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Three Keys to Learning Center Growth

Abstract

Working with hundreds of learning centers has given us a glimpse into what it takes to be successful and to grow engagement. In this article, check out the framework we've developed for learning center growth with a three-pronged approach focusing on Awareness (Marketing), Activation (First-Time Experience), and Retention. From impactful marketing tactics like orientation drives and faculty liaisons to optimizing the first-time scheduling experience, the article provides actionable strategies.
Written by
Ben Holmquist
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Published on
February 29, 2024
A group of students gathered around a table looking at another student explaining a concept by pointing at a particular part of a wall covered in post-it notes in front of which she is standing.

Today’s learning centers are being asked to demonstrate their impact on students. The numbers of unique students served and the total number of visits are simplified metrics people assume are correlated with impact. While those are only part of the story, growing these numbers is good for students and good for your future funding.

After working with hundreds of learning center directors, we developed the following framework for thinking about learning center growth and want to offer it to you as a helpful tool. The three key areas to consider in generating predictable growth are:

  1. Awareness (i.e. marketing)
  2. Activation (i.e. first-time experience)
  3. Retention (i.e. coming back for more)

I will describe what we’ve seen center directors do in these areas and provide a few examples. We'll continue to expand on this content with more detail over time.

Awareness (i.e. Marketing)

A student can’t use your tutors if they’ve never heard of you. Here are a few tactics that have produced big results at other learning centers:

  • Orientation Drives
    Get as involved in orientation as you can, showing up with a table, being inserted into the school’s onboarding emails and materials, asking students to sign up for your scheduling system or app, etc. Building the habit early is good.
  • Large Signage in High Traffic Areas
    One of our partner schools CRC saw a 3x increase in drop-in traffic simply by putting a 5’ standup sign in the walkway pointing towards drop-in tutoring. 
  • Cultivate Faculty Relationships
    Develop relationships over time, taking any opportunity to share the good work you are doing to support their students. At UGA, Sarah Cramer asked supportive faculty to act as their “Faculty Liaison” within each department, advocating on the learning center’s behalf and enlisting other faculty to spread the word inside their LMS and classes.
  • School or Department Newsletters
    Learn about as many pre existing emails lists as possible and ask if they'd share a note about your learning center with their recipients. Don't ignore the smaller departments or email lists, as these can be great partners as well.
  • Lecture Hall Presentations
    One of our favorites… build out a list of all the toughest courses in which students often need support. Email faculty to ask if a tutor can come by to make a 2-minute presentation to the class. While many won’t reply, you’ll quickly develop a list of “Yes” faculty that you can rely on to allow your tutor in for each term. 

You don’t have to do all or even most of these, but  we’ve observed that the most effective centers have developed a regular system of repeatable marketing activities that they run every term. Just start a document with a simple checklist, run those  each term, and slowly make improvements. Brick by brick!

Activation (i.e. First-Time Experience)

This is about taking someone from “intrigued” to “successfully tutored”. The first step to this is ensuring you have a low-friction signup process. Forms, emails, and phone numbers are usually high friction and deter a student from taking action. Make it as easy as possible for them to schedule a time, or find the drop-in schedule, etc. This is where a mobile-friendly tool can pay dividends.

Audit the student journey with your center. Write each process out on a whiteboard or document, step by step, and consider a few questions:

  • Which steps are the hardest for students?
  • What are students' emotions at each phase of the process?
  • Can this step be achieved on a phone as easily as it can on a computer?
  • Does this step NEED to occur now? For example, if you collect info in a form, can you hold off on collecting that info until during their first session? 

The basics here are removing every small point of friction from the first time scheduling experience.

The second part that is worth discussing is the idea of “nurturing” interested students. Consider sending a monthly email newsletter to (1) past student ysers and (2) others you've added to this list from wherever you like (e.g. tabling or orientation drives). Your tutors are a treasure trove of useful info for students - consider interviewing three to ask them for study tips, and then once per month  just send out one of those study tips to your list. This is a more advanced form of marketing that many centers don't do, but can be a a great second layer to drive Activation.

Retention

Retention is all about session quality. The keys here are (1) offering the formats and experiences students want, like appointments vs groups vs dropin, (2) developing an effective tutor training program, and (3) collecting feedback. If you offer a quality product, they will return and also will tell their friends. Deeper engagement with individual students will produce a larger impact for that student which will show up in GPA change and retention rates. 

For session formats, the most successful programs in our network often have a thriving groups component. The most common design is 10 to 20 student groups led by a tutor occurring on a weekly basis. This helps people meet the study partners and have a second teacher to turn to when they're struggling.

We have a second article coming on tutor training best practices in the works. I will expand upon that here once complete and link it. Great tutors leads to retention.

Finally, regarding feedback, the most important thing is that you simple start collecting some! Even a post-session thumbs up or thumbs down is great. You want to start having some data that you can review on tutors that are especially effective, which courses were students finding the most value out of attending tutoring for, things like that. Start simple, start small, just make sure you are collecting some feedback on your sessions. Our partners have requested a list of best practice post session feedback questions and we will work on that.

Where to go from here

All progress is iterative. There are a million things you can try, and it can feel overwhelming. Don't worry about it! Just start with one thing this upcoming term you want to try. Try it, measure it if you can, and learn. There will be no silver bullet, but this experimental and iterative mindset, one step at a time, will drive surprising progress over a 1-2 year period.

Let us know if you ever want to chat about your center or your growth goals! We enjoy the process of helping learning centers grow, even if its not in a formal capacity.

More content to come - let me know what you want to see next at ben.h@penjiapp.com.

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