How small groups can elevate your student engagement efforts in 2024

· by Ben Michalak

Are we witnessing a subtle, yet significant shift in the dynamics of campus engagement? In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, student union professionals have observed a striking trend: a surge in students’ preference for smaller group activities. Many have quickly pointed to the pandemic as the catalyst for this shift, a reasonable assumption given the era of social distancing and heightened health concerns. Yet, this explanation may only scratch the surface of a more complex transformation in student engagement. 

A 2019 study by North Carolina State University revealed that students often engaged in activities in small groups or alone, irrespective of the pandemic’s impact. The move to small-group activities reflects a deeper desire among today’s students for connections that are more personal and learning experiences that are more tailored to their individual needs. The shift also reflects Gen Z’s natural inclination toward more intimate and digitally-facilitated forms of socialization. 

Whatever the root cause, the shift has important implications for student unions, and it’s pushing student union professionals to rethink how they can best serve and support their student bodies. It presents an opportunity to discover new ways to use spaces and supplement traditional student engagement activities with options that cater to the growing demand for smaller, more interactive experiences. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore how small-group activities can enhance student engagement efforts and discuss practical ways to incorporate this approach into your student unions.

Workshops and Skill-Building Sessions

Student unions can offer enriching educational opportunities through shorter, focused sessions on various topics. These sessions, particularly effective in smaller group settings, allow for personalized learning environments where students benefit from individual attention and feedback. Collaborations with other campus offices can facilitate connections between students and campus professionals, covering a range of topics from leadership to career development and community outreach. 

In addition to professional and community development sessions, technology-based information sessions can help encourage student independence and increase engagement with your student union. Elective workshops on popular programs, like Adobe or Final Cut, can give students a chance to build valuable skills, while simultaneously providing access to high-cost subscriptions that might otherwise be out of reach. These types of courses can be helpful for entertainment technology too, like the use of Oculus headsets for students who haven’t used virtual reality before.

Enable and Empower Student Organization Spaces of All Sizes

Student unions serve as ideal locations for organizations to convene and hold meetings. Flexible design within student unions is a must to accommodate the diverse needs of student organizations. Versatile furniture arrangements and adaptable spaces can help transform large gathering areas for events into intimate discussion spaces for smaller group meetings. 

Integrating cutting-edge technology within its spaces is another area where unions can make an impact on student organizations. This could include state-of-the-art AV equipment, interactive digital displays, and high-speed internet connectivity. 

Resource accessibility is another key necessity of student unions. Not only are physical resources like meeting rooms and equipment important, but administrative support and guidance goes a long way for student organizations. Equipment and supplies help power student organizations, but supportive staff can empower student leaders to executive their organizational initiatives. 

Make Space for Student-Led Activities 

More so than any other generation before it, current students have grown up engaging in smaller groups, mostly through digital means, such as gaming or platforms that enable online interactions. It’s no surprise that they’d seek out small-group, self-structured group activities over structured events or workshops. 

“Students are engaging in interactive activities where they have the opportunity to engage with one another,” remarks Matt Milless, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Union College. “They want to spend time together in groups of five to 10, not groups of 50 to 100.” 

As Milless points out, students want to interact peer-to-peer, but not necessarily under the banner of a structured event. 

Technology can play a part in this process. The more access students have to technological resources–from gaming systems to AV equipment and virtual communication tools–the more likely students are to make use of student engagement spaces. Of course, concerns inevitably arise about where to store rentable technology and how to track it. 

“We could certainly have an information booth where we have checkouts, and we have had those in the past,” Milless adds. “They’re archaic. You don’t have a great way of tracking things. They get lost. It’s hard to hold the individuals accountable if they take them and don’t return them, or break them.” 

If you’re looking for a rental solution that assists in your small group engagement efforts, you’ll want to consider RecRe: an automated rental platform that keeps your equipment safe and out in the open for student renters. RecRe’s self-service platform connects students with resources when they need them, helping elevate your student union by breaking down the barriers between students and your useful inventory. 

Union College used RecRe’s platform to improve rental offerings and increase student engagement with student union spaces. To learn more about their implementation and view data-driven insights, download their case study.