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Shifting From Transactional to Relational Interactions With Learners

Students need to feel bonded with their institution, which is why it’s so important for higher ed to prioritize building meaningful relationships that last through graduation.

Students today want to find meaning and purpose in every decision they make. So, when they interact with their institution, they want to feel supported and listened to. Institutions must therefore take a transactional approach to student engagement and turn it into something more that makes the student feel like more than just a number. In this interview, Justin Smith and Troy Hargrove discuss their experience with a transactional approach, why it’s important for relationship building and how to better engage with learners to keep them.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do you define the concept of transactional interactions with learners, and why is it important to move away from this approach in higher ed?

Justin Smith (JS): We believe that a transactional approach is not taking the next step or asking why when a student makes a request. For example, if a student asked to drop a class, we would either do it for them or we’d send them the steps to do it themselves. In the past, we were timely with helping our students and getting their questions answered immediately. 

We realized that sending the drop link immediately was negatively impacting our retention rates, so we decided to be intentional about asking more questions to build a better relationship with students. 

Diving deeper into students’ requests by asking additional questions helped us learn more about their motivations, so we could be more helpful. Making this change allowed us to work with students’ schedules to make them more manageable, which also increased engagement and retention.

Evo: What are some of the qualities of meaningful learner engagement?

JS: Listening, acknowledging, exploring, and responding are key qualities of engagement. When a student reaches out with an obstacle, it’s easy to try to immediately fix the problem. For example, if a student is taking a statistics course and having difficulties, we could send them to the student success center or offer tutoring courses. However, this response adds additional items to students’ responsibilities.

Instead, we want to listen to the student’s request and acknowledge what they’re telling us. We explore more until we feel confident in a response. Going back to that statistics example, if we use those four qualities I mentioned, we may find that it’s not the statistics class that is the issue but the timing of the class. For example, our fall 2 term runs from October to December and includes multiple holidays and events. Not only does the student need to navigate a tougher class but also the many outside events that happen during this period. We can then work with the student to offer courses that may not be as demanding, like a general elective they may enjoy at that point in time.

Troy Hargrove (TH): It comes down to the relationships we’re building with students. Adult learners have busy lives and competing priorities, so it takes time to build those relationships. For meaningful engagement to occur, relationship building starts the moment a student inquires about one of our programs.

We have specialists building those relationships, and they’re excited for the students to move through that process. We have a very intentional handoff from admissions specialists to academic coaches because we don’t want to lose the foundation of trust between the student and the institution through our specialists and coaches.

Evo: What are some of the challenges to providing that?

JS: One of the biggest challenges for building those relationships is that the School for Professional Studies is online, so our students are all over the country and world. Building relationships with students can be difficult over Zoom. In our first meeting, we have the student turn on their camera, so we can see each other while walking through their academic plans and handbook.

Often after that first meeting, we don’t see a student again until they walk the stage at graduation. We work with them over the next two or four years, but that’s typically through email or phone call.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome these obstacles, and how is SLU able to have a strong level of engagement with these students?

JS: We’re very strategic about what we put in place. We have a 30-day outreach strategy with targeted times during the student’s first term when we’re reaching out and connecting with them. We reach out to them on the first day of class, after the first week, day 19 and day 30.

We also run two reports in this process: zero activity reports and grade issue reports. The zero activity report shows us students who have never logged in before. We run those on days three, five, eight, then every Monday of the term after that. We want to make sure that list gets smaller as the days go by, so we connect with students to make sure everything is okay.

Evo: What impact do these meaningful engagements have on that learner experience and the institution as a whole?

The SLU tagline is: “higher purpose, greater good.” Our transition from that transactional interaction to a more proactive approach allows us to put the student first and their success at the forefront. That change not only helps the student but embodies our mission as a university as well.


TH: Many nontraditional students never imagined themselves obtaining an academic credential, let alone a credential from Saint Louis University. It is important that our meaningful engagements support making education accessible. While faculty can offer support in the classroom, it is equally important that students receive support outside the classroom from academic coaches in a wraparound student support model. From there, they become a team, and the meaningful engagements transform into encouragement and excitement that benefit both the institution and the student.