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Nurturing Success in Higher Education: A Deep Dive Into Virtual Study Halls


Enrollment and retention are critical in today’s higher education landscape. But to achieve those things, institutions must foster community and a sense of belonging among their students.

In the fast-evolving higher education landscape, institutions are continually seeking innovative strategies to address the multifaceted challenges today’s college students face. Among these challenges are rising tuition costs, increasing student debt, academic hurdles and growing concerns about mental and physical well-being. At the School of Education in Western Governors University’s (WGU) School of Education, we have established a virtual study hall initiative for our students, which has become a transformative experience based on three key themes:

Understanding the Realities of College Students’ Needs Today

The higher education landscape is marked with challenges that can potentially lead students to leave without completing their degrees. Rising tuition costs, burgeoning student debt, academic struggles and concerns related to mental and physical health contribute to the complex web of factors influencing student attrition. The Lumina Foundation’s “State of Higher Education 2023 Report” speaks to this concern: “Currently enrolled students are finding it just as difficult to remain enrolled in their programs as they did the year before. But now, more students—Black, Hispanic, and male students in particular—are considering stopping out of their coursework. Emotional stress and mental health are the top reasons they are considering pausing their studies, but cost and inflation are also weighing on their minds.” Addressing these challenges requires a concrete and measurable strategy, informed by best practices that directly tackle the root causes of student attrition.

According to a report by Hanover Research, understanding the indicators of attrition is crucial for institutions to implement internal initiatives and develop targeted programs. Identifying students most at risk of attrition allows universities to take the steps to create an environment that supports success for all students, with specific strategies in place to help keep them on track.

The School of Education study hall initiative has demonstrated its effectiveness in addressing these challenges by providing a virtual space for students to engage with their peers, fostering a greater sense of community and belonging. The college’s preliminary analysis of matched pairs, comparing WGU School of Education learners who attended 3+ optional study hall sessions with like students who attended 0 sessions, indicated greater retention for Study Hall attendees. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses surrounding the study hall suggest the ability to positively impact student retention, progression, and satisfaction. Through this type of initiative, higher education institutions can create an environment that supports academic success for all students, irrespective of background or circumstances.

Implementing the Study Hall to Support the Whole Student

Entering college and navigating the intricacies of academic life can prove challenging for many students. Two fundamental questions often loom large in their minds: Do I belong here? Can I do it? The answers to these questions, influenced by environmental and interpersonal cues, play a pivotal role in determining how students face challenges and whether they seek support.

For students hailing from structurally disadvantaged or numerically underrepresented groups, the matter of belonging holds particular importance. The study hall initiative acknowledges the necessity of addressing these concerns by establishing a supportive environment that promotes goal setting, nurtures a sense of community and guarantees readily available academic support. In doing so, it contributes positively to both retention rates and academic achievement.

The research underscores the critical role that perceived belonging plays in student success. When students question their place in college, any struggle with course material or difficulty navigating college systems can be interpreted as signs that they don’t belong or can’t succeed. The study hall initiative actively works to counteract this reality by providing a space for students to meet with others, virtually reinforcing their sense of belonging and connectedness to their peers. A student shared about her experience with study hall, “As a WGU student, study hall provides a place for me to find motivation and inspiration in the students who show up day in and day out. I find it comforting to know that all students deal with some of the same things I face every day. It gives me a sense of community because I feel like I am not on this educational journey alone.”

Students most commonly engage in the School of Education study hall by joining the venue and silently reading their course content, preparing their task submissions or studying for their objective exams. Attendees will also join on camera, share their goals, report on their progress before departing for accountability purposes, share their wins to inspire other attendees or socialize informally. Another student shared, “Schoolwork can feel overwhelming sometimes. It can feel lonely when you know that your family is just in the other room. Study hall has helped me see that I am not alone. It has given me lots of study partners. Even though we don’t talk to each other, it is good to know they are there. I also love that you write in the chat a goal for the night. I am just competitive enough that I have to meet my goal. It is extremely motivating. It’s been a game changer for me.”

Establishing Virtual Study Halls Through a Pragmatic Approach

One key takeaway from the School of Education study hall initiative is the ease with which virtual study hall spaces can be established within other higher education institutions. Waiting for the perfect time or the perfect software is unnecessary; the time to start is now, using the resources already available. This WGU study hall was first offered on a small scale in October 2021 and has gradually expanded. It was set up with the existing virtual training space of Webex and the participation of existing faculty to get it launched. It is now available to students 7 days a week with more than 90 weekly hours of availability. Through December 2023, more than 28,000 study hall attendees completed the provided attendance form to report their study hall participation, representing more than 4,700 unique students attending once or more since inception. The study hall initiative emphasizes the importance of starting small, learning from the experience and gradually expanding the program to benefit all students.

In essence, virtual study hall provides a structured, supportive and productive environment for students. It fosters a sense of community, encourages goal setting and ensures academic support is just a request away. These positive outcomes make it a valuable resource in our students’ educational journey. 

Built upon research-supported principles of belonging, community and accessibility, the study hall initiative offers a guiding framework for higher education institutions seeking to elevate student engagement and retention. Moreover, the emphasis on the pragmatic establishment of virtual study halls underscores this transformative initiative’s adaptability and accessibility. As we continue to explore innovative strategies to support students in their educational journey, the School of Education study hall initiative stands as a testament to the positive impact that intentional, community-building initiatives can have on the success of today’s college students.