Bulletin boards have been a fixture of most residence life departments for decades. Creating fun, engaging, and educational bulletin boards is a common requirement for resident assistants and student staff. But since the advent of the internet, smart phones, and all of the other ways we can now engage residents, do bulletin boards still have a place in our residence halls?
On a recent tour of a brand new residence hall on one of our Roompact campuses, my tour guide, the Executive Director, noted that they decided not to put bulletin boards in at all. They had strategically placed monitors which could run electronic signage, but there was no analog bulletin board in sight. My hunch is that we will increasingly see bulletin boards disappear, but perhaps not completely. That makes one think, in toady’s modern world, what is the purpose of bulletin boards?
When I was an RA, I absolutely hated doing my bulletin boards. I had to think about what topic I wanted to focus on, secure the materials, spend hours cutting and crafting, and then the size of the bulletin board made it seem like a process that would never end. Reflecting back on the boards I created, and the many I’ve seen in my time in residence life, I have some hard questions about bulletin boards. Is the educational impact of bulletin boards on residents worth the staff time required to make them? This, of course, begs the question, how do we measure the impact of bulletin boards?
Do bulletin boards still have a place in our residence halls?
There is more competition for student time and attention than ever. When I was in the residence halls, during the pre-smartphone pre-social media days, bulletin boards were more of a vital information source. Now that ads and other messages have proliferated across multiple platforms, bulletin boards just seem like one of many communication channels vying for our attention. While I don’t think that means bulletin boards shouldn’t be part of the mix when it comes to communicating about events and important educational messages with residents, it does mean that they are not the only method, or maybe even the most important.
In today’s residence halls, communications need to be repeated in multiple mediums. Bulletin boards, electronic signage, social media, etc. all need to work in concert with one another to ensure a message is received. In other words, we need to think more holistically about a marketing or messaging plan for our students. I think this also begs the question, if we now need to communicate through multiple channels, can we really afford to dedicate so much time to creating content for one channel, such as bulletin boards?
What is the purpose of bulletin boards?
Not all bulletin boards are the same. In order to do a true “deep dive” into bulletin boards, it’s important to think about their general purpose and types. When I reflect on different boards I’ve seen in the past, they fall into three categories, each with their own general set of outcomes.
- General Posting Boards
- Welcome/Decorative Boards
- Educational Boards
- General posting boards are about engagement and conveying important knowledge. This could be sharing information about campus events or timely information (such as course registration dates, deadlines, etc.). General posting boards generally operate at the “knowledge” level and are not trying to convey deeper concepts or ideas. In essence, they are for information exchange and not interactive.
- Welcome/decorative boards help a community feel like home, which is a core mission of all residence life departments. They are generally fun and allow residents to get to know each other’s names or interests. They can also give a community a sense of identity. This can also be tied into a theme that may extend to door decs.
- Educational boards aim for residents to learn something new about a particular topic. They attempt to go beyond just conveying information and attempt to get residents to think about deeper concepts. Some may also invoke an interactive component to engage residents more deeply.
Is the educational impact of bulletin boards on residents worth the staff time required to make them?
Given the amount of hours required to create bulletin boards, I think it’s reasonable to question if the outcomes achieved are worth the staff time required to make them. As the profession looks to “right size” staff duties and responsibilities as they have grown over the past few decades, this question is more critical than ever. Would you rather a staff member spend 10 hours creating a bulletin board, or use those 10 hours to have conversations with residents?
- General posting boards usually take the least amount of staff time and effort. Put up a background, add a border, and then post flyers as needed.
- Welcome/decorative boards have a much more variable staff time requirement. Usually the goal here is visual appeal. Creating a beautiful bulletin board can take time.
- Educational boards are not that much different in terms of staff time than welcome/decorative boards. Good educational boards, however, also involve an additional step of conducting good research. Doing a quick google search is not “good” research. Furthermore, just putting up information that can be gleaned from a google search keeps educational boards functioning at only a knowledge level. Bulletin boards that attempt to leverage interactivity or design to reach deeper outcomes requires even more time (and skill).
Does a bulletin board that takes an RA 10 hours to make 10x more effective than the one an RA took an hour to make? There are likely diminishing returns after a certain point.
This has lead some departments to think about bulletin board content differently, specifically for educational boards. To reduce staff time spent on research, and to ensure that information and concepts conveyed are more accurate, some departments have begun to develop the content of boards centrally and provide this to staff to post in creative ways. Going yet further, some may produce and print the entire board centrally, with the staff member only responsible for hanging it up. This frees up staff time to focus on other important outcomes for their community.
So what is the correct balance? Bulletin boards are fun, and staff with artistic or educational skill can create some truly beautiful and impactful boards. (Take a look at some of the AWESOME boards RAs submitted to our contest.) But is this an exception or is this the norm? My years in residence life have taught me that it is usually the exception. That there are a few select RAs that have the right combination of skills to create these types of magnificent boards. What if we created a committee of RAs that could collaborate with staff to centrally create these boards? Might that create an engagement opportunity and a balance of staff time, effort, skill, and creativity? Other RA committees could focus on programming, door decs, or any of our other strategies.
How do we measure the impact of bulletin boards?
This is a tricky one and likely depends on the type of bulletin board we’re talking about. Like most outcomes in residence life, it can be incredibly challenging to measure outcomes that are often difficult to isolate and difficult to measure.
General Posting Boards
I honestly know of no way of assessing this other than to directly ask residents, “Do you look at the bulletin boards for updates on campus events and information?” Placement may also matter most when using bulletin boards as advertising. This is why staff may post flyers and information in places other than bulletin boards, such as on a drinking fountain or on a bathroom stall door or mirror.
This is also am intangible outcome that is exceedingly hard to measure. Does a beautiful welcome board make a community feel 10% more welcoming? It’s hard to say. It’s often the sum of a lot of efforts to create a community and make it feel like a home. I think can say with certainty, however, that the physical environment matters in this equation. Research tells us that the environment matters.
Educational boards are also difficult to assess, but at least with this type of board, specific outcomes can be identified for the educational purpose of the board. One may not be able to attribute success of a learning outcome specifically to a bulletin board, but if a bulletin board is paired with other engagement strategies, it can re-enforce that learning. This is similar to the point I made earlier that rather than try to assess the effectiveness of one specific strategy, it may be better in some cases to look at all the efforts across a wide range of strategies as a whole.
This question was also recently asked in the Residential Curriculum and Curricular Approaches Facebook group. Here are two of he responses:
Chris: “We added QR codes to our boards as a pilot this year and offered residents the chance to win prizes by completing them – they were really quick 2-3 question surveys related to the content that also triggered automatic emails based on their response with resources – we stopped them doing them after a few months because after month 1 the responses were low, but I think it was a good experiment to try.”
Natasha: “Adding to this, I have used trackable QR codes for resources in the past. While I wasn’t be able to necessarily know if it was the same person scanning multiple times, I did get an idea of what resources residents are interested in and addressed it further in future efforts. This was much more formative than summative. Effectiveness of the concepts communicated wasn’t measured, but it was a solid indicator of interest for what students felt they may need to continue learning in.”
Bulletin boards are one of the things in residence life we often take for granted. They are there, we do them every year, but don’t often take a step back and question whether we should continue to still do them and why. There are a few schools, however, who have begun to re-examine the practice of doing bulletin boards. I think this reexamination is both timely and important.
Residence life has hard questions to answer when it comes to serving today’s “modern student” and on how to best allocate staff time when other aspects of their jobs are increasingly taking up more of their attention. Rather than ask, are bulletin boards relevant? I think we need to start with:
- What are our goals and outcomes for residents?
- What is the most important/effective use of our staff time in achieving these goals and outcomes?