Made with University of Pennsylvania, Wharton in 2013.

Case Study
The Problem

Freshmen entering the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton undergraduate program can experience significant stress and adversity as they make the transition from high school to college.

The Undergraduate Division of the Wharton School is a key resource for students making this transition. For years the Undergraduate Division has been helping students make informed decisions about their educational plans and professional and life goals that are consistent with their interests, abilities, and values.

However, most of this support necessarily occurs after the students arrive on campus. Scott Romeika, Director of Academic Affairs and Advising, wanted to do more.

The Process

Scott reached out to Forio to discuss incorporating an online component to the Advising program — something that could engage students and start supporting them before they arrived on campus and met their first problem sets or team projects.

First, Scott and his colleagues at the Undergraduate Division of the Wharton School discussed the background information about the PennSTART program with Forio. The main content Scott wanted to use was based on extensive research showing that resilience skills are crucial. Skills such as avoiding thinking traps, challenging beliefs, putting adversity in perspective, and calming and focusing on the task at hand help students think more optimistically and accurately. And students who are more optimistic are more likely to persevere through challenges and meet their goals. These changes in thinking and behavior buffer students against stress, improve their mood, lead to effective problem solving, and increase performance in both academics and athletics.

While the principles were well-known to the Academic Advising program, Scott and Forio felt that an online simulation, played by students over the summer before their matriculation, could help students experiment with different ways to approach problems in safe yet somewhat realistic situations. Additionally, Scott was interested in viewing some information about how students performed in such a simulation so that he and other academic advisors could discuss pros and cons of common coping strategies with students.

After these initial discussions, Forio set to work designing the simulation interface and user experience. Forio proposed that the simulation mimic the first semester at Wharton, so the simulation was designed to help students experiment with different activities, practice time management, employ strategies to deal with challenges and adversity, and reflect on their strengths. The design needed to be engaging and playful, but still convey the importance of the decisions in the simulation.

The simulation content is divided into four rounds, each representing four weeks of the first semester at Penn. Each round starts with a survey, designed to help students and their advisors identify strengths and find strategies that can help them succeed at Wharton.

After the survey, the gameplay for each round revolves around how the student responds to both day-to-day decisions and particular challenges that may arise during a typical first semester.

In each simulated day students must make a series of decisions around whether and when to go to class, participate in intramural sports, work on problem sets with friends, and attend club meetings, as well as the more mundane activities of eating, sleeping, showering, etc. At various times throughout the simulation, students are faced with additional challenges. These “exogenous events” require students’ input on everything from responding to a friend reaching out for support, to learning about a poor grade on a test, to deciding whether to spend the weekend camping with friends rather than attending to other commitments.

Throughout the simulation gameplay, “personal balances” track how much time students are spending on classwork, recreation, social settings, sleep, and personal time. Additionally, “personal metrics” track grades, confidence, friendships, school preparedness, parental approval, and other aspects identified by the Undergraduate Division as key to overall student success. At the end of each round, coaching feedback is automatically provided to each student based on their balances and metrics throughout the round.

Academic Advisors have a separate administrative interface to the simulation. Aggregate information about the incoming class is available to each advisor. Additionally, advisors have access to the survey results, the personal balances and metrics, and the responses to key challenges for each student in their cohort (advising unit).

As the design and the simulation model became finalized, Forio worked on the development and testing of the online simulation. Ensuring that the simulation is delivered as a fast, responsive, cross-platform web application is essential, especially for an audience of tech-savvy 18-year-olds. Extensive testing, both with Forio’s internal QA team and with several rounds of external beta testers, helped confirm that the model behind the simulation accurately reflects the impacts of daily activities on mood, health, stress, and coursework.

Finally, the incoming class of 2017 was welcomed by the Academic Advising office. Included in the welcome materials was a link to the PennSTART simulation. Students from around the world completed the simulation over the summer, on desktop, laptops, and tablets. Their advisors were able to review the results before the on-campus portion of orientation from the Academic Advising program began. Over the course of the semester, advisors continued working with students, and were able to use specific examples from the PennSTART simulation during discussions on resilience, grit, time management, and personal balances.

The Results

Today, the PennSTART simulation is an integral part of the Undergraduate Division of the Wharton School, used by over 400 students each year. Forio continues to maintain the simulation and has worked with Scott and his colleagues to incorporate improvements and bug fixes for each incoming class.

By using a fun, accessible, and educational simulation, both students and advisors are better prepared for freshman life at Wharton. In particular, students can experiment with typical college decisions — and their consequences — in a controlled environment. Additionally, students arrive on campus with a shared experience to draw upon during the project and team-based work that is integral to the undergraduate Wharton experience. Advisors can reach their incoming students in a new and engaging way, and in a more timely manner: before the students arrive on campus and are potentially overwhelmed by the transition from high school to college. Both students and advisors agree that the PennSTART simulation has improved the freshman experience.


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