How to encourage students to engage in the broader university offering

Getting involved in campus life beyond the classroom brings multiple benefits for students, so how can universities encourage greater participation in the range of activities on offer?

Irina Shcheglova's avatar
18 Aug 2023
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Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University 

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There is a growing recognition in higher education of the importance of students engaging in extracurricular activities, beyond their day-to-day studies. While such participation does not count towards course credits or graduation, it does have a bearing on students’ future success. Engagement in extracurricular activities brings benefits for skills development, students’ happiness and well-being, the development of students’ sense of belonging and enhanced job opportunities, studies have shown. The percentage of students enrolled in out-of-class activities remains low in many countries, with the US being a notable exception. But even in the US, where more than 60 per cent of students get involved in extracurricular activities, the numbers could be increased. There are several research-based actions that will encourage students to engage in the broader university offering of clubs and societies covering a vast range of interests, sport, music, arts, entrepreneurship, voluntary work and socialising.  

Give time and credit to extracurricular activities

Most students are overloaded with academic work. Students spend an average of 35 hours studying each week, past studies have shown, although the exact numbers vary by country and course. So, releasing time to meaningful extracurricular activities, giving them credit towards a student’s degree or counting such activities in the student curriculum might boost interest.  

When designing curricula, allocate some hours to extracurricular projects, which open opportunities for students beyond classes and assignments. Some universities already recognise students’ involvement in extracurricular activities. For example, Queen Mary, University of London announced the Drapers’ Skills Award for Undergraduates: an optional two-year programme that gives students credit for extracurricular activities such as work experience, active club or society membership, field trips or group projects.

Communicate the benefits of extracurricular opportunities

Make students aware of the benefits of participation in the extracurricular life of the university. As well as the obvious gains in making new friends and finding enjoyment and fulfilment, highlight the skills that can be honed by taking part in different activities and how this will be useful in employment. For example, leadership skills can be developed through involvement in student organisations which require delegation, teamwork, management and strategic planning. Likewise, playing sport can develop leadership and teamwork skills, requiring an understanding of where strengths and weaknesses lie, a resilience to losing and a willingness to cope with uncertainty.

Students may not know that employers will consider students’ involvement in extracurricular activities as a second screening after academic achievements. This can be an important deciding factor when recruiters have to choose between candidates with similar educational credentials. Students participating in extracurricular activities receive more interview invitations and job offers, résumé studies reveal. Many employers believe that graduate involvement in purposeful activities, other than academic studies, demonstrate qualities they want in future employees.

Invite successful graduates to share their stories

Listening to other people’s success stories can give students new insights on what they want to do in future and how certain activities can move them a step closer to their goals. Student organisations such as student unions, student newspapers and other student enterprises can resemble real companies with students playing the role of managers, developing real projects with clear targets and outcomes. Students can also get involved in a wide variety of voluntary and campaigning initiatives that contribute to social change. These are all things worth shouting about.

Build infrastructure to support activities

The university environment is not only a place for study, its role goes far beyond academic knowledge transfer. Attending a university should help students to build social capital and enable them to meet and get to know students of different backgrounds. The university infrastructure and learning spaces should be multifunctional in their design and comfortable for educational and for extracurricular activities.

Co-working space is one way of organising space to facilitate easy collaboration between students aimed at boosting innovation. For example, the 30,000 sq ft Harvard Innovation Lab is flexible in its configuration so provides an opportunity for students to shape and use the co-working space as they see fit. Similarly the University of Melbourne has created a 2000 sq m technology hub that offers a selection of flexible private offices, dedicated desks, meeting rooms, project spaces, media studios and event spaces.

Outdoor and indoor recreation spaces and sports support greater social connectedness encouraging interactions with peers and boost students’ well-being. Sports at XJTLU include badminton, belly dancing, billiards, boxing, Chinese martial arts, football, golf, roller skating, tae kwon do, ultimate Frisbee and yoga. Students can get a taste of different activities, meet new friends and stay fit and healthy.

Listen to students’ feedback

Students are key stakeholders in any higher education institution, and their feedback on the services provided should serve as an important source of direction for improvement. To create attractive extracurricular programmes and improve awareness of what is on offer, collect feedback from students about what activities they are interested in, what they see as the benefits of extracurricular activities and how best to attract more students. Students like to be heard; they are happy to share ideas if they believe that they are valued. Amplifying students’ voices promotes their self-worth and sense of belonging.

The main task of education is to prepare students for life beyond school or university, and learning outside the classroom can be an effective supplement to conventional teaching methods. When students’ in- and out-of-class experiences offer meaningful interconnected components of the learning process, the overall contribution of the university experience will be greater.

Irina Shcheglova is an assistant professor in the department of educational studies at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

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