?

Q14. What is your primary form of communication with campus departments?

Q15. Please describe your reasons for your primary method of communication.

Q16. What is your preferred form of communication with campus departments?

Q17. If your primary form of communication differs from your preferred method of communication, please explain.

Q18. Select the statement that best describes you most of the time?

Q19. Select the statement that best describes you most of the time?

*Banner ID was used to ensure each student only completed the survey once.

Author Biographies

Mollie Hartup, MBA, is Instructor in the Honors College, Coordinator of Communications, and YSU Magazine editor at Youngstown State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication and Information with a focus on organizational communication at Kent State University. She has prior professional experience in television news and print journalism.

Amy Cossentino, PhD, is Dean, Honors College, Youngstown State University. She has nearly 30 years of experience in higher education and currently also teaches in the Honors College and the Beeghly College of Education at YSU.

Together, they have combined their interests and expertise in communication and education to develop a debriefing framework for schools and organizations to leverage shared experiences such as professional conferences. They are actively using and testing this framework in practice.

Exit mobile version