During the summer of 2015, Penn introduced a new online program for freshmen called Thrive at Penn. TAP covers topics such as wellness and health, alcohol and drugs, healthy relationships and sexual violence prevention and knowing how to “thrive” at a research university.
Because the program “proved so successful,” Penn rolled out the program to all undergraduates, announcing it in an email on Dec. 21 of last year. The hope was that students would complete the program during break before spring classes, with an added incentive on the line. For every 100 people who finish the program before the deadline of Jan. 14, Penn would choose a student to receive a $100 grant to the Penn Bookstore. Sounds great, right?
But even with all of these incentives, of the people who received the emails over break, only 1,776 students (around 23 percent of sophomores, juniors and seniors) had completed the program. Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning, said that the University is “pretty happy with that.” We are not sure they should be.
Don’t get us wrong — 1,776 is a lot of students, especially since the freshman class is not included in that number. We applaud Penn for its outreach efforts. But unfortunately, we have to question whether it has learned enough from past mistakes.
The suggestion from the discrepancy between the number of grants available and the number of grants awarded is that the number of students who took the survey is, regardless of what the program directors say, less than what was expected.
As we have seen before, it is difficult to reach the people who need to hear these lessons in the first place. The students who actually took the time to complete the module are already ones who consistently participate in these types of events. Think back to the Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault. Only 29.2 percent of undergraduate students participated in the study — a total of 3,207. So it’s problematic to hear that only 1,776 students have taken it upon themselves to go through the module. These students are likely the same ones who took the Campus Climate Survey. How do you persuade the approximately 70 percent of students who ignore or just don’t care about these initiatives?
One way is to better voice how little students know and why they should learn. Penn boasts this as an excellent module for learning about alcohol, drugs, sexual assault and other topics. But with Penn kids, who already assume that they know almost everything, the program first somehow needs to let them know that they don’t. Don’t mince words. Let us know that alcohol and drug abuse and sexual assault are real and pervasive problems, and this is one way that we can contribute to the solution. An email advertising a module that you hope we will take because it will help us “thrive” and we might win some money does not inspire people to take action.
Definitely push the program at the beginning of the year, as was done for freshmen. The later in college we are asked, the less likely we will participate.
As for the actual module, the most effective part of TAP is the mental health and wellness section. We hear about Dean Furda and his experience with stress in the Ivy League. Other students share their own struggles and revelations. The sections about sexual assault and drugs and alcohol highly felt like they were scripted. In contrast, the ones about health and wellness did not feel forced, and the stories created a sense of sympathy and camaraderie. Do more to add that humanizing aspect to the videos.
And above all else, create spaces for discussion. We’ve noted before how online multiple-choice question modules are not effective. We also realize that forcing discussion groups is not a feasible project, especially since Penn students are always busy with 10 million activities. But holding an initiative to have student volunteers lead discussions at open hours could lead to a higher level of interest and encourage discourse at a greater level than an optional survey would.
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