How to create extracurricular activities students will want to attend

Participation and enthusiasm are the goals of those hard-working volunteers, staff and faculty who organise campus activities and events. Here are 12 tips to boost university student engagement

Martyna Iwanicka's avatar
University of Warsaw
10 Apr 2024
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Happy student volunteers
image credit: iStock/Jacob Wackerhausen.

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The vision of an empty hall or a blank sign-up list is a nightmare for university staff. When we prepare extracurricular activities for students, we want our multicultural festival or workshops for making toys for shelter cats to have a favourable reception. We want students to be involved, give their time, gain valuable experience and, ideally, recommend to friends that they come along, too. No organiser wants their great idea for additional activities to turn out to be a dud. 

So, we have 12 tips to avoid this.

Why do we even bother organising extracurricular activities?

The university experience is more than just research, lectures and exams. It includes the chance meetings and interactions that can result in lifelong friendships (the kind we love so much from the movies, for example). Extracurricular activities can be underrated, but they are the heart of the university experience. And, to be fair, most students are not looking for just a fancy diploma but are also seeking precisely these formative experiences.

Organising interesting extracurricular activities is without a doubt a challenge. Ultimately, we are asking young adults to give their precious free time to participate in our event. Sometimes the motivation to create extracurricular activities is related to a formal necessity; sometimes it comes from our own lively initiative as educators. 

However, such initiatives have many benefits for the whole university community. One is that extracurriculars influence the feeling of belonging and community at universities. So, these societies, clubs and events are an important component of our community building. They are also a tool for increasing social integration in higher education institutions and giving students opportunities to develop their practical social skills. 

Who should extracurricular activities target?

Of course, extracurricular activities for students are for students, duh. But some groups are especially important to consider. These are the groups most at risk of exclusion, such as first-year students, those from minority groups and international students. This is probably obvious. Other groups are easier to overlook; these are working students, parents and mature students. They are less obvious because they are often absent. But it’s worth factoring them in and even tailoring activities to them. We want our whole community to participate in our extracurricular programmes.

What can we do better to make extracurricular programmes more successful?

  1. Bring together established students and newcomers. The former may act as mentors or buddies aiding the latter in finding their voice. 
  2. Promote, promote, promote! Often students are not aware of the extracurriculars on campus. But promotion must be tailored to students’ needs. Ask advice of and cooperate with already engaged students. 
  3. Information alone is not enough. Plan and implement adequate topics, forms and content into your communications to encourage students to participate in extracurricular activities. Promotion and visibility are important but not decisive factors. Students’ own motivations might be a more important component of their engagement. Strategies should be developed around how to “nudge” or invite students to participate in extracurricular activities.
  4. Support student-led activities. That assistance can be help with meeting spaces, easing bureaucratic requirements for running events (or forming and recognising groups) and possibly creating institutional units dedicated to supporting student engagement. 
  5. Give students decision-making powers. Share the opportunity to have impact and to make a contribution; give students some responsibility and involve them in decision-making. Maybe they can organise their own projects within your institution. Put in place conditions such as space and materials for the activity, but let them take the initiative and decide on details. It provides real motivation along with broader skills development.  
  6. Socialising is a goal in itself. Taking part means making friends and spending time with groups in a meaningful way. Remember to include the social aspect when you are planning and promoting the activities. Focus primarily on creating a positive, open and inclusive atmosphere. 
  7. Lower the barriers to entry. Extracurricular activities should have a low threshold for participation. Maybe students don’t have to commit to attending all meetings right away. One-off actions are also a good idea. You want students to get started and get involved (and not be so overwhelmed that they balk at the door).
  8. Mental health is a hot topic. The issue of mental health and well-being concerns many students directly or indirectly, and is widely discussed. Extracurricular activities could include mindfulness exercises, workshops for strengthening and supporting mental well-being, and programmes that support other coping strategies or psycho-educational approaches. 
  9. Invest in the skills of the future. Information on digital competencies, such as information hygiene and awareness of the right to be offline, could be included in project outputs as helpful resources.
  10. Mix up the freshers. Bring together local and international first-year students across study programmes. Often, separate meetings are organised for local and foreign students, making it difficult for them to integrate. In non-English-speaking countries, local students can help international students learn the language. Activities such as “speak dating” (like those organised by the Volunteer Centre of the University of Warsaw) are fun and create a space to meet and gain intercultural skills. 
  11. Recognise the effort in a formal way. Extra credit points, for example, might motivate students to engage in extracurriculars. Formal recognition could especially attract working students who may feel excluded from university life. 
  12. Stretch – be flexible. To increase the rate of engagement, activities could be included that are flexible and less time-consuming. Also, it might be more encouraging for students if their tasks and responsibilities increase over time as they train and gain more skills. 

What now? 

Let’s do it! It may not be possible to use all our tips at once, but they can be an inspiration for small but important changes. After all, what we as educators want is a close-knit and engaged academic community. See you at the next extracurricular activity!

Martyna Iwanicka is internal communication coordinator at the University Community Active Participation Project (UNICOMM) at the Volunteer Centre of the University of Warsaw. 

This article is based on the Unicomm project report University as Community: Students’ Perceptions of Participation, Engagement and Belonging at European Higher Education Institutions. The Unicomm project is funded by the European Union, however, views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the EU or the National Agency (NA). Neither the EU nor NA can be held responsible for them.

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